A window closes on Microsoft

The sound you heard after HP's purchase of Palm last week was that of Windows reaching the top of the roller coaster and beginning its inevitable trip back down. Microsoft had absolutely nothing to do with the transaction, of course, but the ripple effects of the buyout foreshadow a significant shift of one of Microsoft's most stalwart partners away from its core products.

Worse for Microsoft, the HP/Palm deal shines a bright light on the software giant's seeming inability to set a course for a post-Windows world. Giants can and do get left behind if they fail to move quickly enough.

Of course, Microsoft's own cancellation of the Courier (the device that didn't really exist, although we all know it did) does nothing to alleviate concern that the company is flailing away as the world shifts off of conventional PCs and toward mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. These devices don't run any form of its eponymous operating system, yet they represent the greatest source of market growth over the next five years. We still buy desktops and laptops by the boatload, and Microsoft will continue to pull in huge revenues as a result. But this is a mature market that won't be growing anywhere near as aggressively as that for mobile devices and services. Publicly traded companies live and die by growth, and as solid as Microsoft's post-recession performance has been to-date, it won't sustain growth indefinitely if it exclusively stays in ripening market segments.

One of the few official photos of HP's 'Slate' PC, as yet unnamed.  [Courtesy HP]

Too big to shrink

There have been some reports in the legitimate tech press and elsewhere that HP has cancelled its Slate tablet device, which is reported to run Windows 7. There has never been official confirmation, though some publications cite anonymous sources inside HP.

Just the reports themselves, verified or not, cast a pall over the future of full-on, full-service operating systems like Windows. As capable as Windows 7 is, it's just too big, too fat, and too unresponsive for the kind of instant-on, lean-operating device we'll all be using in the future. You can't reverse-engineer a desktop OS to be best-of-breed in the mobile space any more than you can tune a car's engine to efficiently run a scooter. Yes, it can technically be accomplished. But it'll always be too big, too thirsty, and woefully unsuited to the task at hand. Better to build something ideally suited for the task at hand and dispense with the waste inherent in scaling down.

Apple figured this out with the OS that runs the iPhone and iPad. Google's reaping early rewards with its two-track Android and Chrome OS philosophy, although it'll ultimately make more sense for Google to combine the two under a consistent development and branding effort. Whether HP cancels Slate in the end, or simply downplays it, a webOS-powered HP tablet will most likely be thinner and more responsive (no, I won't say "iPad killer," but I know you're thinking it).

And just the fact that this fact seems obvious enough, is the most concrete indication yet that Microsoft's window may finally be starting to close.

Courier foreshadows another delivery

Still, I'm an optimist. And although we're seeing the sunset of a major phase of Microsoft's history, I think it's way too soon to write off Microsoft as a company.

Cynics have called the pseudo-death of the Courier tablet yet another sign that Microsoft doesn't get it. I think it's the cynics who don't get it. The facts are simple: Microsoft killed one reference design that was in all likelihood a disaster waiting to happen. As unique as the folding, book-like hardware form factor was, it would have been significantly more expensive to produce than a single-screen device, and its complexity -- ranging from a central hinge to a software paradigm that would have had to be rethought to fully take advantage of both screens -- would have further limited its potential market appeal.

Tech companies like to fling new and sometimes out-there ideas at the wall almost constantly. If those ideas don't fall silently and forgotten to the floor, then they're splattering spectacularly. Only a chosen few survive the brutal tech industry birthing process to become successful products. Just because the Courier is gone doesn't mean Microsoft doesn't have a bunch of other designs in various stages of development. I expect simplified one-panel evolutions of the Courier, running some variation of Windows Phone 7 (hopefully renamed by that time), falling into our hot little hands within the year.

Microsoft is already on the road toward something approaching a post-Windows OS roadmap. Windows Phone 7 is a huge leap beyond its earlier mobile offerings, and like the competing iPhone OS, it promises to scale nicely beyond smartphones and onto tablets and other mobile form factors. With some tweaking to branding (we're not exclusively in phone country anymore, Toto), the OS originally created for smartphones could underpin every Microsoft-powered mobile device.

Carmi Levy Wide Angle Zoom (v.2)Get off the Windows 7 treadmill, already

But not until Microsoft stops believing that Windows 7 is the answer for tomorrow's mobile user. It isn't, and engineering wizardry notwithstanding, it never will be. Microsoft can no more graft truly best-in-class multitouch usability on top of Windows 7 than Palm can suddenly build a 200,000-app universe. Instead of pouring copious resources into making a conventional desktop OS behave like a mobile OS, Microsoft would be better served adapting its existing (and quite slick) mobile OS into a core business platform for the post-Windows world. And the sooner it convinces hardware vendors to change gears from a Windows 7-based strategy to something more likely to compete with devices based on truly mobile operating systems, the sooner it'll regain relevance in a market that by the day seems at greater risk of passing it by.

Like Microsoft, HP became the behemoth that it is over the past 25 years largely by riding the wave of the PC revolution. This morning's newly announced notebooks...well, they look a lot like HPs. (One may say "Envy" on it, but it's no VooDoo.) Nevertheless, this season, HP is serving notice that it isn't afraid to at least partially abandon its Windows legacy. As difficult as it may be, Microsoft may want to consider doing the same.

I realize I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. The sky isn't falling, and as cloudy as Microsoft's OS roadmap may seem right now, the game for Windows isn't quite over. The roller coaster ride has a number of climbs and dips left in it. But it's clear the OS is running on pure momentum, and it's only a matter of time before the laws of economic physics grind the platform to a final halt. It's time for Microsoft to find another ride.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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