The Killer Surprises Waiting for Steve Ballmer

“We're making computers as easy to use as clothes dryers. And have you ever heard of a Maytag users group?”

-- Steve Jobs (1981)

Computing, as we know it is going to change dramatically over the next decade. A slew of new technologies, appliance computing, better security models, Android, and mobile computing will fundamentally change the nature of our computer experiences. All of this new technology is being formulated by Apple and Google, and Microsoft, with questionable leadership, is in a very poor position to react.

We often think about the steady progression of hardware technology and love to fantasize about what our computers will look like in, say, ten years. However, there is a more strategic and more important question to ask. Namely, how will Apple's shift, introduced by the iPad, to appliance computing change the mix and nature of our Macs? And what impact will that have on the basic design of a PC? After all, we know that the PC industry, while still dominant, tends to follow the lead of Apple.


There are several conceits that Microsoft enjoys these days. If one can figure out how to demolish those conceits, Microsoft will be placed in such a difficult position that even superb leadership would be hard pressed to cope with it all.

Here are some of those conceits that Microsoft enjoys in 2010.

  • A personal computer should have a monstrous OS with 50 million lines of code. A great deal of customization should be available to the users. It should have a lot of device drivers. It should be capable of generating content with various tools like compilers, Web design tools, CS4, and so on -- even though perhaps only one percent of typical users are able to understand and exploit those tools.
  • A personal computer should have a large complex OS that allows developers to create complex applications - which has the byproduct of unintentional security problems. The two together should paint a giant bullseye on the user, enticing people from all over the planet to steal data, identify, and CPU cycles. It should require a lot of time and energy to update and secure this OS.
  • A personal computer needs to have a complex, expensive Office Suite that only a few people can master. For the sake of compatibility with the business side, the same complex suite must be purchased, used at home, and wrestled with.


Appliance Computing

One of the things to watch for in a visionary like Steve Jobs is recurring themes. Remember the Apple ads from 1984 showing the original Mac being carried around in back pack? I even recall an ad showing it in a bicycle basket. That concept was premature, but the iPad, thanks to technology, may finally be able to instantiate Mr. Jobs' dream of the ultimate appliance computer.


The first appliance Mac

Mac in a backpack (1984): Credit: MacMothership 

(Never underestimate the lifelong dream of a first-rate visionary)

The move to appliance computing will not mean the end of the general purpose computer used to create videos, audio, art, ads, Websites, and applications. What it does mean is that the mix of computers will change. That will be a major disruptive influence on the PC business. Instead of 100 percent of the people being forced to use a very capable, insecure general purpose computer, only those technical people who need one will buy one.

That will have an adverse effect on the general purpose computer market as Apple -- and to some extent -- Microsoft wrestles with the move to tablet computers.

So instead of having the current categories of desktop computers and portable notebook computers, we'll have desktop systems for creating content, used by experts (5 percent) and appliance computers used by the rest of us. (95 percent.)

Even though those complex, Mac OS X-based computers will still be necessary, they won't be the big revenue generators that they have been in the past. This fundamental shift in how computers are designed and used will have a far greater impact on how our computers look in 2020 than simple, fanciful notions in artists concepts that show more of the same, just cooler looking.

Microsoft's Reaction to Appliance Computers

Microsoft has shown a special inability to develop an appliance OS. Just when Microsoft thought that Windows Mobile was the answer to the smartphone question, they have discovered too late that it's really the answer to the mobile appliance computer* question. And at this critical juncture in computing, Windows Mobile is faltering.

It's fairly clear that Apple has finally been able move into a position where Mr. Jobs' dream of appliance computing is hugely disruptive to Microsoft's conceits. Microsoft will now have to deal with the prospect of an appliance OS, not Windows 7, to compete against iPhone OS on the iPad -- something Apple has a ten year head start on.

Microsoft will also need to deal with a new threat: the promise of a more secure, less complex (from the user's standpoint) platform posed by the iPad and its descendants. I've seen first hand how the U.S. Government has struggled to lock down Windows so that users cannot possibly install software or change settings that would compromise security. What is the purpose of a complex, capable OS like Windows 7 being locked down so severely that one can only launch Office, prepare reports, and print them? 

Apple focuses on the consumer space and picks up low hanging fruit from government and enterprise. There will be a strong influence by Apple in those sectors, but most companies won't be willing to commit to Apple. Instead, they'll flop about, looking for an appliance OS they can hang their hat on. Is there one available? Is there a company out there that's building a first class, commercial appliance OS that's being tested now on smartphones but will find its way onto appliance tablets?

There is. It's called Android. With proper security measures, in-house development, and a rather more lightweight OS approach (there's that killer Linux animal, ready to spring again), Android will provide what businesses need to finally deliver their employees safe, secure, focused appliances, customized to their mission. It's the dream of the zero maintenance, thin client, reborn, and it's here right now.

Microsoft's Challenge

Faced with this dual threat from Apple and Google, what can Microsoft do? First, the Windows cash cow will be undermined. As government, enterprise and consumers move to friendlier, less expensive, and more secure appliance computers, the number of PCs that require an OS as complex as Windows 7 will start to dwindle. No longer will organizations and families seriously contemplate buying a computer that's capable of full content creation with complex tools. They'll be hunting for a slate that can be carried around and does only what they need it to do: browse, communicate, entertain.

As the demand for what we've come to know as the classic PC dwindles, Microsoft will be faced with not only building a better appliance OS, but they'll also need to radically modify another cash cow, MS Office. Just putting a complex equivalent on the Internet won't do. When people need to create presentations, they can't be schackled by their connectivity. Contrast that to Apple's delivery of Keynote, Pages, and Numbers on the iPad for just $9.95 each. Now we understand Apple's thinking with iWork on an iPad: a serious but inexpensive substitute that undermines the MS Office conceit.

Microsoft will have a lot of catching up to do. Its overly complex Windows 7 will seem increasingly out of place in a mobile, appliance based society. While the Windows family was uniquely designed to meet the needs of business in the 90s and early 21st century, the heyday of the desktop PC, it will face enormous pressure from the iPad, appliance computers in general (some with Android), and $10 productivity apps.

Even a skilled, accomplished and brilliant leader at Microsoft would be hard pressed to counter this new threat to the PC status quo.


Even the acronym spells MAC. I have also recently coined such a device a "smartbook."