Why Microsoft is So Slow
Last week, in the latest setback, Microsoft conceded that Vista would not be ready for consumers until January, missing the holiday sales season, to the chagrin of personal computer makers and electronics retailers — and those computer users eager to move up from Windows XP, a five-year-old product. In those five years, Apple Computer has turned out four new versions of its Macintosh operating system, beating Microsoft to market with features that will be in Vista, like desktop search, advanced 3-D graphics and “widgets,” an array of small, single-purpose programs like news tickers, traffic reports and weather maps. So what’s wrong with Microsoft? There is, after all, no shortage of smart software engineers working at the corporate campus in Redmond, Wash. The problem, it seems, is largely that Microsoft’s past success and its bundling strategy have become a weakness.
Windows runs on 330 million personal computers worldwide. Three hundred PC manufacturers around the world install Windows on their machines; thousands of devices like printers, scanners and music players plug into Windows computers; and tens of thousands of third-party software applications run on Windows. And a crucial reason Microsoft holds more than 90 percent of the PC operating system market is that the company strains to make sure software and hardware that ran on previous versions of Windows will also work on the new one — compatibility, in computing terms.
As a result, each new version of Windows carries the baggage of its past. As Windows has grown, the technical challenge has become increasingly daunting. Several thousand engineers have labored to build and test Windows Vista, a sprawling, complex software construction project with 50 million lines of code, or more than 40 percent larger than Windows XP. “Windows is now so big and onerous because of the size of its code base, the size of its ecosystem and its insistence on compatibility with the legacy hardware and software, that it just slows everything down,” observed David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “That’s why a company like Apple has such an easier time of innovation.”
One would think they would simply jettison backwards compatibility, especially beyond a single generation. It is simply unreasonable to except to be able to run programs written for DOS 4.0–or even Windows 3.1–on an operating system developed several years later. After all, we don’t expect to be able to play LPs and 8-tracks on our iPods.
Update: Henry Farrell makes an interesting point:
Presumably Microsoft doesn’t want to break compatibility because by so doing it might undermine its enduring monopoly — if the mutual lock-in between Microsoft’s operating system and office productivity software is weakened, people might quite possibly move away from both. Apple, not being a monopoly (but having high customer loyalty) was much better placed to make the jump. While in contrast, Microsoft customers can look forward to a piece of bloatware that will be extraordinarily obese even by its previous standards. I suspect I’ll be switching to Mac meself next time I have the chance.
I have considered making that move before but only quickly. Since I have always worked for companies that used Windows-based products, home-work compatibility has trumped other factors.