Windows

Microsoft should not try to control hardware vendors

Microsoft should treat their partners as real partners, rather than acting like parents who have to set rules to get the kids to do what's right.

There's an ongoing controversy over which is the better way: Should software vendors also exert control over the hardware that runs their programs, a la Apple? Or should they just focus on making the software and let hardware vendors decide how to implement it on the machines they make, as Google (mostly) does? Microsoft has, traditionally, taken a middle-of-the-road approach, although recently it seems they were leaning more in the direction of the Apple model.

Each approach has definite advantages and disadvantages, and neither is necessarily "right" or "wrong." Certainly controlling the hardware means fewer conflicts and incompatibilities and a more efficient troubleshooting process when things do go wrong (and when it comes to computers, things inevitably do, even in the world of Macs and iPhones). And certainly giving vendors more freedom to do what they want results in more freedom of choice for consumers and often in lower prices resulting from the competition in the market.

One size doesn't fit all

As with many other decisions in life, it comes down to a matter of personal preferences. One person sees the walled garden as a beautiful place where customers are protected from all the bad things lurking outside, while another sees it as a prison overseen by a (perhaps benign, perhaps not) dictator.

One person sees the wide open (source) spaces as a place of limitless possibilities, and another sees it as a scary, lawless country full of danger where anarchy prevents any sense of security or peace of mind.

A friend of mine once described operating system choice by comparing it to where we choose to live. He said using a Mac is like living in an urban high-rise condo, where you pay high rent and outrageous HOA fees in return for spectacular views (a pretty GUI), a partially false sense of security, and the opportunity to think of yourself as one of the elite.

Using Linux, on the other hand, is like moving out to the country. You need to learn to do more things for yourself (once upon a time, you had to compile your kernel and write your own drivers, but just as more conveniences and technology have come to rural areas, it has gotten easier to use Linux).

You don't have everything that those closer to the city take for granted (e.g. country folks might not be able to get broadband Internet and Linux users may not be able to run all the programs that are written for Windows), but you have more freedom; you don't have to ask permission from a municipal code inspector to put up a fence or add on to your house and you can make whatever kind of modifications you want to the operating system. You'll also likely pay a lot less for the same house out in the middle of nowhere than you would if it were five minutes from the downtown business district.

Then there's Windows, which is a bit like living in the suburbs. It's the "American way." In some ways, you have the best of both worlds -- and in other ways, you have the worst.

You might live in a cookie-cutter house that looks a lot like everyone else's, but there's comfort in standardization. You get a reasonable price on housing while still getting most of the conveniences of city life. You might not have as much room and freedom to spread your wings as your country cousin, but you're not confined to a thousand square feet of space ten floors off the ground with no yard to play in, either.

The point is that there are people who would be bored and miserable on a farm or ranch and others who can't imagine living anywhere else and would hate the noise and pressure and hustle and bustle of being downtown. And many want something that's somewhere in between. We aren't all alike, so we need to have choices that are very different from one another.

Taking control

Windows Mobile was, for a long time, a big player in the smartphone market. Then the iPhone came along. When Microsoft announced they were planning a complete "redo" of their mobile operating system (which ultimately resulted in Windows Phone 7), there was speculation that they might build and market their own phone. A venture into the hardware business wasn't at all unprecedented; in addition to making computer peripherals, such as keyboards and mice, they built the Zune and the Xbox.

Instead (possibly because they didn't want to alienate all those hardware partnerships that they'd formed during the Windows Mobile days), they followed their more traditional path of licensing the OS to popular mobile phone vendors such as HTC and Samsung, which were already making some of the best-selling Android smartphones.

But this time, they mandated that the hardware had to meet specific standards in terms of screen resolution, CPU, RAM, and storage capacity, as well as a number of other requirements such as GPS, accelerometer, compass, proximity sensor, 5 MP or greater camera, capacitive touch screen, specific hardware buttons, etc.

These requirements are way below the specs of the current top phones (for example, the WP7 standards specified at least 256MB of RAM; many of today's popular handsets have a gig of memory). However, they do limit the flexibility that hardware vendors have for implementing the Windows Phone OS on their handsets.

The idea behind setting standards, of course, is to avoid the kind of fiasco that ensued when hardware vendors preinstalled Windows Vista on low-powered machines and many customers ended up buying computers that were slow and sluggish right out of the box. Despite the fact that the OS worked great on machines that had the proper hardware and despite the fact that Microsoft ameliorated the performance problems with Service Pack 1, Vista's reputation never fully recovered. First impressions are important.

Backing off

This week, the news was all over the web that Microsoft has "downgraded" the hardware requirements for Windows Phone. The biggest change is that a camera is now optional. So are the compass and gyroscope. Some commentators wrote that this is a concession to vendors who want to make lower-end models of Windows phone to keep the prices down. Others opined that it's about going after the enterprise market, where some companies still prohibit camera phones for security reasons.

Either way, I think it's a good move. Some customers don't want or need for their phones to function as a camera. And given the obvious risks of allowing people to bring cameras into environments that hold highly sensitive information, I never understood why that requirement was there in the first place.

However, I think there can be a public relations problem when you set standards and then back down on them. To some, it just looks like a normal business decision -- you evaluate and make adjustments based on how your original approach plays out in practice. But there will be some who will see it as a sign that Microsoft "lost" or "caved" to the hardware vendors or as an indication that they "don't care" about the quality of the experience.

Frankly, I think it would have been best if they hadn't made such stringent requirements in the first place. It smacks of the kind of control-freak mentality usually associated with Apple, and I'm not sure it's really necessary. It's in the best interests of the hardware vendors to make phones that will perform well, just as it's in Microsoft's best interest for the phones running its OS to perform well. Do the manufacturers really have to be told that a phone should have a decent processor and a reasonable amount of RAM?

If Microsoft does want to get into the hardware business itself, that's one thing, but if not, I think they should treat their partners as real partners, rather than acting like parents who have to set rules to get the kids to do what's right.

It will be interesting to see what approach they take to the hardware specifications with Windows 8.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

21 comments
bobc4012
bobc4012

While I'll agree that Apple is akin to living in an expensive high-rise condo, I would equate Windows more to living in the city proper and many of today's Linux variants the equivalent of living in the suburbs. In the city (larger) proper, you can easily catch a bus (or in some a subway or train) and get around fairly easy. In the suburbs, you need to drive to wherever you wish to go - but not as far as someone who lives way out in the country. MS (with its implied threats to H/W makers), generally has a lock on having the H/W manufacturers provide the drivers and whatever else is needed to make Window implementations run (hopefully, without a hitch). While Linux distros will generally run without problems on standard H/W I/Fs, it can run into a problem when the H/W vendor will not disclose the specs so the appropriate Linux drivers can be developed. Anyway, such analysis is far-fetched as MS tends to throw its weight around to stifle competition. An interesting situation will be how UEFI is implemented by the various H/W companies. Will it be only MS OSes run on future H/W or will other OSes be able to run as well.

FXEF
FXEF

That's a very good way to compare the three operating systems. Well thought out article.

jamblaster
jamblaster

What is all the commotion about? People don't buy a smartphone (in most instances) for the HW involved; they buy the phone because it's a Google, or a Windows, or whatever kind of OS it has on it. Very similar to why most people (the general uninformed public) buy a PC or a MAC; they buy it for the OS. Microsoft has a right to protect its product and require certain specifications on the RAM, CPU, and peripherals if they want to. They need to protect their investment after all.

danerd
danerd

hi, years ago i had a pentium two computer with a set hardware configuration and i had windows ME running on it, i used it for two years, never saw the blue screen of death, never locked on me, all my friends were telling me how bad ME is, i didnt know what they were complaining about, upshot of this story is--my hardware must have been a PERFECT match for the operating system, i do applaud microsoft for doing their best in trying to get there system to work on such a large hardware base.

gavin.burgess
gavin.burgess

Both Gates and Jobs were control freaks. Gates slowly relinquished his grip over the years, appointing others as "departmental control freaks". This slowly evolved (devolved?) into the "Mom" approach to everything that Microsoft takes today. Jobs never let go until he passed away. If both Microsoft and Apple resist recognizing that their partners and their customers want a true partnership to evolve from all this, somebody will do just that, and that somebody will grab huge market share. It will take Apple a lot longer due to their current corporate culture, but it's time they both pulled their heads out of the sand. Some of us consumers is all gwowed up now and we want to ride our bikes without the training wheels. We want the option to take them off, at least.

speesd
speesd

If Microsoft is trying to learn something from Apple's success (and I think they are), it's that image counts. The initial Windows Phone hardware requirements ensured that people would not have a poor Windows Phone experience that was caused by a hardware vendor electing to put the OS on an inferior device and figuring that it would be good enough. Had they been able to do that, who do you think would have been blamed? Bad experiences would have been bad experiences with Windows Phone. Not the 'xyz' model of manufacturer 'ABC''s phone. I agree that backing down on the standards is a bad idea. Microsoft should stick to their guns. I don't buy the idea of needing to dumb it down to play in a corporate or enterprise environment. Just look at how many IT shops have been required by corporate executives to support the iPhone. If there is a strong enough need for a dumbed down version, then there is a strong enough need for ANOTHER version.

Realvdude
Realvdude

First off, I disagree with Debra's reason why MS dictated minimum specifications for the Windows phones. The reason given when I attended a developers conference just before the public release of the new mobile OS, was that the standards allowed developers to know what to expect on every phone. I suspect that indeed the change to specifications is for the business market. With what I have seen in the consumer market, everyone wants all the bells and whistles regardless of whether they use them or not; and I have seen a lot of photos posted from phones on Facebook. Regardless of features and price, smart phones have had phone carriers requiring more than a basic service plan, so I doubt that the lack of a camera or a little less RAM is going to be a purchasing factor. I don't usually throw out a MS vs Apple opinion, but I do believe that it was the Windows Phone specs that helped motivate Apple to include a 5 MP camera and flash in the iPhone 4.

corcorac
corcorac

Why is when MS set a standard it seems wrong, but having a minimum standard seems the only way to go when you have everyone building hardware for your software. Who can remember when it took writing to the autoexec.bat and config.sys files to add a CD or sound card to your machine?? If you swapped it out with another brand you needed to edit everything again, now we are seeing true plug and pray, brought about by standadized drivers and DLL's set by Microsoft. I belive this has brought down the cost of both hardware and software, making it really affordable for everyone. Wish Apple would do the same thing!!

pdegroot
pdegroot

In my view, Microsoft's view toward hardware is what defined the company. Gates and Allen started out building BASIC for any OEM that wanted it, at a time when almost all software was built for a specific piece of hardware. The idea of an OS layer that you could program against, to run on any hardware was still a dream, so the idea of a software-only business was itself radical. In the Windows 3 time frame, MS knocked itself out to build drivers for everything under the sun, giving users an extraordinary freedom to choose hardware, and giving hardware vendors access to a huge market of buyers of all kinds of software. Before that, individual programs had to support hardware, like WordPerfect had its own printer drivers. Microsoft really changed the world of computing and made the PC a commodity, driving down prices to where everyone could afford it. Something to keep in mind.

320vu50
320vu50

The main reason for the ban is not the person will try and take a photo of anything secure. But, that the photo taken at an award or office party may have something in the background that will leak or confirm sensitive information about what the office or operation is all about. A person in the crowd behind the main subject of the photo, an oversight by the photo taker, could lead to an undercover agent being outed and lead to fatal results. Or a mapboard that everyone takes for granted, like wall decoration, that reveals a operations plan or area. To avoid 'inadvertant' mistakes the best rule is to avoid the possibility. Kinda' like not going down an alley where a very mean pit bull is known to hang out.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...because they wanted to eliminate the impression that Windows frequently crashed. Now when any laptop locks-up, I have to flip it over and pull the battery. That's a user experience improvement!

Mad Mole
Mad Mole

I understand the arguements for and against hardware requirements but they're not exactly new and certainly not the exclusive realm of the OS manufacturers. Pretty much every piece of software comes with minimum and recommended hardware specs whether is an ERP system or game for your desktop computer. It's a consumer's choice as to whether or not they buy the hardware needed be it to the minimum or recommended spec. With mobiles there is no blank-canvas hardware, we can't buy a blank device and apply to OS of our choice. Instead we walk into a shop with a list of what we want a 'phone' to achieve and are presented with whatever the hardware guys think will do the job. That Microsoft started out by giving hardware manufacturers a recommended spec and have now offered-up a minimum is somewhat back-to-front. However as consumers the only thing that can concern us is if the device does what we asked for in the first place. To me MS is doing their best to ensure that's exactly the case - judging by alot of the negative commentary so far they certainly don't want to get it wrong! As an aside Apple do the same thing but their approach is different. Each major OS update will eventually start exclude older model phones. This effectively sets a minimum required specification without stating it in the way consumers are familiar with. Android is another matter all together as consumers are very unlikely to know exactly what their hardware can actually achieve or if they'll ever get the latest version of the OS without a call to their vendor's technical department.

seanferd
seanferd

It's been a long time since MS built an OS to run hardware. The hardware and drivers are supposed to be built to MS's ever-changing driver models. Even stuff that works, yet is "unapproved" by MS gets you a FUD warning about unsigned/unapproved drivers. (If the notification were worded a bit differently, it wouldn't be so FUD-inducing.) Phones? Well, I suppose there has to be some standards from MS, as there is a wide variety of closed architectures among phone vendors. Demanding certain features is a bit silly, but requiring that the included features actually work with the OS is sensible. Requiring a certain item meet a certain "level", say, all cameras must be x megapixels, is going back to silly. Xboxes still explode, so I'm not all that impressed with Microsoft's hardware design record. Never been terribly impressed with their mice, either. I don't know if they have managed to produce a bad keyboard, but that would certainly be sad.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Where is your "home?" Microsoft's suburbs, Apple's urban high-rise, or Linux's country ranch? What appeals to you about your chosen approach?

sboverie
sboverie

I remember the old DOS days when having a proper configuration made the difference in performance. Being able to configure memory in config.sys was what separated pros from the wannabees until memaker and other utilities came along. The worst part about getting CD ROM support onto a floppy for troubleshooting purposes was getting all the needed files together and having copies of those files compete for space with other useful files.

sysop-dr
sysop-dr

That they invited Microsoft to help make. It was IBM who decided to use off the shelf hardware. They decided to use commodity hardware because they didn't want to be in the PC business but they saw that a PC business would drive sales of their then and still main product business commodity hardware, that is business machines, then mainframes and now mainframes and server farms/clusters.) They chose commodity hardware because then other companies would create clones and build a market. They thought all those computers would be smart terminals for thei mainframes and what do you know most of them are smart terminals for servers, like google. Windows was 1: not the first gui that would work well on commodity hardware and 2: not the initial driver of commodity hardware.

RickVogelVTS
RickVogelVTS

Reset button may be gone, but forced shutdown works fine even if the OS is locked, and you don't have to flip over the device or mess with the hardware to get it to cycle and reboot.

Rndmacts
Rndmacts

Laptops like computers have a very simple reset process, push the power button and hold for 10 seconds this will reboot the computer, you only pull the battery when you need to drain the CMOS battery. This has been the same procedure since day one when all computers could run was DOS. That wasn't a Microsoft dictate but an Intel requirement for a hard reboot of computers. There has always been a minimum requirement for computers, even Linux, Microsoft has always published the absolute minimum that would boot and run the OS but always recommended more in the area of RAM and CPU if someone wanted a quality interaction with the OS. I have a WP7 phone and in reality all my mobile phones have had a camera but I have never used them, they just aren't as versatile as my dedicated camera, they do come in useful occasionaly if witnessing a news item but the quality and versatility doesn't compare. WP7 was introduced with maximum user experience being the highlight, now that Mango has been released I can totally understand Microsoft relaxing the hardware specs to make it attractive for businesses who don't have the same requirements in their smartphones and there are consumers out there who don't have the needs for all the bells and whistles and Microsoft is establishing that there are phones out there for them as well. I think it is a very smart move on their part.

ScarF
ScarF

Press the power button and keep it pressed long enough for the computer to shut down. You really don't need to remove the battery :( Not to mention that I don't recall laptops to have reset button at all, ever.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

I don't fault either Microsoft or Google for going a more 'open' route, but both have realized over the time of their OSes that too much openness equates to too much instability; simply put, the OS simply cannot handle the myriads of different hardware configurations possible. We saw it with Win95 through Win2K and we're seeing now with Android. Even now, while Windows is far better than it used to be, it is still possible to see issues crop up that should never exist. I mean, why should the user have to tweak his system to get the best performance out of a piece of software? Why should he have to specify how many processors a given app should use when the OS itself should be able to detect what the software was designed for and dedicate resources accordingly? Apple understood this now over 10 years ago with the release of OS X. Microsoft recognized the need for this with the abysmal failure of Windows Vista. Google is recognizing this and using its purchase of Motorola Mobile to offer a 'standardized' platform for Android. Yes, each person has their own needs and desires; I don't fault them for that. What I do fault is people trying to claim that one way is better than another when that first method has already proven itself defective.

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