Was Windows XP Microsoft's last good OS?

Windows Vista is a disaster. Windows Mobile is unusable. Is there hope for Microsoft?

Everybody's talking today about "Drivergate" - internal Microsoft e-mails that show senior Microsoft executives personally struggling to use hardware products sporting the "Windows Vista Capable" sticker. The e-mails also show that Microsoft lowered its standard for some hardware compatibility, apparently to help Intel impress Wall Street.

This revelation is simply the latest in a long series that add up to one inescapable conclusion: Windows Vista sucks. (And making it cheaper won't help, either.)

Compatibility of drivers is just one issue. Another is a convoluted user interface that prevents ordinary users from gaining a sense of control over the OS.

Windows Mobile, Microsoft's operating system for cell phones, suffers from a similar problem. The Windows Mobile OS isn't horrible per se, it's just that it's completely wrong for cell phones and other small screen devices.

Windows Mobile clearly compromises usability to mimic the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing device) focus of Microsoft's desktop operating systems. To quote Dr. Phil: How's that workin' for ya? It hasn't helped eroding desktop Windows market share, and it hasn't helped Windows Mobile, either.

The biggest problem isn't that the company's newest products are unusable, but that Microsoft may have actually lost the "ability" to make good operating systems. It may not be able to let go of its dogmatic insistence on the flawed vision of the same Windows "experience" from wristwatches to supercomputers.

And there is evidence that delusion or, at least, wishful thinking, prevails at Microsoft. The company's founder and chairman, Bill Gates, said last week that "Microsoft expects more Internet searches to be done through speech than through typing on a keyboard." Hey, Bill: Do you want to bet US$10 billion on that? I doubt even that Microsoft will fix its Vista driver problem within five years. This is the same guy, by the way, who bragged that Microsoft would "solve" spam by 2006.

It's imperative for Microsoft to get the next major OS right. The secret lies in the company's Surface initiative. Microsoft has never understood the importance of "simplicity," a fundamental design concept it has always swept aside to make room for "feature rich" (i.e., bloated and complex).

Right now, the Windows Vista type user interfaces are in their final days. The future belongs to what I call the 3G user interface, which replaces flat icons and folders with multitouch, gestures, physics and 3-D.

It's imperative for Microsoft to get the next major OS right. But how?

The secret lies in the company's Surface initiative. Sure, Surface is at present a little more than a semishipping demo usable for product marketing.

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