Opening a New Windows

As Microsoft prepares to release its latest operating system, stories on the software giant by James Gleick, Steven Levy and others.
6 stories

"Windows, which has more than a billion users around the world, is getting a radical makeover, a rare move for a product with such vast reach. The new design is likely to cause some head-scratching for those who buy the latest machines when Windows 8 goes on sale this Friday," The New York Times reports. "To Microsoft and early fans of Windows 8, the software is a fresh, bold reinvention of the operating system for an era of touch-screen devices like the iPad, which are reshaping computing. Microsoft needs the software to succeed so it can restore some of its fading relevance after years of watching the likes of Apple and Google outflank it in the mobile market. To its detractors, though, Windows 8 is a renovation gone wrong."

In 1995, James Gleick detailed Microsoft's early history. "When Ronald Reagan became President, Bill Gates's new company was an unincorporated partnership with accounts kept in handwritten ledgers. Apple was a big new personal-computer company, worth $3 billion; I.B.M., the mainframe giant, was cobbling together its first personal computer out of parts from outside suppliers," he wrote. "By 1990, just a decade later, Microsoft had become the world's richest software company, though it had no leading product in any important category but operating systems. Today nearly half of the world's total P.C. software revenue now goes directly to Microsoft."

James Fallows shared his long ago experience helping to improve Microsoft Word. "I didn't always, or even usually, agree with the list of features that survived this process. But I was struck by the dispassion and apparent lack of scheming that went into deliberations about what to include," he wrote. "This may have been in part because supervisors stayed away from the details of product planning—there is no need to play the courtier if final decisions rest with your peers. But I think it also reflected a shared understanding that everyone was on the same team: the Microsoft Stock Option Team. If someone on the other side of the table had a better idea than yours for making the program attractive, you might as well give in gracefully, in view of the potentially stupendous rewards."

Jeffrey O'Brien recounted what happened last time consumers were presented with an overhauled Microsoft operating system. "Vista was meant to be a wholesale reimagining of Windows, the brand name for Microsoft's operating systems dating back to the early 1980s. Vista had a marketing-friendly moniker, a fancy user interface, new security architecture, a better file-storage system, and much more," he wrote. "After a protracted six-year development process, much internal squabbling, false starts, blown deadlines, and broken promises to partners, the engineering team mopped up 50 million lines of code, wrung it all out into a shrink-wrapped box, and heaved it onto the world in early 2007.The timing couldn't have been worse. Vista required top-end hardware to operate even while users were downgrading from desktops to notebooks. The bloated OS was incompatible with printers, web cams, and device drivers of all sorts. Early adopters scurried back to Windows XP; many corporations skipped the upgrade altogether."

Fred Vogelstein provided some reasons to bet against the software giant. "Yes, Microsoft is a unique company, but established corporations with 70,000 employees almost without exception have a hard time learning new tricks. Microsoft has done better than most, with Windows, then Office, and now its server business. But it also has been struggling to become more Internet-centric since it launched MSN more than a decade ago. And with the obvious exception of Internet Explorer, it has had decidedly mixed results," he wrote. "Ten years ago, the world was convinced that Microsoft would use MSN to control the Internet the same way it controlled the desktop: extracting tolls, blocking competitors, regulating which sites surfers could access. Back then, the world worried that Microsoft would take command of the entertainment business by using its cash reserves to buy the best programs and music and using its software in our cable set-top boxes to dictate what we watched. None of those fears came to pass. Instead, Microsoft has been outmaneuvered by faster, hipper competitors, from Apple and Google to Flickr and YouTube."

And Steven Levy profiled Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect. "The Ozzie project that must deliver results is Microsoft's so-called operating system for the cloud. As more apps become Web-based, the raison d'être for Windows—running programs on desktop PCs—becomes less compelling," he wrote. "What better way to make up for the decreasing importance of a desktop operating system than to create a dominant OS that runs services in the cloud? This is not only a crucial effort but one in which Microsoft is playing catch-up: Amazon.com went live with its cloud services in early 2006 and now hosts data storage or applications for more than 400,000 developers, including the complete historical archives of The New York Times. Google's entire company is based on the premise that people want to move from desktop to cumulus. But Microsoft hopes to use its cloud OS (codenamed Red Dog, now called Windows Azure) to dominate the cloud the way DOS and Windows did the desktop."

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