Thursday, January 17, 2008

Vista's failure: Did history repeat itself?

Microsoft's new Vista operating system has been widely viewed as a failure, having sold perhaps 100 million copies in its first year. Now please indulge me, and assume it really IS a failure. There are reasons for thinking it so. I believe that one great reason for its failure can be found in this well-known quote from George Santayana, who said something like this: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

But now it gets interesting. What did MS fail to learn from history? First, let's look at: Drivers.

I was there when Windows competed directly against IBM's OS 2. I developed software for both these OS's at the same time. Many reasons were suggested for OS2's abject failure, despite its greater reliability and wide range of features. One of the causes is almost undisputed: it was much harder to develop a driver for OS2 than for Windows. Typically, we said that it took six months to learn to write an IBM device driver. (It took one to two months for a Windows driver.) That meant that many line printers, scanners, special devices and boards were unsupported when IBM's new OS came out. Many existing devices were never supported.

Look at the economics. Those six months of coming up to speed meant a likely cost of $50,000 to $100,000 to develop a driver. If you expected to sell a hundred boards, or a thousand printers, then that cost, typically multiplied by two times or more, just WHOMPED your retail price. For a product that had 1000 satisfied users, but no more likely sales in the future, that $50k to $100k was prohibitive; your device would never run under OS2.

One great characteristic of Vista is that it is much harder to write drivers for. The difficulty stems largely from Microsoft's attempt to support digital rights management everywhere, so that there's no way to copy something for free as data is passed around in your PC. This goal is impossible to achieve, but MS required video and audio vendors to TRY HARD, and much complexity resulted. In many cases, working drivers were not ready in time to deliver with Vista, and fixes had to be downloaded. It's likely that 99% or more of all Vista installs worked perfectly, but the people whose hardware stopped working have been very vocal. It looks like MS failed to learn the lesson of device drivers, a lesson less than twenty years old.

But I think that it's a different history lesson that MS failed to heed: the lesson of the IBM OS/370 operating system. IBM delivered many new and different mainframes in the1950's and 1960's. They developed a new OS for each major mainframe. Every OS had wonderful improvements, and IBM's customers dutifully moved to the new OS each time it came out.

OS/360 was the last OS that IBM's customers blindly adopted. It was a gigantic change from what came before, and the costs of upgrading and retraining were stupendous. Around 1970, when IBM released OS/370 and asked everyone to upgrade, its customers got nasty. They mentioned the great costs of upgrading, and stayed where they were if they possibly could.

What was IBM's lesson in this mess? The lesson was that they needed to remember that they were competing with themselves. Their outside competition was minuscule, six companies with tiny market shares. But OS/370 had to compete with IBM's own entrenched OS/360, and there, it nearly failed.

Microsoft's operating systems also have little outside competition. Mac OS, Unix and Linux have a minority share of the market. But Vista has had to compete with Microsoft's own entrenched Windows XP. Microsoft forgot that they have to compete with themselves as well as with others. That's the lesson they failed to learn.
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