The Year of Living Nervously

Back in the Hutong
Trying to melt the snow with a Jedi mind trick
1224 hrs.

My rare quiet moments in Japan over the last couple of weeks were wrapped up simultaneously zoning out in front of the Discovery Channel (the only decent English-language programming the otherwise-fine Westin Tokyo offered its guests) and contemplating the year to come.

While watching a Discovery program on the testing of the Airbus A380 WhaleJet in the throes of auld lange syne, it occurred to me that 2006 was a pivotal year for two of the largest technology-driven firms in the world. Airbus and Microsoft both spent the year wrestling with make-or-break-the-business mega-projects (the A380 and Windows Vista, respectively) upon which the lives of people around the world will depend in the coming year.

Given the severe challenges of such extraordinarily complex projects, the very public missteps in their creation, the fact that both are coming to market behind schedule and over-budget, and the extreme pressure these circumstances have placed on the management of both firms, the unspoken question hanging above both products is whether they were, in the end, rushed out before they were ready.

Microsoft: Losing Customers since 1999

For Vista users, the question is probably academic. Microsoft has a long history of making early adopters its de-facto beta-testing force. I think we’ve all sort of reached the point where we expect Microsoft operating systems to ship with problems.

On the other hand, more than any other time in Microsoft’s recent history, Vista is being released to a growing crowd of skeptics. Genuine alternatives exist for servers (any of a dozen flavors of Linux, Xserve, etc.) and for desktops (OS X Tiger/Leopard, Ubuntu and its cousins) that together make up the most severe challenge Microsoft has faced since it launched Windows two decades ago.

No, Microsoft will not stop being the market leader overnight – there are just too many enterprises held captive by Windows-loyal system administrators and CTOs, and too many people who use computers who are willing to accept a mediocre desktop experience. But today, more than ever, there are a growing number of people who are ready to walk away.

Airbus: White Elephant with Wings

You just don’t have the kind of leeway with large passenger jet aircraft that you do with computer operating systems – the testing had better be done and all of the problems discovered and solved BEFORE the first consumer boards the plane.

Whether Airbus has actually managed to do all of that is literally a life-or-death question, for passengers and aircrews certainly but also for the company. Call me an optimist, I would bet that we’re not going to see these flying behemoths falling from the sky. What I wonder, however, is whether or not the A380 will be a commercial success, or whether they will wind up parked, wing-to-wing, at the various aircraft graveyards at desert airports around the American southwest, discarded for smaller planes less technically impressive but more commercially appropriate.

Make no mistake – 2007 will be a year of living nervously for both companies.