Opinion - Chicago (IL) - As Windows 7 moves through the beta process, you'll see a number of complaints that typically fall into two classes. Those that feel it hasn't changed enough and those that feel it has changed too much. This same problem plagues Windows Vista and has plagued every OS Microsoft has released.
While Apple does a vastly better job of containing these complaints, the reality is the MacOS also gets caught up in the same dichotomy of needing to be different enough to justify a purchase, but not being too different so it scares off buyers.
In both cases newer platforms like Android, webOS, MacOS for the iPhone, and HyperSpace suggest the market is getting ready for something really different - much like it was in the 80s before DOS and Windows showed up.
Change in the Wind
As it was with DOS and Windows, the change we are seeing in operating systems is initially coming on a new class of hardware. But HyperSpace is already targeting PCs and Google is rumored to be getting ready to make a run at Netbooks and you'd have to think, if they are successful, the others might rethink where they draw the lines with their platforms.
Of course there is the example that is being set as well. The PC OEMs who have seen their margins decline sharply are watching with increasing interest events like the iPhone, Android, and webOS launches - each of which has attracted a significant amount of attention and interest. Intel has even started to roll out their own Moblin OS, targeted only at MIDs for the moment, but a MID is just a small PC.
The market is hunting for something, and it looks like that something is a lot closer to what webOS and Android are than what Windows is. But, as it took DOS/Windows many years to make the change, this move will likely be a few years in coming too.
The Problem with Change
The problem with change is that we, as a race, don't like it. Think about this, we use QWERTY keyboards that were designed to be as inefficient as possible so the typewriter keys didn't become entangled. This is a problem we stopped having when the IBM Selectric was introduced in 1961. For over 45 years now, we have had the ability to move to a keyboard that is vastly more efficient - but we haven't because we not only didn't want to change ourselves, we didn't allow our kids to change either.
But this kind of a situation can lead to a big jump if the market, well if we, are fooled into accepting a change that simply looks like something new and not like someone is messing with something we have become comfortable with. Cars all have the same basic layout, but motorcycles can be vastly different. The interface to a smart phone started out looking a lot like Windows, but the market largely didn't like that approach and Apple showed something dramatically different - and rather than getting pounded for being different they were praised for what they had done. In both cases it's because we don't think of motorcycles or smartphones like we do cars or PCs while either can be used in place of their counterparts.
With the economy working as a huge wild card either accelerating or preventing this change (too early to tell yet), I think we are close to a major technology event. If Windows 7 is good enough, it may buy Microsoft some time - but I used the word "may" advisedly and I've never seen this kind of rumble in the tech market before.
Wrapping Up: Two Versions of Windows?
If you think about it, Apple has two versions of the MacOS - though I wonder if they truly understand what this means; one version on PCs targeting the past, and one on their iPhone targeting the future. Much like they were able to adopt the former to fit the needs of smartphone market, they could port the latter to capture the new market that is emerging - and they may need to as a counter to Google and Android.
When facing a similar event, IBM helped birth the PC and partnered with Microsoft to ensure IBM remained in power. A young Bill Gates, or so the story is told, saw IBM as clueless and separated from the company and IBM exited the PC business. Microsoft is on the cusp of a similar event, and with Google playing the role of a young Microsoft, the feeling that Microsoft is clueless permeates the Google campus even though the two companies have never partnered.
This brings me to the idea of two versions of Windows, one pointed forward and one back. We'll see if Microsoft's knowledge of history allows them to avoid the same fate that befell IBM. I've been using Windows 7 for about a week now and I am impressed, we'll talk more of that later, but I still think we are getting ready for a major change. The only question is: which company will be at the other end of it.