The new version of Microsoft Windows, called Vista, has slipped again. It was originally going to ship in 2003. Then 2005. Then 2006. Now in early 2007. I'm not surprised, having seen a demo of Microsoft's new programs at an "event" for tech buyers in New York last week.
The new programs are phenomenally complex, with scores of buttons and pull-down menus and myriad connections among various applications. A Microsoft VP zipped through a demo, moving information from Outlook to Powerpoint to Groove to some kind of social networking program that lets you see how your colleagues and your colleagues' colleagues rate various Web sites.
Meanwhile, 500 tech buyers sat there in the dark, their eyes glazing over from the sheer mind-numbing pointlessness of most of this stuff. The audience laughed out loud when the Microsoft guy showed off a kludgey system that lets you fetch Outlook e-mail messages using voice commands from a cell phone.
The system has all the charm of those automated phone systems you encounter when you call customer service: Your call is very important to us. And while it is cool and futuristic to have a computer "read" your e-mail to you, uh, dude — we all have BlackBerrys anyway. In fact, many in the audience weren't even watching the voice-activated e-mail demo — they were checking mail on their BlackBerrys.
Even more ironic is that Microsoft has ginned up a new slogan, "People Ready," which apparently is meant to describe its software, or maybe it describes companies that use its software, or whatever. Who knows? It's one of those phrases that means anything, and so means nothing. Who makes this stuff up? Do they actually pay this person? And is Microsoft just figuring out now that its programs are used by — gasp — people?
Microsoft execs also talked about "Impacting People," then they dragged out fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, who seemed very "impacted" as he sang praise for Microsoft programs. Actually, he was reading meaningless statements from a TelePrompTer. Here is one of his quotes, verbatim: "When you combine people and technology, you have a very powerful combination." Think about that. Just let it sink in for a minute.
And then there were the hacks. The press folks. Corralled down in back. Some were just talking out loud during Steve Ballmer's keynote speech, not even bothering to keep their voices down. Yeah. It was that kind of show.
Worse yet was the grumbling afterward in the press room. Why the hell did they drag us here? we wondered. We'd been promised big news and some earth-shattering announcements by Microsoft flacks who insisted this was something we shouldn't miss. Instead, we got a demo that was about as compelling as a root canal followed by a 15-minute press conference with Ballmer, the Microsoft chief executive who seems incapable of speaking at any level softer than a bellow. Ballmer took a few potshots at IBM, claiming the computer giant doesn't innovate anymore.
No one mentioned the fact that in 1997, Microsoft held a similar event in New York City to declare that IBM's "big iron" was dead, because Windows NT — remember Windows NT? — was going to "scale up" and replace the mainframe. I wonder if Ballmer ever feels like the guy in Groundhog Day, reliving the same press conference, over and over. I know I do.
Oddly enough, some of the language of the Microsoft event was eerily similar to language about innovation in the new huge advertisements that IBM started running a few days later in newspapers. Did Microsoft somehow get wind of the ads? Who knows. But the event seemed thrown together to blunt the new ad campaign from IBM.
Worst of all, I can't believe Microsoft actually held this big nonevent "event" only a few days before announcing another screw-up in Vista. If Ballmer knew he was about to announce a delay and still had this event, he's crazy. If he didn't know Vista was about to slip again, then Microsoft is in worse shape than anyone realizes.
Microsoft can't afford to screw up like this. There are free alternatives to everything Microsoft sells, like the Linux operating system and the Open Office application suite. Rivals like Novell, Red Hat, Sun Microsystems and, yes, IBM are pushing those programs big time.
Given Microsoft's delays I can't believe open-source stuff still hasn't caught on for desktop computers. It's amazing, but people will wait months and months for products that are so complicated that no ordinary person can figure out how to use them.
Why not at least switch to an Apple Computer Mac? Apple's new operating system is stable, reliable and easy to use. The applications are simple, gorgeous and work well together. And they're here. Today. Steve Jobs must be waking up a happy man this morning.