Microsoft Windows is Thirty Years Young

Microsoft Windows is Thirty Years Young

The ever-increasing pace of technological innovation is almost taken for granted in our society.  We assume that the phones, computers, and gadgets we adore today will be tomorrow’s punchlines – the planned obsolescence at the heart of any consumer product is particularly acute when it comes to technology.  Yet there is one product which has remained remarkably consistent for nearly the entire digital age.

Now in its thirtieth year, Microsoft Windows has changed quite a lot.  The design is different, various packaged services have come and gone, and the filing systems have become more sophisticated as well.  At the same time, the fundamental concept – the idea of using different programs simultaneously in open “windows” – remains essentially the same today as it was in 1985.

Windows is so much a part of the culture of computing that we can barely imagine any other model.  Once the text-based operating systems (if you can even call them that) faded into the realm of programmers, the consumer market never looked back. In a world where “disruption” is the primary goal of every technology company in existence, nobody has dared to disrupt the model which underlies virtually every computer on the planet.  It’s like we can’t even conceive of an alternative model – even our visions of futuristic computers have the same basic interface standardized by Windows.

Despite its incredible staying power in the PC market, Windows has never been able to fully colonize other platforms.  Phones and tablets have always been dominated by an app-based model.  The tentative, half-baked attempt to open up the mobile market through Windows CE just never caught on.  Ditto for Microsoft’s more recent attempts to bridge the gap between its PC-based operating system and the phone business it bought from Nokia – an investment which turned out to be disastrous.

The reverse is also true.  Microsoft tried to make the computer-based Windows feel more like a phone, with apps and a dynamic screen full of pushed content.  Users didn’t bite, and Microsoft was forced to retreat back to the start button and desktop which have been familiar since 1995.

With all of Microsoft’s own failed attempts to reform, reinvent, or even destroy various parts of Windows over the years, it may be fair to say that the company is trapped by its own immense success.  It has engineered a product which is so fundamental to life and productivity that the market will no longer accept any substantive changes.  Consumers have gotten used to tweaks around the margins – the occasional relocation of buttons and features – but the fundamentals of operating Windows are essentially fixed.

Does this mean that Microsoft should essentially stop innovating where Windows is concerned?  Can it afford to essentially ignore the famed “innovator’s dilemma” and assume that its model will continue to dominate the computer scene for years to come? Such a sentiment goes against the most closely-held orthodoxies of Silicon Valley, and yet the last thirty years have shown that the core idea of Windows will withstand any attempts to overthrow it – even from within Microsoft itself.  Strange as it sounds, a rest on those laurels may in fact be justified.