Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The End is Near - for Microsoft?

Billionaire Mark Cuban recently joined the chorus of Macintosh cheerleaders and Microsoft Vista haters. His chief complaint is freezing/crashing in Vista despite his use of primarily three software products, all mainstream - Firefox, Outlook, and MS Office. In addition to crashing less, Cuban (and others) cite Mac superiority in startup time and laptop battery life.

As an XP user who will eventually buy a new system, the conclusion I come to is that Vista pretty much stinks. Dell still offers WindowsXP on select systems, and not just stodgy business systems but home user systems too.

Microsoft has made other mistakes with Vista. DirectX 10 ships with Vista only and is not being backported to XP. On top of this, the Dx10.1 upgrade (expected with Vista Service Pack 1), will render some Dx10.0 hardware obsolete, leaving game and graphics oriented users to wait for SP1. With tepid uptake on Vista, game manufacturers are making games Dx-9 compatible, further reducing the incentive to upgrade to Vista.

I'm not a serious gamer, but I'm anticipating Blizzard's eventual release of StarCraft-2. My understanding is that StarCraft-2 will be released for Mac simultaneously with Windows, and may be Dx9/WinXP compatible. I'm in no hurry to upgrade just yet.

Microsoft's business is built on the twin pillars of Windows and Office, and Microsoft is also being challenged on the office productivity front. The OpenOffice.org suite is free and provides a medium-duty alternative to the heavy-duty MS Office. In my experience, OOo also imports/exports MS Word documents better than commercial competitor WordPerfect. To the extent that a person can survive on OpenOffice, Firefox and a generic email program, one can probably get rid of Windows entirely and switch to Linux. If you still need it, MS Office products exist for both Windows and Mac, though Outlook is Windows only. (MS offers Mac users Entourage to connect with MS Exchange servers, but Outlook it ain't.)

OpenOffice is somewhat clunky but usable as it stands, but IBM has recently indicated it will support OOo (which is primarily a Sun product) and IBM will be releasing a free office suite, probably derived from OOo, as is Sun's StarOffice.

Improvements in Office alternatives are contrasted with a controversial user interface overhaul in the latest MS Office. The contextual "ribbon" has replaced drop down menus. So many users hate the ribbon that third party software exists to undo the change. Further, it is widely believed that, for most users, the marginal utility of new features in MS Office peaked 8 to 10 years ago, leaving many users with little incentive to upgrade to the latest MS Office.

Summing up, Microsoft has alienated core users of its two cash-cow products just as commercial and open-source alternatives are stepping up their game. If this trend does not reverse, Microsoft will suffer throughout this upgrade cycle, and MSFT may not survive future upgrade cycles.

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