Watching Microsoft's tricky upgrade to the next Windows

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Microsoft Corp. has always been a fascinating study in technology, money and marketing.
Microsoft typically plays to the breathless, "this is so cool" techie joy about new products, new introductions and new features. Several years back, I remember a series of briefings at Comdex at which a parade of Microsoft product managers all used the exact same word to describe this or that feature. "This part is awesome!" Was the surfer vernacular scripted? I never found out.

But now Microsoft, at 29 years old, is facing a "Midlife Crisis," as BusinessWeek declared on the cover of its April 19 issue. Forget about competition posed by Linux, the open source operating system, the slowing growth of worldwide PC sales or the ongoing effort to fill the security holes in Windows XP. The biggest challenge is Microsoft’s next-generation operating system, code-named Longhorn, which Microsoft itself touts as the biggest advance in Windows since Windows 95. (Years delayed, Longhorn is now not expected before 2006.)

As Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates says in the BusinessWeek story, the installed base is his "biggest competitor." That is, getting the base to upgrade is the biggest challenge. How the operating system is marketed will determine the outcome.

Paradoxically, as people have become more reliant on their PCs for work and play, they’re less inclined to pursue a massive change—unless they’re utterly convinced the upgrade will be "seamless." And Microsoft, like other software companies, has not always met that promise.

With Longhorn, can Microsoft rekindle the rock star excitement that accompanied the launch of Windows 95? It will try, but I think the effort will be misguided. PC users have grown up in the past decade. And it’s time Microsoft did, too.

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