Keeping Windows alive with curated computing

This content is 14 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Like it or loath it, there’s no denying that the walled garden approach Apple has adopted for application development on iOS (the operating system used for the iPhone, iPad and now new iPods) has been successful. Forrester Research talk about this approach using the term “Curated Computing” – a general term for an environment where there is a gatekeeper controlling the availability of applications for a given platform. So, does this reflect a fundamental shift in the way that we buy applications? I believe it does.

Whilst iOS, Android (Google’s competing mobile operating system) and Windows Phone 7 (the new arrival from Microsoft) have adopted the curated computing approach (albeit with tighter controls over entry to Apple’s AppStore) the majority of the world’s computers are slightly less mobile. And they run Windows. Unfortunately, Windows’ biggest strength (its massive ecosystem of compatible hardware and software) is also its nemesis – a whole load of the applications that run on Windows are, to put it bluntly, a bit crap!

This is a problem for Microsoft. One the one hand, it gives their operating system a bad name (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion, Windows is associated with it’s infamous “Blue Screen of Death” yet we rarely hear about Linux/Mac OS X kernel panics or iOS lockups); but, on the other hand, it’s the same broad device and application support that has made Windows such a success over the last 20 years.

What we’re starting to see is a shift in the way that people approach personal computing. Over the next few years there will be an explosion in the number of mobile devices (smart phones and tablets) used to access corporate infrastructure, along with a general acceptance of bring your own computer (BYOC) schemes – maybe not for all organisations but for a significant number. And that shift gives us the opportunity to tidy things up a bit.

Remove the apps at the left side of the diagram and only the good ones will be left...A few weeks ago, Jon Honeyball was explaining a concept to me and, like many of the concepts that Jon puts forward, it makes perfect sense (and infuriates me that I’d never looked at things this way before). If we think of the quality of software applications, we can consider that, statistically, they follow a normal distribution. That is to say that, the applications on the left of the curve tend towards the software that we don’t want on our systems – from malware through to poorly-coded applications. Meanwhile, on the right of the curve are the better applications, right through to the Microsoft and Adobe applications that are in broad use and generally set a high standard in terms of quality.  The peak on the curve represents the point with the most apps – basically, most application can be described as “okay”. What Microsoft has to do is lose the leftmost 50% of applications from this curve, instantly raising the quality bar for Windows applications. One way to do this is curated computing.

Whilst Apple have been criticised for the lack of transparency in their application approval process (and there are some bad applications available for iOS too), this is basically what they have managed to achieve through their AppStore.

If Microsoft can do the same with Windows Phone 7, and then take that operating system and apply it to other device types (say, a tablet – or even the next version of their PC client operating system) they might well manage to save their share of the personal computing marketplace as we enter the brave new world of user-specific, rather than device-specific computing.

At the moment, the corporate line is that Windows 7 is Microsoft’s client operating system but, even though some Windows 7 tablets can be expected, they miss the mark by some way.

Time after time, we’ve seen Microsoft stick to their message (i.e. that their way is the best and that everyone else is wrong), right up to the point when they announce a new product or feature that seems like a complete U-turn.  That’s why I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them come up with a new approach to tablets in the medium term… one that uses an application store model and a new user interface. One can only live in hope.

12 thoughts on “Keeping Windows alive with curated computing

  1. Microsoft’s Windows Logo Program seems to be working in terms of hardware device drivers. I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with a “logo’d” piece of hardware in Windows 7.
    I don’t know if they could enforce the same approach to software? Unless it’s a different OS completely I think people will always be able to run whatever “crap” they like on their PCs

  2. @Thom, effectively that’s what the application store model does – it enforces an approval route for software but Windows has many years of legacy tied up inside it… which is why I agree that Microsoft needs a new operating system to embrace modern computing paradigms. Thinking about it now, that’s what Apple is doing with iOS and, over time, I would expect to see OS X phased out on Macs (albeit over a period of several years). Windows is a bigger problem (over a billion personal computers run it), so I hope that Microsoft has something in the works (maybe Windows 8 will be fundamentally different to its predecessors?)…

    Within the enterprise, we have more control over what people run (and can set up enterprise application stores using products such as Citrix Dazzle) but, as bring your own computing becomes popular, along with the impact of consumer technologies on enterprise IT, it seems to me that the consumer market will influence corporate IT departments, rather than the other way around.

  3. I was having a think about this the other night (sad, I know) and I concluded that surely this will be impossible to enforce, now that HTML5 “web apps” are becoming more common?
    Once a person is using a compliant web browser they can run whatever programme they like. Does that take the issue away? I’m not sure :/

  4. The browser has been muted as the app-killer for several years now… I haven’t seen any evidence of it happening yet. For another view, take a look at the model that Apple, Google, and Microsoft are all following in the mobile space and it seems that apps are very much alive (although Apple had to capitulate – originally the iPhone only supported web apps). The real difference is the move towards apps that do one thing well; huge application suites that do many things may well fall by the wayside.

  5. Have a read of
    A few highlights

    * Of the 225,000 iPhone Applications Apple say are in the App Store 27% are free. The other 73% gives roughly 164,250 paid-for apps.

    * Apple said $1.43 bn had been spent on apps over 2 years. Dividing by 164,000 apps, the mean revenue per app is $8,700. Apple takes 30% leaving $6,100 over 2 years or $3,050 per app per year. A few make millions, so the majority will make less than the mean

    * The average paid app price is approx $1.95, and half of all paid iPhone apps get fewer than 1,000 downloads. If the median were 999 downloads at the average sale price a mid ranked app would net $1,948 over two years. $682 per year after deducting Apple’s cut. Half of all of the developers earn less than this, half more. (A few hundreds of times more, skewing the mean)

    An average of 4 quoted values gave a typical iPhone App development cost of $35,000

    Many iPhone apps exist only because the browser experience on a phone (and particular one without flash) ain’t that great. The browser isn’t an app killer, its a very rich kind of a terminal.

    Curated apps work on Xbox and other games consoles. Before the app store the carriers decided what got on phones, which was terrible for everyone. It seems to be the way forward for phones.

    But the thing about Windows is backwards compatibility. I run an app written when Windows 95 and 98 were at their height on my 64 bit windows 7 machines. If you’re on 32 bit XP/Vista/7 you can run DOS applications from the 1980s.

    Microsoft are bringing Windows Phone 7 to market based on the premise that a phone doesn’t need to be backwards compaible, and if your Market share can’t be called dominant you can take money from anyone who wants to put their program on your platform (c.f. Xbox) therefore you can change the platform and force all apps to come from a single source.

    You can’t move windows to an Appstore model without going back to year zero. Trust me, as a Microsoft share holder I’d love to see 30% of all 3rd party app revenues (not profit, headline sales price) going into Microsoft, would Adobe (just for example) be happy giving 30% of the price of their software, or would they put the price up. Would any regulator see it as a good thing? And it only takes a handful of people to say they aren’t playing to break the whole thing.

  6. James,
    First of all, thanks for your detailed response to my post. Secondly, sorry it’s taken a while to respond. I wanted to do it in a considered manner, and yesterday got kind of taken over by the reaction to another one of my posts

    My use of iOS on this post is an example. The real issue here is keeping Windows relevant as the world of desktop computing moves away from desktop and laptop PCs with a number of peripheral technologies (VDI, mobile, etc.). At the same time we’re seeing consumer technology influencing the enterprise, a new generation of workers to whom e-mail (and other 1980s/90s technologies that you and I adopted in our early careers) as an irrelevance, and an increasing need to drive down costs.

    Curated computing is one method by which we might be able to drive down costs whilst supporting a diverse range of applications on devices. It’s also an opportunity for Microsoft to take stock and look at where Windows should be – not where is is because of a need to support applications going back 15 or 20 years. I know organisations that need to support such applications – desktop or application virtualisation is a possible response here but really, the issues are around improving application quality and security. Microsoft has come a long way with Trustworthy Computing since Windows XP SP2 but that was 2004, and we need to be looking towards 2014…

    I could write a whole new blog post on this but instead, I’ll address some of your points:

    • A lot of your arguments seem to stem from Microsoft taking a cut on apps in any future application store. I’m not suggesting that Microsoft takes a 30% cut on all Windows applications – it might work for phones/tablets, but is almost certainly going to be a barrier to adoption across the whole desktop space. Instead I would like to see Microsoft working with its partner ecosystem to provide a method of getting apps onto Windows using an application store approach.
    • As for going back to year zero in order to go to an App Store model, I don’t think that is the case – after all, you’ve been pushing App-V for a few years (if only as an MDOP benefit – a thinly veiled attempt to sell more volume license agreements) and it’s not a huge jump to say that, for example, in Windows 8 all applications will need to be virtualised, either at the application or desktop layer, in support of new deployment models that increase security and quality by enforcing application checks. Windows has become more and more componentised in recent years – surely that will aid things further, as do some of the other technologies you have in the remote desktop space.
    • I’d like to see Windows Phone 7 succeed – Microsoft is doing a lot that’s right with that platform – all that’s really wrong is that it’s taken too long and there’s an uphill battle to fight against some of your competitors.
    • Some of your competitors (OK, one in particular, with almost zero enterprise penetration), have successfully turned off old technologies within one or two releases. Instead, Microsoft seems to rely on a complicated system of backwards compatibility which I beleive hinders Windows. Not only are there layers and layers of APIs and frameworks, but code that goes back to Windows NT (and even DOS) – at some time that has to be cut. If we can say that the lifecycle for an OS release, or some system software, is 5 years mainstream plus 5 years extended, why not say the same for old APIs, etc. – all of that helps in the move to a simplified Windows, where hardware, operating system, applications and data are all abstracted from one another. The trouble is that Microsoft got burned by the experience of Windows Vista and the application compatibility pain that caused. Instead of getting to the root of the problem (poor code, legacy code, etc.), it seems that the organisation has become scared of the potential backlash (it’s not reported as “my applications are badly written”, but “Windows doesn’t work with my applications” – a difficult PR battle to overcome).

    I think that about covers it… I understand that as a Microsoft shareholder and employee you need to defend their approach (at least publicly) but I’m in the fortunate position of being able to take a step back, look around at what others are doing, and pontificate on the future (that’s part of my job). There’s a brave new world out there – and whilst Microsoft is fighting well on the cloud and mobile fronts, it seems to have forgotten that the desktop is changing too. I really think Windows has the potential to continue as a dominant force on the desktop (consumer and enterprise) but is equally in danger of falling into decline over the next a few years, just as Windows Mobile did before the birth of Windows Phone 7.


  7. Last point first, if my shares ever get near what I paid for them I might sell them, and I became a Microsoft employee because I agreed with the direction the company took, I didn’t change my opinion because I’d been bought :-) This is all bluesky stuff so what Microsoft does in the future and what I think today can be different.

    “a complicated system of backwards compatibility which I beleive hinders Windows” … “Microsoft got burned by the experience of Windows Vista and the application compatibility pain that caused.”
    No dispute there: a tiny proportion of applications – which would never pass approval – caused all the problems. The unspoken promise with all software (apps as well as OSes) is what worked with version n works with version n+1. Break that and the product isn’t acceptable to the customer.

    You could strip out the backward compatiblity stuff and start again. Call it OS/3. And you could make it curated.
    If you called it Windows then the EU, the US DoJ etc have basically said that all and sundry must be able to put their apps on Windows without let or hindrence from Microsoft. You and I know that in a lot of cases they darn well should be hindered but they we need a huge policy U-turn by the regulators.

    Some of your competitors (OK, one in particular, with almost zero enterprise penetration), have successfully turned off old technologies within one or two releases
    They are able say “Our way or F*** off” In the unlikely event Microsoft wanted to say “No flash on Windows”, regulators wouldn’t allow such a thing.
    People are using more kinds of device in addition to Desktop PCs, but Desktop computing itself isn’t changing or only changing at the speed of continental drift – if we can’t get people to give up XP what chance of getting them to “OS/3”.

    That’s the heart of it – progress is always constrained by compatibility.
    App_V wouldn’t fix it – if the APIs the app calls aren’t there in the underlying OS , no go. MED-V would fix it but having more apps in the VM than on the host OS… why not just run the OS in the VM? Aren’t these just ways to break the curated model…


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