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Opinion: How is Microsoft with Vista like the Big Three automakers?

December 15, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - For more than a decade, if you owned a PC, you ran Windows and, far more often than not, Internet Explorer was your Web browser. In fact, for a while, the only three things you could be sure of were death, taxes and Microsoft.

Things have changed.

For the first time since Bill Gates strong-armed PC vendors into installing Windows, the operating system has dropped below a 90% market share, according to a Net Applications' survey of Internet users' operating systems.

That doesn't sound too bad, does it? Well, maybe you felt the same way back in the early '90s when Toyota and Honda started really ripping into the market shares of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. And we all know how well American car makers are doing these days, don't we? Whether the Big Three get a bailout or not, most automobile industry analysts expect at least one of them, if not all three, to go bankrupt in the next two years.

The Toyota of the PC market muscling in on Microsoft's dominance is Apple. Mac OS X now has 8.8% of the market. Linux is far behind at not quite 1%. But with the growing popularity of Linux-powered laptops and netbooks from vendors like Dell, Lenovo and Asus, the open-source operating system is gaining ground at Windows' expense as well.

The news is worse for Microsoft in the Web browser market. Internet Explorer has sunk below a 70% market share. The winners here are Firefox, Apple's Safari and Google's still-wet-behind-the-ears Chrome.

Has Microsoft lost it? I think it has.

I believe that Bill Gates has been wrapped up in his foundation for a long time and retired in place long before he actually left his job at Microsoft in July. Just look at the the Vista mess. After years of planning, Vista arrived as what I (and many others) would describe as an awful operating system. Not only that, but as the Microsoft transcripts from the Vista Capable lawsuit show, it wouldn't work with current hardware. What I find even more appalling than that -- since I knew all along that Vista wasn't going to run well on standard PCs -- is that Microsoft's executives were amazed at how bad Vista was.

Don't take my word for it. Take Mike Nash's. Nash is corporate vice president for Windows product management. He told other Microsoft executives in an e-mail on Feb. 25, 2007, that "I personally got burned by the Intel 915 chip set issue that I bought PERSONALLY (e.g., with my own $$$)." He continued, "I know that I chose my laptop (a Sony TX770P) because it had the Vista logo and was pretty disappointed that not only wouldn't it run [Aero] Glass, but more importantly, it wouldn't run Movie Maker." Nash felt that he now had a "$2,100 e-mail machine." And, that, my friends, was from one of the guys who was supposed to be in charge of Vista!

Earlier this year, Gartner analysts said that Windows was "collapsing" and that Microsoft must make radical changes to Windows or risk it becoming a has-been. Windows 7, however, isn't the radical change Gartner prescribed. Under the hood and the hype, it's just warmed-over Vista. That won't do it.

With Gates long gone and the Google-obsessed Ballmer in charge, I don't think there's any real question about it. Microsoft has become yesterday's news. The only real question is how long its fall will take and how it will play out.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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