Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Last week's Switched On discussed how Microsoft would go about creating a next-generation PC, but such a leap forward would likely have to be consumer-focused and incompatible with Windows. Why would Microsoft create a new computing platform aimed at the same usage scenarios as today's PCs?
First, there's a market. Nowadays, we have very high PC penetration in the US, and the kind of advanced technological showcase I'm considering wouldn't be suitable for developing countries like the One Laptop Per Child project, but surely there are enough early adopters who would flock to the state of the art for a PC that offered as radical a break with the past as the Mac did in 1984 -- even as a second PC.
Second, creating a new consumer platform would help alleviate outcries from Microsoft's existing hardware partners. Much of HP's and certainly Dell's bread is buttered by business users. Windows -- or at least its user interface conventions -- "work" for many of the productivity tasks that businesses need. In any case, there is tremendous infrastructure around them. Businesses are also slow to adopt new versions of Windows, much less a new paradigm of computing. However, some verticals can won over sometimes, the way Apple rose to dominate the publishing business (or at least the art and layout portions of it) once upon a time.
A Microsoft PC 3.0 would likely be aimed at high-end consumers or prosumers, unlike many of Microsoft's watered-down entry-level products such as MSN TV and the MSN Companion that was aimed at non-PC households. Furthermore, and keeping in mind Microsoft's real strength in developing software, Microsoft could effectively develop a bundled suite of applications -- equivalent to 1984's MacWrite and MacPaint or today's iLife -- that exploit the company's new architecture, and not have to worry about anti-trust scrutiny.
Third, with open source and Web-based applications increasingly nipping at the hooves of the company's cash cows, Microsoft must do more to distance itself from today's GUIs. Most PC users take conventions such as mice, windows, icons and menus for granted today. These tools and cues may be easy to use once you understand their concepts, but they are not intuitive.
I remember back in the early '90s observing one woman's first encounter with a Macintosh. She put the mouse up to the display, thinking that's how it controlled on-screen elements. Just as DOS users -- forced to unlearn old habits -- sometimes had a harder time learning Mac OS or Windows than those who had never used a computer before, one challenge would be the massive installed base of GUI users might find a superior new user interface difficult to master.
Finally, it would provide a place to showcase many of the advanced concepts Microsoft has been investing billions in R&D into. It's easy to lose track of the number of speeches where Microsoft has pointed to advanced UI concepts such as stylus and voice input, but adding such capabilities to Windows will be an awkward retrofit for the foreseeable future. Even UMPC, its boldest form factor proposal in some time, has been criticized for being a poor fit for Windows' large-screen assumptions. Microsoft would also silence innovation critics that have long accused them of merely copying Apple and, more materially, could engineer the system to be free of the malware pests that haunt Windows today.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.