KELLNER: Microsoft’s big challenge ahead

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A two-day forced vacation from the MacBook Pro I normally use during work hours, necessitated by a logic board replacement, forced me to turn instead to a Hewlett-Packard notebook computer running Microsoft Windows.

The switch, plus last week’s news about Apple Inc.’s new iPad (more on that next week), got me to thinking. I’m not a stock market guru, and mine may not be the best investment advice you can find, but here goes: Short your Microsoft stock, if you don’t dump it altogether.

That’s a bit extreme, and Microsoft’s partisans would be quick to note that there is plenty of life remaining in the firm and its products. Indeed, one of the preferred productivity applications on the Apple desktop/notebook platform is Microsoft’s version of Office for the Mac. But that doesn’t eliminate or ease the challenges the folks in Redmond, Wash., have ahead of them.

First, there are those incredible iPad sales numbers. In announcing the “new iPad,” as Apple called it last week, the firm said it had sold more iPads in 2011 than any other single computer maker had sold desktop or notebook PCs. Other analysts say Apple should easily sell a total of 100 million iPads by the end of 2012. Since every iPad has at least a Wi-Fi connection, and often a wireless data radio, that means a lot of “connected devices” out there, ones that can access cloud-based applications and data.

That has all sorts of implications - for users, for system administrators and, again, for Microsoft. In a cloud-based environment, a tablet (iPad or otherwise) or a desktop computer, for that matter, essentially becomes a terminal, accessing both data and applications from the cloud. Fair enough, but from whom will those applications be obtained? It could be Microsoft, but it doesn’t have to be. Just ask Google, which is very happy to sell you its online productivity software. Or talk to Oracle, which now owns and distributes OpenOffice, a highly compatible clone of Microsoft Office.

The bottom line? Microsoft should embrace services such as OnLive Desktop — and do so, pronto — to keep viable links to customers.

Second on the list of potential giants in the Microsoft forest would be the Windows operating system, and even those vaunted applications. Yes, the release of Windows 8 is in the wings, and a public “beta” version is available. But even Windows 7, itself a vast improvement over the ill-starred Vista release of a few years back, is clunky and feels dated, especially in the face of the touch-gesture-rich operating system on the iPad, elements of which Apple is bringing not only to its next desktop OS X release, Mountain Lion, but also to individual applications. Ironically, there are bunches of touch-sensitive Windows-running desktops out there; the Microsoft software just isn’t as creative in exploiting touch.

On the Web browser front, Microsoft is wildly optimistic when it advertises Internet Explorer 9 as the start of a great Internet surfing experience. Unless one wants to ride a wave of creamed corn, that is. Using IE9, even on a computer with a relatively new and supposedly powerful quad-core AMD processor, is anything but elegant or fast. Again, Microsoft seems to be blissfully ignorant of such competitive products as Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome or Mozilla.org’s Firefox, let alone Opera Software’s eponymous browser.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t. This columnist was opposed to hegemony when that word was applied chiefly to the Soviet Union, and a vibrant, competitive software/applications marketplace is in everybody’s best interest. Those of us who want to root for Microsoft’s applications - some of which are quite good - are just waiting for some signs of life on the part of a technology titan.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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