If Microsoft Changed, Would Anyone Notice?

I spent the middle part of last week at Microsoft headquarters. For the first time in a long while, I saw an energy that few firms I’ve covered or worked for have been able to match. It struck me that most of the folks who disagree with my perspective about Microsoft are thinking of the company the way it was about five years ago, which isn’t accurate. A five-year-old viewpoint wouldn’t accurately characterize Apple, HP, Dell or SCO either.

So what if Microsoft changed for the better? Would you care?

If your answer is that Microsoft is and always will be an evil empire that needs to be cut up into little bitty pieces and buried alive, then don’t read any further. I’m serious. It is the holiday season, and if you are dead set on hating Microsoft, the rest of what I’m going to say will upset you. So go read something that trashes Microsoft or watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

However, if you can suspend disbelief for a moment, I’ll tell you a story of my trip to Redmond. It probably won’t be enough to change your mind, but hopefully, like I did, you will see progress you didn’t expect. If you continue to read this column, ask yourself what it would take for you to see Microsoft differently.

Innovation in the Strangest Places

My first stop was with the Xbox team, which historically had seemed out in left field to me. Were I ever to work for Microsoft, that group would be my first choice. People actually get paid a lot of money to play games there. Unfortunately, I’m clearly not a good enough gamer. When I say “left field,” I mean that they, like the MSN group, don’t seem to integrate with any other part of the company.

They have shifted resources and now are working more closely with the other Microsoft consumer divisions. By this time next year, you’ll see a level of integration with other platforms like the Media Center and other efforts like MSN that will be market-leading. The Xbox team is the first at Microsoft to push VoIP, widely integrating it into Xbox Live so that gamers playing against each other are constantly in contact. They have also just rolled out their Voice Command technology. In new games like Splinter Cell, you can actually command your virtual team by using your voice, which is a heck of a lot easier then memorizing keystrokes.

The point here is that the Xbox team is constantly changing. It is a property that is getting stronger all the time. Its partners, employees and customers continue to seem loyal to the technologies released by this team.

Recall that many thought the Xbox would be a colossal failure in light of the successes of Nintendo and Sony. Now Nintendo is all but gone, and Sony is on the ropes. Because this was a space in which only the experienced seemed to survive, Microsoft’s success in and of itself is a surprise. Going forward, the Xbox team is beginning to use the resources of the .NET framework, something Sony (which should be untouchable in this space) has not been able to do.

Anything But a Failure

My second stop was with the embedded systems group. I haven’t seen anything come out of this group for some time, and I was just checking to see if it still existed. What I saw resulted in two of the major mind shifts that occurred during my trip.

Here are some of the devices that either are shipping now or will be seen at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES). I’ve combined several of these devices on the same line to save space. The embedded systems group has captured every major point-of-sale vendor, which is particularly interesting because embedded Linux was expected to own the POS space by this time:

  • PGA Tour Golf — an arcade game
  • Intermec, Symbol — bar-code scanners
  • CAMit 1 — camera with a built-in modem
  • Netpad — a PDA by Psion
  • AudioTron — digital audio receiver by Turtle Beach
  • iRAD-S — digital audio receiver
  • Exertris Bike — an exercise bike
  • Philco Game Console and Philco Netvision — game consoles, one built into a TV
  • Phantom — a game console that plays PC games
  • BETI, MN-700 and CerfCube — home gateway products
  • Gametrac — handheld games
  • PS-8500 Human Machine Interface — industrial controller
  • Maxxyz — lighting system
  • DegiFi — media storage
  • Casio Message Cam — mobile client device
  • IXON, Hitachi Mobile Communicator, MyCube, XPDA, Recon — new PDAs
  • POS cash registers from Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Micros, NCR, Toshiba, IBM, Wincor-Nixdorf, PC PoS, Compuregister
  • Epson Powerlite 8200 — a projector
  • Kuka — a chess player robot
  • Maron-1 — Fujitsu robot
  • Artisita 200E — sewing machine
  • AirPanel SD — smart display
  • Thin-client devices from Neoware, TeleVideo, Wyse, Chip PC and HP
  • VoIP phones from Samsung, Broadcom, Casio, Hitachi and Symbol

This list is far from comprehensive, but it indicates that Microsoft is about as far from not being a player in the embedded space as you can get. Embedded vendors don’t like to buy or license software, so Microsoft clearly is doing something right to combat this attitude.

It is incredibly hard to sell software into the embedded systems space. The vendors here feel that software should be free and that this is where they can differentiate themselves from other vendors, which is why many of us thought Linux would own this segment. Evidently, the value-added qualities that Microsoft offers, coupled with the relationship the company can provide, is enough for these vendors and is another indication of a changed Microsoft.

All Security All the Time

My next stop was the Windows XP Service Pack 2 team, which is working on the next service pack for Windows XP. While this team hasn’t rebuilt the operating system, I couldn’t find anything they missed. Almost all the content of this service patch is targeted toward fixing security problems. This alone is progress, because Microsoft used to be famous for adding features — and their related vulnerabilities — with new service packs.

Service Pack 2 is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it does appear to address the vast majority of known exposures that don’t require a hardware change or a complete revamping of the operating system. This service pack is an indication that the company listened and that it is holding to its commitment to make security a high priority. We won’t know until the release of Service Pack 2 whether the company really hit the mark, but its commitment appears to be strong.

I finished the day with the team formally known as Palladium, the team that focuses on trusted computing. I’ll cover the issues surrounding this team, along with the general topic of trusted computing, in a future column.

At the end of the day, I’m not expecting Linux or Apple advocates to scream suddenly about how much they now love Microsoft. I don’t have access to those kinds of mind-altering drugs. I’m only suggesting that Microsoft seems to be busting its hump to change, and wondering how many users out there will allow themselves to notice.

It also occurred to me that if we want companies to change, we should spend as much time patting them on the back when they do what we ask as we do kicking them in the butt when they don’t.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a company founded on the concept of providing a unique perspective on personal technology products and trends.


  • I was just over at viewsonic’s site checking out the airpanel. I would like one. In fact, I found your article by googling for "linux airpanel".
    There is a serious problem though. I do not want to install (much less buy) any microsoft OS just to get a feature, especially if that feature does not work well. I consider an airpanel a feature. From online reviews I understand it does not work well.
    Here’s the real cost of M$ thumbing their nose at open standards: The same hardware that runs the airpanel (400mhz xscale) could easily run linux. If I could get myself a linux airpanel, I could run VNC on it. Then I could run an open source VNC server on ANY windows box to get this feature, oh I could also use my airpanel to control my mac or any of my linux boxes. All I would have to pay for is the hardware. And guess what? I would be willing to pay more than M$ is asking for xp pro if I could get a high performance, genuinely useful product out of the deal.
    Let this sink in a minute. M$ refuses to let users have roving access to their system because they refuse to support open standards for remote desktop access. Airpanel access locks you out of your desktop while you are using the airpanel and vice versa. Airpanel peformance absolutely sucks, vnc achieves decent performance. I sincerely hope M$ is changing. I will be AM ong the first to applaud them when they do. But the very fact you mention that they showed you an airpanel in your article shows that M$ are still carrying along one of their most grevious flaws.

  • Wow, you are mellow today – Linux "advocates" and not Linux "terrorists"?
    Yes, I would notice. The key thing is, I would not care. I’ll give you an example why. Imagine you are a prisoner, and the head of the prison beats you everyday for 10 years. Then, suddenly, he treats you very nicely. Would you suddenly warm up to this fellow and think of him as your friend? No way, that history of 10 years of beating will always weigh you down.
    Microsoft has been convicted of being a monopoly and of stealing IP. They have treated their customers like prisoners, always taking advantage of their position as the head of the prison, always beating their customers.
    Screw ’em. I couldn’t possibly care less.

  • Changing? Sure, they are dedicated people and I’m sure they want to provide a good product. Here’s the rub. The biggest "change" they need to make is to adopt open standards for communication protocols and file formats, whenever they exist. But, particularly in the case of the Office file formats, doing so would be contrary to the interests of the shareholders.
    I’m an Apple "advocate, but I don’t hate Microsoft. If anything, I think it’s just an unfortunate situation where, what’s good for Microsoft’s shareholders (perpetuation of proprietary file formats for Office, for example) is very bad for consumers (witness almost zero innovation in this space for years and years now, and high prices that yield Microsoft 80 percent profit margins after expenses).
    I think we tolerate this in the U.S. because Microsoft is bringing home lots of dollars to the U.S., but I think overseas it’s reaching a breaking point – on things I just don’t see Microsoft "changing"

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