When it comes to investing in the future of high-tech, I would suggest buying stock in a screen cleaner company.
It's been a slow week for technology news, so most of the attention has focused upon D6 -- the sixth annual All Things Digital Conference being held in Carlsbad, Calif., and hosted by Walter Mossberg and Kara Switzer of The Wall Street Journal.
D6 is rapidly becoming the pre-eminent event for leaders in the tech industry, not least because it's a way to legally cozy up to two of the pre-eminent figures in business journalism without either side being accused of conflict of interest. As such, it has become a very safe venue for companies such as Apple and Microsoft to offer early glimpses of upcoming products.
With Apple staying undercover this year with its new (solar-powered?) iPhone, D6 has turned into a promotional platform for Microsoft, which is desperate to show that it is not as operationally inept and technologically out-of-touch as the world has concluded it is after the endlessly awaited and ultimately disappointing introduction of its Vista operating system.
For all of its geegaws and new market thrusts (remember last year's "table" computer), Microsoft is really a company with just two important products: Windows and Office. They are the company's bread-and-butter, and no matter how many statistics the company hauls out to prove, by sales or units shipped, that Vista is a success -- it was, in fact, a fiasco. The delays in its delivery almost killed the personal computer industry, the finished product proved unreliable (at least that's the public perception -- I, for one, have had no problems) and most of all, at a time when Microsoft was trying to show that it was still a player, still an innovator, Vista was a disappointment: It had far too many shoulda's and oughta's. Microsoft had talked Corvette, but delivered a Caprice.
That makes the next Windows generation -- Windows 7 -- particularly important to Microsoft. Not only does it have to undo some of the PR damage left in the wake of Vista. Just as important, with Bill Gates' pending departure from company operations, Microsoft users (and employees and shareholders) need some evidence that Steve Ballmer can do more than shout and posture. And right now, thanks to Vista and the failed Yahoo takeover, Ballmer's record is looking a little thin on wins.
Thus, Windows 7 -- or at least a first glimpse of one of its features. These previews are a lot like the old Kremlin May Day parades -- analysts would try to figure out the bigger picture by studying the relative positions of the Party leaders on the rostrum and by counting the number of missiles in the parade.
As you've probably read, Microsoft decided to demo the touch-screen feature of Windows 7. Does this mean that Microsoft believes this is the most important new feature in Windows 7? Or the coolest and most visually interesting? Or is it just the one app the company got done in time and decided to use it as the synecdoche for all of the cool new features we'll see when Windows 7 is finally shipped in 2009 -- or, if Vista is any precedent -- 2011.
So, putting aside all the usual humbug, what conclusions can we tease out of what we've now seen of Windows 7? (And don't say you don't care: even if you use a Mac, you have to accept that Windows holds a near monopoly on the personal computing world and thus, like it or not, sets the pace -- or the limiter -- on the entire electronics world.)