Windows 8 Defines the New Direction of Microsoft

Posted Sunday December 30, 2012 at 10:40:13 pm in Technology

Windows 8 is a lot of things to people. But one thing it definitively is is the new direction of Microsoft. It is revolutionary for the PC industry and at the same time transitional. 

Windows 8 is a transitional OS. It's revolutionary in the sense that it's the first mainstream (full) operating system that aims to usher in a new era of personal computing by making touch a first class citizen in an operating system that isn't hindered by the UI. Remember the days of Windows 7 tablets? Small touchpoints, poor touch response from the various kinds of screens, little (compared to Windows 8) certification/collaboration between Microsoft and the hardware manufacturers, etc. That's what I mean by being hindered by the UI (and the hardware as well).

But it's a necessary move. It's a somewhat risky gamble in that Microsoft is late to the tablet game. But not for lack of effort. If you believe Microsoft, they've been working on a touch centric OS since before the release/announcement of the iPad. Why did it take so long to release?

Well, for one it's Microsoft. They've been becoming more and more agile over the years, but they're still a behemoth of a company requiring a vast amount of divisions to work on Windows. Whether it's collaborative enough or not is a topic for discussion (argument) due to the departure of Steven Sinofsky. Another issue is just the sheer size of Windows and the creation of a new platform (and paradigm) for app development. This means a ton of collaboration between the various divisions. 

But we're talking about what Windows 8 is and not how late to the game Microsoft is.

As said above it's a transitional OS. It's single handedly the most radical release of Windows since (arguably) ever. The transition from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 was a large one. Windows 95 brought about the Start menu that Windows 8 so controversially removed and replaced with the Start screen. It also brought the taskbar. But there were still windows and still a prominent desktop. Let's not also forget about the MS-DOS days where the Windows GUI ran on top of MS-DOS. There was a time where command line aficionados wanted to live in MS-DOS and GUI fans wanted to live in Windows. Sort of a dual environment not unlike Windows 8's Start screen (Windows Runtime) and desktop environments.

But just like Windows 95 ushered in a taskbar, start menu (button), and the like, Windows 8 is ushering in the Start screen that replaces the start menu. This Start screen runs Windows Store apps which run on the Windows Runtime. Ignoring the Charms Bar, search and share contracts, multitasking, and all the other various features that are found throughout the Windows 8 OS, it's important to talk about Windows Store apps.

Much like the App Store found in iOS, Windows Store apps are found in the Windows Store. These apps will most likely be the lifeblood of Windows going forward as Microsoft is making the Start screen the focus of their marketing. And it makes perfect sense. With Windows 8 comes a new breed of PC's:

Touch screen laptops, desktops, all-in-ones, convertibles, tablets, etc.

This isn't Windows 7 with some minor touch functionality. It's an OS that was designed with touch in mind. And with the hope that the devices of the future will all have some form of touch as a source of input.

Some wonder why have the Start screen at all for non-touch enabled devices. The answer to that question can be answered (mostly) with 2 direct answers: Windows 8 is usable with both touch and mouse/keyboard and to create a consistent UI across *all* of these new devices. And I guess a 3rd not so direct answer: to entice developers.

As of September 2012, Apple has sold about 84 million iPads in total. Prior to the release of Windows 7, Microsoft sold 400 million copies of Windows Vista. As of October 2012, Microsoft sold 670 million copies of Windows 7. Vista was widely regarded (somewhat inaccurately and unfairly by the media) as a failure, but it still sold over 400 million copies. Nearly 5 times the number of iPads (as of September 2012). Microsoft sold nearly 8 times the number of iPads with Windows 7. I cite these statistics not to imply that 400 (or even 670) million is the number of Windows 8 licenses that will be sold, but rather to push the benefit of a consistent UI.

Let's make an assumption that Windows 8 will only sell 400 million copies. It took Microsoft 2.75 years to sell 400 million copies of Windows Vista (Vista released on January 30th, 2007 and announced 400 million copies sold on October of 2009). That's a very tough number to ignore for developers. That means apps from the Windows Store will be more front and center. The UI across all devices becomes more popular and accepted by users (Windows Phone, Xbox, Windows, their web presence, etc.). In effect Windows 8 becomes the new Windows 95. A lot of controversy and excitement, but in time the new UI of choice.

It will take time. But let's circle back for a minute. I said above that Windows 8 was a transitional OS. Why do I say that? I think since it's such a radical evolution (reimagining) of Windows, there's bound to be a ton of user feedback once the adoption increases. Some positive, some negative, and some constructive. The ever vocal Paul Thurrott has a series of articles on how to "fix" Windows 8. And they're very good. He's currently on number 5 located here: Fixing Windows 8, Part 5: Built-in Apps. And I think some of them will be addressed. Microsoft is moving to a new iterative approach much like how most mobile OS's are updated (see: a lot more often than Windows in the past). There's already talk of Microsoft releasing the Windows Blue update to Windows 8 sometime in the summer, which is not even a year after the release of Windows 8.

Due to the radical design (and the controversial removal of the Start menu), Windows 8 is receiving quite the varying degree of feedback in the media. Some understand what Windows 8 is and love it or are learning to like it. Others don't even want to give it the time of day even labeling it the next Windows Vista prior to even touching it.

But is it Windows Vista? Windows Vista was largely spurned on initial release (and even to this day especially with the success of Windows 7) due to a quick and aggressive release date that caused a lot of manufacturers not to have up to date drivers. It caused older computers to have problems with devices not working. Eventually upon release of Windows 7, the media/users ended up calling Windows 7 the OS that Vista should have been.

I don't think Windows 8 will be like Windows Vista because of hardware/driver issues. I think it will be like Windows Vista in the sense that it's very polarizing due to how much of a radical shift it really is. People find certain topics to hang on, and the majority of detractors are latching on the removal of the Start button. Some for the transition of the Start screen to the desktop. And others to hidden menus not being intuitive.

It's radical. It's new. It'll take time, but due to having a 90% marketshare it will sell. Some think that MS won't sell as many due to the emergence of the iPad, but if you go by what most people think of the iPad (and tablets in general) in that tablets are supplemental (rather than primary) devices for most; and that tablets still can't reproduce (thoroughly) a complete OS like Windows or OS/X...then we're not living in the Post-PC era quite yet. And by Post-PC I'm strictly talking about desktops/laptops/etc. being the large minority compared to mobile OS's like iOS and Android.

Everyone (including myself) talk about convergence when it comes to technology. Just a few years ago people routinely carried around a point and shoot camera, a GPS unit, and their cell phone. Now (some) people just carry around their cell phone. Look at the iPad. At some point people would have both a desktop and a laptop. Now some people are just carrying around an iPad.  There's convergence happening in the sense that *some* people only need a limited subset of functionality (subset of a full OS) nowadays. But that *some* people is rather small compared to those that still want a laptop/desktop/whatever. This is evidenced by tablets being more supplemental for users as opposed to primary. But does it have to be this way?

Microsoft doesn't think so. And I don't want it to be, either. Hardware is getting to the point where we can have power to run desktop apps whilst still getting superb battery life in a thin and light package that doesn't emit much heat (see: Clover Trail). In the past the Atom word (when it came to processors) was looked down upon. If you say Atom to most technologically savvy people they'll reminisce about netbooks: underpowered and somewhat bulky. But nowadays you currently have a situation where you can have a tablet, desktop, and laptop in a single device. Oh, and all the while having a thin and light package with solid battery life and next to no heat emissions.

It's where Microsoft is going with the Surface. Of course the issue with the Surface RT which runs an ARM processor compared to something like the ATIV Smart PC which runs an Atom processor (Clover Trail) is that the Surface RT doesn't run your traditional 3rd party desktop applications. Microsoft's direction with the Surface RT is to push the idea of a low cost tablet with some PC functionality (runs Office, has a USB port, full access to the file system, etc.). Truth be told Microsoft has been working on porting Windows to ARM for years now with the Longhorn project during the days of Vista. Well, they finally did it. And it's a first step.

But is it is a misstep? It depends. Why go with an ARM processor as opposed to an Atom processor? Cost is one. It could also be that Microsoft settled on the Tegra 3 for the Surface well before the Clover Trail processor was available. They also could have done it to gauge interest in lower cost Windows tablets and to get the idea of  ARM based Windows PC in users' hands for more feedback. Some of the feedback may be: do most users even need desktop apps? Microsoft is hoping that the Windows Store is the preferred location for customers to obtain Windows applications. It could also be to setup smaller PC's a la a Surface Mini or 7" Windows RT devices. All are possibilities. Oh, and can we actually create applications for the desktop in Windows RT? Sure, but Microsoft doesn't allow them to be installed or ran (MS requires a secure digital signing by Microsoft for those apps, so we can compile the apps...just not install/run them [yet]). So that's something Microsoft might eventually concede to. But not yet.

Either way, if the rumours are correct (see my On the Surface article), that point may be moot. We will definitely see the Surface Pro. But there may be an Atom or similar based processor in a Surface down the line. Perhaps something like a line of: Surface RT (ARM), Surface (Atom), Surface Pro (i5), and Surface Book (i5/i7 ultrabook with touchscreen). Oh, and possibly even a Surface Mini (ARM).

So all that being said, it seems like Microsoft's vision is to not only get the "Metro" design language out there on as many devices as possible, but on as many platforms as possible:

  • Xbox
  • The new Xbox (Q4 2013?)
  • Xbox Surface?
  • Windows RT devices (ARM)
  • x86 devices
  • x64 devices
  • Windows Phone

The UI will become the "norm" for Microsoft. It's a unique UI and certainly differentiates it from anything out there. Could Windows 8 be Vista in terms of overall sales? Sure, but even if Microsoft *only* sells 400 million licenses it will have accomplished a goal: to get the UI and the UX in the hands (and desks) of as many people as possible to set it up for their next version of Windows.

That next version of Windows will most likely not have to deal with the same issues Windows 8 is dealing with: being called radical and new and hence having a learning curve for both old and new users. 

But Windows 8 is necessary to get to that next version. And the ride is just beginning. A radical, revolutionary and transitional ride. 

The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer’s view