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Vista Was Microsoft's Big Humiliation Last Year; Will a Crop of Windows-Free Laptops Ruin Bill Gates' 2008?

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On the eve of this week's nerdvana -- the annual Consumer Electronics Show media orgy in Las Vegas -- I can't help but feel pity for the world's most famous nerd: Bill Gates.

For starters, there's no other tech titan who has endured as much (deserved) humiliation lately. Consider the giant lump of coal Gates got in his Christmas stocking from PC Magazine. It came in the form of a Dec. 25 "Inside Track" column by John C. Dvorak, who described the "continuing negative buzz" about Microsoft's Vista operating system as "becoming deafening."
Barbarians at the Gates? Tiny laptops could give Microsoft a run for its money.
Barbarians at the Gates? Tiny laptops could give Microsoft a run for its money.
He dissed Vista as "unusable," "annoyingly slow" and so on, then delivered the coup de grâce: "Since the product was developed during the reign of Bill Gates as 'chief software architect,' he should step up to the podium and take full responsibility and apologize for it himself."

It's one thing for a tech publication to point out that Vista is shit, but it's another thing for PC Magazine -- PC Magazine! -- to rub Bill Gates' nose in it like that.

Of course, griping about Microsoft is nothing new, but Dvorak's column had particular resonance for me because a laptop I've been testing has had me contemplating nothing less than The End of Microsoft.

It's the new ultra-mobile Eee PC, from Asus, the Taiwanese laptop maker, which has been the talk of the geek blogosphere for months (it went on sale in the U.S., in rather tight supply and with virtually no marketing budget, in November). It's got a tiny screen, a cramped keyboard, negligible memory (instead of a hard drive, there's a two- or four-GB flash drive), but at just 2 pounds and 6.5 inches by 9 inches, it's astonishingly small. Even better, it's astonishingly cheap ($299 for the base model). The coolest feature? No Microsoft bloatware! The operating system, you see, is a simple, custom point-and-click variation of Linux. The idea is that rather than running expensive Microsoft applications on this baby (it's meant as a travel companion, not a desktop replacement), you'll use its built-in Wi-Fi to create and share word-processing documents and spreadsheets via any number of free, online Microsoft alternatives, such as Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets -- which are more than sufficient for the vast majority of users (and are Microsoft Office-compatible, so docs are interchangeable).

Asus just announced that it sold more than 350,000 Eee PCs worldwide in its first quarter -- well above analyst predictions -- and the company is equipped to manufacture and sell as many as 5 million in 2008. Now, 5 million new Windows-free laptops -- not to mention Apple's increasingly popular Windows-free laptops -- aren't going to put that much of a dent in Microsoft's earnings. (You can buy and install Windows on an Eee PC yourself, but of course that defeats the point.) The real issue is that because the Eee PC is such a hit, all the big laptop manufacturers are rumored to be prototyping competition for it (in fact, Mac geeks are hoping that Steve Jobs will introduce one at the annual Macworld convention in San Francisco next week) -- which could mean a wave of teeny, Microsoft-free, ultra-portable ultra-affordables later in the year. That 5 mil could easily become 10 mil, then 20, then 50, then 100, in which case the Microsoft Windows franchise could face a world of hurt (beyond, that is, the self-inflicted damage already caused by the likes of Vista).

But, you might argue, Microsoft is much more than just a software company. After all, it spent $6 billion last year to acquire digital-marketing giant aQuantive in its race to transform itself into an advertising-delivery company that can effectively compete with Google.

Well, sure. In fact, when I was talking to Advertising Age Editor Jonah Bloom about this last week, he pointed out that not only does Microsoft have a "battalion of talented people" with real expertise in online advertising, "it's shown a willingness to spend its way into the affections of the media world. It owned Cannes last year, and it's a fixture at every media or marketing event of any magnitude. It has already built the kind of fluffy industry relationships that will inevitably yield more brand-based business."

All that's definitely true, but even before I could agree with him, Jonah tempered his assessment by adding: "There's just so little understanding in Redmond of what marketing can and can't do -- or even what marketing is. As a marketer itself, I'd say Microsoft showed itself in 2007 -- with Zune and Vista -- to be living in the past as far as marketing is concerned."

And then Jonah delivered his coup de grâce: "Microsoft is culturally a tech company, and it could take decades to turn it into an ad company -- decades that it hasn't got."

Life is short, and tech lifecycles are even shorter. (Unless, of course, you're a creaky monopoly like Microsoft, in which case you apparently can't help but take way too long to release way too complicated, way too buggy software. But I digress.) How quickly can -- must -- Microsoft reinvent itself? I don't know.

But I do know that Dvorak's Vista rage and my happy test of the Linux-based Eee PC reminded me, once again, how much better, how much happier life can be -- will be -- without Microsoft.
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