Microsoft: Scratch the Surface

If you asked a thousand people what Microsoft could do to Windows to improve the product, would even one of them describe a yearning to use his or her fingers to move objects around on a Windows desktop?

And yet, as demonstrated at the recent D6 conference, Microsoft has chosen this feature, multitouch support for the Windows shell, as the seed from which excitement about the forthcoming Windows Seven is supposed to grow. In the near future, Windows users will be able to use multiple fingers to move items around on their desktops, spin their family photos and play an on-screen piano. Super.

Adding multitouch to Windows probably seems to Microsoft like a pretty safe bet–Apple’s iPhone sports that sort of interface, and people love the iPhone. If Windows becomes fingers-friendly, people should start loving Windows, right?

The catch is that Apple’s lovable features arrive in the firm’s products in some context of usefulness–at least as understood by Apple’s customers. Multitouch on the iPhone makes sense because it allows users to ditch their styli. The fancy-looking “pinch to zoom” functionality is key to making the most of the unit’s tiny display. On a notebook or a desktop, why bother?

Along similar lines, consider Apple’s hardware-accelerated, compositing desktop feature, Quartz Extreme, which debuted back in 2002. Apple’s user interface came with fancy graphical effects, and its hardware came with 3-D-enabled graphics adapters. During the initial Quartz Extreme demos, Jobs demonstrated how offloading graphics chores from the CPU to the GPU could free up the central processor for other work.

Compare this with Microsoft’s Windows Vista, and its own compositing, hardware-accelerated Aero Glass interface. Windows hadn’t shipped with fancy graphical effects, and most computers running Windows did not come with 3-D-enabled graphics adapters.

So, where Quartz Extreme meant that OS X could do its thing better, and offer users a way of getting more out of their existing hardware, Vista offered users a desktop facelift, one that required new hardware purchases.

Rather than train all of its attention on chasing Steve Jobs and churning out dim shadows of Apple’s products (the same goes for the pursuit of Google online), Microsoft must refocus on the reasons why millions continue to choose Windows, and set about honing that value proposition.

Organizations and individuals don’t choose Windows for eye candy, and they don’t choose Windows to smash their comfortable UI paradigms. Windows draws its strength from its massive software and hardware ecosystem, and this is where Microsoft must shore up its efforts.

For instance, users choose Windows because they consider Windows to be the platform most likely to support arbitrary peripheral hardware. So, if a printer manufacturer refuses to write a Vista driver for a 3-year-old printer, then Microsoft should write the driver itself.

Before you retort that Microsoft couldn’t possibly afford to take on these sorts of development responsibilities, consider that this is exactly how the Linux and open-source crowd operates, and does so with fewer resources than Microsoft boasts. Honestly, how many hardware drivers could have been written for the price Microsoft paid for the ubiquitous “The WOW Is Now” billboards that heralded Vista’s release?

Users choose Windows because Windows boasts the biggest software catalog of any platform. However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for individuals and organizations to know which applications they should trust enough to install on their systems, and which might carry malware but that haven’t yet made it onto hopelessly reactive badware lists.

What’s more, once users have installed applications on Windows, they’re forced to contend with a system tray full of separate little software update applets, each with their own update schedules and alerting routines.

Microsoft could serve its users much better by offering some sort of centralized software management facility for Windows, complete with mechanisms for vetting applications (or for enabling third parties to vet applications) and for pushing down updates consistently.

Printer drivers may not be as sexy as multitouch (depending, I suppose, on what you’re printing), but no one is buying Windows for sexiness. We’re over here trying to get some work done. I suggest that Microsoft leave the candy coatings to the aftermarket, and get back to business.