Microsoft never liked Larry Ellison's network computers. Clinging to that orthodoxy risks another mis-step

The 1990’s were the greatest of times for Microsoft and Windows but history will surely record it as the era when its leaders also painted themselves into some pretty disastrous corners.  

The most ridiculous was Bill Gates downplaying the Internet and browsers but there were others almost as embarrassing; Ballmer convincing himself that Windows Mobile was good enough to 'own' what turned into the smartphone sector and the daft belief that Internet malware would have no effect on the non-interventionist Windows security model.

All wrong turns, later reversed at some cost and delay, but nearly two decades on it is starting to look as if we should add Oracle and Larry Ellison’s Network Computer (NC) to bucket list of mis-steps.

LG-Chromebase.jpg Ballmer hated the network computer from the off, calling it “a little niche in business,” and you can see why. In 1996, nobody did much of anything on the Internet and the PC model worked fine.  Network Computers went nowhere, or so everyone thought.

In 2013, despite pragmatically embracing desktop virtualisation for business users Microsoft is still not keen on the distant descendants of the NC which these days come in a number of forms, the most evolved of which are Google’s Chromebook computers. Stung by the appearance of new and increasingly powerful Chromebooks, Microsoft recently started using negative advertising to put people off, which it's tempting to interpret as nothing more important than the marketing team taking a chunk out of a rival.

But it is starting to look as if there is more to it than that. Based on Linux, Chromebooks have been a mixed bag so far and there’s plenty to criticise in Google’s sometimes clunky development of the idea but the disdain Microsoft has poured on them strikes a note of deeper insecurity. It’s not that Microsoft’s can be serously worried that Chromebooks will sweep away Windows 8 because that’s clearly unlikely on current sales. Still, something is clearly eating them.

One startling possibility is that there are minds inside Microsoft that wish that Redmond had taken up the same idea itself, creating a sort of ‘Windows Cloud’ version to complement Windows Phone and Windows PC (aka Windows 8). It’s not as crazy as it sounds but you can see why it didn’t make much headway under Ballmer. Old school to the core, he saw Windows as an operating system built on devices, not an all-purpose platform designed to tie people into services.If it existed, Windows Cloud would have had to be license free to encourage take-up and that would risk undermining the desktop revenues and Windows 8 effort built on lucrative OEM revenues.

So today we have Microsoft virtualisation, data centre and cloud strategies and the beginning of cloud-based applications for the masses but no convincing Windows client designed from the ground up to tie this all together from an online perspective. This could be one reason Windows 8 has underwhelmed. People are buying it on PCs but they know that the end is nigh and that expectation of upheaval creates uncertainty and a feeling of drift. Microsoft needs a cloud computer to plug a gap but for ideological reasons it doesn't have one.

Reports suggest that Microsoft will appoint its new CEO in early 2014 and one of the first jobs on his or her desk will surely be working out what on earth Windows is supposed to be. Is it still an old-fashioned operating system on top of which web apps sort of hover and is this really a sustainable model? Or is there room for a radically reinvented cloud incarnation of Windows after all?

It's the issue that lingers unspoken around Microsoft’s clunky attempts to rubbish the humble Chromebook. Whatever their good and bad points, someone is buying these computers and that should be an important signal for Microsoft. PC vendors - including the usually conservative Dell no less - are also coming up with new models that expand their possibilities. Sooner rather than later, there is a risk that Chromeboooks turn from cheap ducklings into swans. Rather than dismissing these consumers and manufacturers as deluded fools, it should consider whether it can meet their needs within its proprietary software model.

Whatever change the new CEO comes up with, rule number one should be to stop calling customers looking for a simple home computer a bunch of idiots. Wasn’t that the incumbents said about Windows home users a generation ago?