The news has been around, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says the development process at Microsoft has to change after Windows Vista. The time between releases is just too long, and Microsoft has to show profit to keep shareholders happy. Some say the Redmond empire is due for a slow collapse, but I think there exists an amazing opportunity.
A Free Vista, Part I
Microsoft is the sworn enemy of geeks internet wide. Though there are many Windows supporters out there, there are plenty who hate Microsoft. Microsoft, last week at the PDC, announced some pretty impressive initiatives. Love them or hate them, they are taking some big risks with a new user interface for Microsoft Office, changing the core of their web server, IIS, in very large ways to mimic many of the strengths of Apache, embracing open XML via RSS, moving data from the registry to the file system in Windows Mail, and even converting their default Office document format to an "open" XML-based format similar to OpenDocument format (OASIS), which OpenOffice.org uses.
As Microsoft tries very hard to advance their core software and revolutionize the IT world, it seems more and more people are investigating alternatives like Linux, Solaris, and the BSDs (including MacOS), lauded for their stability, security, and lack of viruses and worms. In fact, by the time Windows Vista hits shelves in late 2006, or possibly (maybe even likely) early 2007, the Linux kernel may likely be at 2.8 or 3.0, KDE will be at 4.0, Gnome may be at 3.0, there will be a new XFCE, Solaris 11 will be out with some major improvements, and Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" will have been declared gold. Microsoft will have a lot of serious competition; competition that really didn't exist when Windows XP hit shelves over four years ago.
Microsoft didn't have to panic back then - not only were they arguably the most usable - possibly only truly usable - OS out there, their previous offerings, in the form of Windows 98 and the disaster that was Windows Millenium Edition, were completely unsuitable for an ever-smarter public. The number of people who upgraded to Windows XP was driven largely by IT professionals sick of working on their friends' and families' computers, which were in a constant state of disarray, ridden with viruses and spyware - Gator, Hotbar, new.net, etc - and alternatives were simply not ready for the desktop yet, at least in a manner by which reliable support could be provided over the phone and purchased hardware would work with any assurance. Windows XP was needed by the world, and it suited the need well. However, a few years later, the landscape has changed dramatically. If Microsoft loses people to alternative OSes, they lose a massive revenue stream via Office and all their new applications as well, such as Microsoft OneCare and the new Expressions suite. They will lose credibility if their big plans, including XAML and XPS (aka Metro), never take off, like the Hailstorm fiasco. In fact, once they lose the desktop in any meaningful way - and I consider any credible enterprises moving to alternative desktops, even in small numbers, meaningful - they will find it harder to turn massive profits and they will begin to see the chinks in the armor of the once invisible Redmond castle.
Vista has been an emormous project. Microsoft grew big eyes, tried a lot of really interesting stuff, learned from their failures, scrapped their Longhorn builds, and started over with Windows 2003 SP1; they slowly rebuilt Longhorn, and most of what will be Windows Vista RTM. It falls well short of what many of us envisioned even just a year ago, many of its most advanced features are already present in most Linux distros and Mac OS X, it leaves out massive features such as MSH and the much touted WinFS, and yet, paradoxically, appears to still be a really advanced OS that will be able to hang with the other modern OSes feature-wise. Now, Microsoft just needs to ensure that people will actually use it.
Microsoft needs to take a dramatic step to elevate this battle. There is so much to be gained by having the IT community on board en masse. My parents upgrade when I tell them to, as I'm sure many of your friends and families do. They really need us - IT professionals - to go tell people that Vista is a worthwhile upgrade, particularly the executives in our companies. That is why I'm going to propose something wacky: Microsoft should give away Windows Vista.
A Free Vista, Part II
If Vista were a free product, hordes of us would upgrade immediately. It would take a load off of Microsoft with respect to activation and piracy. It would open the door to charge for support and updates in a subscription based fashion, it would blow all TCO arguments out of the water, it would make a financial dent in many competitors charing for their products, and it would accomplish the biggest goal of all: it would set up the vast majority with a Windows platform on which they could then deploy Office and all the new goodies and initiatives - those mentioned above and new ones, like Microsoft Accounting, Microsoft CRM, and more. And most of all, with its ability to integrate so well with Microsoft Active Directory, it would be a real driving factor to buy Windows Server. Of course, Vista could only be free for the home desktop, the server counterpart would still run about 800 bucks, which is "chump change" to most companies. In fact, as a variation of that, the license could vary: free for home use, but a cost for commercial use. Or maybe free for home use, 50 Vista desktop CALs with each server license. The terms could vary, but once the desktop cost is out of the equasion, the customer base exists.
At this point, Microsoft could be a little creative and maybe optimize Vista to run newer applications. Hey, if you could HAVE Vista but had to spend a few hundred bucks for Office 12 to get real whiz-bang performance, that seems like a good value, right? "It's certainly cheaper than training your employees to use Linux and OpenOffice.org, and it really doesn't cost much when ammortized over a few years. In fact, monthly, my profit & loss statement shows virtually nothing - a few dollars. And boy, Office 12 runs so much faster than Office XP, I really should upgrade the rest of the workstations." Nevermind the eventual upgrade costs to Office, this is a "right now" solution.
Though most of these tech sites have lots of very vocally pro-Linux and pro-Apple visitors, statistics reveal that the vast majority are still running Windows, even if just from work. How many would upgrade to Vista if it were available as a free download? If you could download an ISO of Vista "Home Basic," wouldn't you? Maybe that would even drive you to upgrade to Vista "Home Premium." Or maybe they give away "Home Premium," but it requires a subscription to keep the additional features active. There are a hundred ways to spin this into "a great deal for everyone."
Most importantly, a free Vista would go a long way towards repairing the image of Microsoft as an evil empire. Their campaign to be more "open" is everywhere - their file formats have gone from binary to XML, they have begun releasing open-source code (even to Sourceforge!), and they have committed to supporting new features in IE7, such as additional PNG support, extended CSS2 support, and RSS. Microsoft is very concerned about their image, and their attempts to alter the way they are perceived have been met with varying levels of success. This, I think, is a home run.
I recognize that the liklihood of a free Vista is pretty much nil - stockholders would never stand for a missed revenue stream, even if it meant a much better position in the long run, and Gates and Ballmer are not likely to let 5 years of development walk out the door with no profit. But it seems to me as though there's a lot to be gained. As a strategic company, they ought to be thinking that what we lose today, we make up for tomorrow by building a greater persistent userbase, an even greater presence, and incidentually, a much greater fanbase. I find myself thinking that it's not terrible to sacrifice some temporary flux the present to cement a more pervasive future; it probably extends the Microsoft dominance for some time. All empires may eventually crumble, but if the empire morphed itself into a new entity, it might extend its life indefinitely in new ways. And hey, Microsoft, if you're listening, $100 million in marketing can't buy the press that the announcement would get you.