Microsoft Bloat, Green and the Vista opportunity

Microsoft’s always going to have a hard time presenting a convincing green story for desktop computing. Its not that the story itself is un-sound: power-saving features are useful as far as they go, and Microsoft as a company is keen to be a good corporate citizen. The elephant in the room however may be summed up in a single, horrible word – bloat.

Microsoft’s story has been a fascinating one, one of the great success stories of the IT industry. There have been several key bets made along the way, which Messrs Gates and Ballmer have stuck to doggedly. This is not the place for a full précis of the Microsoft story, but it’s worth highlighting one of the bets: Moore’s Law, the principle (to paraphrase) that processor capabilities would continue to double ad infinitum.

In practice, this has been characterised by the long-standing truth well known by anyone who has spent the past couple of decades in the industry: that if you want to take advantage of the latest Microsoft software, you’ll have to upgrade your machine. The conversation has repeated with the same regularity as Moore’s Law itself – the bemoaning of how slow everything is running, and the wry nod from those who have seen it before.

Of course, this self-fulfilling prophecy has been of huge benefit to both Microsoft and its hardware partners – companies such as Intel. I very much doubt whether the Wintel alliance was deliberately stuffing software into the operating system just in order to shift more processor units, but one thing’s for sure – neither side was calling ‘stop’. We have also lived through the office bloatware wars, where Microsoft, Lotus and WordPerfect duked it out to see who could out-bloat the competition. (Microsoft won, as we all know)

The attitude throughout from Microsoft – and I know this very well, having asked them on various occasions – has been, “If you want to take advantage of the latest innovations, you’ll need to use the latest technology.” I remember a very public debate I had with Martin Taylor, Microsoft’s ill-fated “Get the Facts” General Manager where he told me that most desktop users wanted far more than just email and word processing. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.

And so, to Green. While Microsoft might not have been underhand in promoting the “new and improved” – it’s a technology company, after all – neither can the company claim to being particularly green. Fundamental to this is the fact that the power consumption of a device is only a small percentage of its overall carbon footprint. Bottom line: replacing or upgrading a machine undermines any benefits that can be had from ‘new’ power saving features.

What can Microsoft do about it? Well, perhaps that operating system that has been derided as the most bloated of the lot – Windows Vista – could hold the key. At the heart of Windows Vista lies a perfectly sound operating system. There are two issues however – the first is in disk space taken up by installed, never to be used apps; and the second is in the memory requirements for unnecessary run-time services. It should not be beyond the ken of the bright sparks in Redmond to bring out their own tools to monitor what’s really necessary, and strip out anything that isn’t?

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Trouble is, it goes right to the heart of Microsoft’s core philosophy, and fear – that people might stop buying its software if there is insufficient “new and improved” about it. That’s a fair worry – but it’s happening anyway, as we see Microsoft having to extend support (yet again, with hastily invented acronyms no less) for Windows XP. The same principles could be applied to Microsoft Office – which has already seen a usability overhaul with 2007, now, how about a performance boost? What additional benefits can be achieved offloading tasks to Windows Live services? Etc, etc, the list goes on.

It’s a changing world we are in. While Moore’s Law may continue to apply, many organisations are finding they have more than enough processor power on their desktops to do their day to day work. If Microsoft is really serious about greening the desktop, it has an opportunity to use its position to drive some fundamental changes. The question is, does it have the strength of character to do so? The alternative may be business as usual for Microsoft, but it certainly won’t be green.

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