Sink or Swim: Microsoft’s Chance for Rebirth with Windows 8

Microsoft is now facing an uphill battle to redefine itself in a market consumed by mobile devices and tablets.  The Redmond giant has come under fire from a new consumer business focused on apps, unified platforms, and computers in ever-smaller sizes.  As the consumer side of the equation changes, Microsoft is also seeing its enterprise business chipped away by competitors, namely Apple.

Unfortunately, this is not the market Microsoft dominated when it released its previous operating systems, with Apple’s new iPad selling over 3 million units within 3 days of its March 16 launch.  We’re now a few weeks out from the release of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview; Microsoft’s chance to show users that it can adapt and refine Windows into a brand-new platform to rival Apple’s iOS juggernaut.

So, where is Microsoft going to feel the fight to prove it can compete?

Can’t Touch This

If you’re reading this on your desktop, put your finger on your monitor and scroll down the article a bit.

Nothing happening?

That’s because you’re probably not using a touchscreen-based monitor. A large number of Windows 7’s 525 million licensees don’t have a working touchscreen on their desktop of choice.

A random Metro app.

Metro apps love to be touched.

After playing with the Consumer Preview for Windows 8, it becomes clear that while a keyboard and mouse are usable inputs, the many of the new OS features are built for touchscreens.  Metro is built completely for touch and while trying to navigate the Start Menu, Windows Store, and Metro apps works on a keyboard and mouse, it never comes across as optimum.  There’s always that feeling that it would be easier if you could touch your hand to your monitor and swipe left or right.

Microsoft has to convince users with existing hardware running Windows 7 to either deal with Windows 8’s keyboard and mouse controls, or upgrade to brand-new hardware.  Option 1 has consumers dealing with a non-optimal interface, while Option 2 requires a significant consumer expense.  Good for hardware manufacturers, bad for consumers.  A touchscreen monitor runs $100 or more compared to a regular LCD of similar size, leading a user to wonder if the purchase of a new OS and monitor is worth it.

Microsoft is hoping that tablets will be the entryway for consumers into the Windows 8 ecosystem, with desktop purchases following later.  But what gets users to pick up tablets?

Apps, Apps, Apps

Everyone loves “apps”.  Small applications focused on one or two simple tasks instead of the large suites of Windows-based programs that make up what you find on the shelves of your local Best Buy. 

Admittedly, these types of programs were available on your Windows OS prior to the popularization of apps, but Apple’s business model means that they’re all available from a single source.  Apple’s App Store traded an open market of millions of applications for thousands of apps from a trusted marketplace. For many consumers, it’s the preferred option.

With the Windows Store bundled with Windows 8, Microsoft makes a move on the app store market already crowded by competitors.   As of this writing, Apple’s App Store has somewhere over 550,000 apps, Google’s Android Market clocks in at 450,000 apps, and even Amazon’s Appstore for Android sits at around 31,000 apps

These app stores and the platforms they’re tied to already have millions of users, and Microsoft has to convince these consumers to switch from where they are now and leave behind any apps they’ve already purchased.

The Windows 9 Store

Microsoft's chance to reach the app-loving consumer.

Microsoft is hoping to draw in users with its “Windows Everywhere” strategy:  take your work and play with you wherever you go.  Draft a presentation on your Windows 8 desktop at work; make collaborative notes on it with your Windows Phone; use your Windows 8 tablet to juggle pages around on your couch; and finish it all up at your home computer.

It’s a compelling story… if it works.  First, it requires a users to completely buy into the Windows 8 ecosystem with the entire product line.  Second, it also relies heavily on developers to make sure their apps play well with each other on various hardware devices. Developers who prefer Apple’s simple lineup of products.

Unlike classic Windows or current Android, Apple’s simplified product line takes a lot of the hassle out of development.  Instead of worrying about 12 screen sizes or 15 resolutions, iOS developers only have to worry about two or three.  Developers can be assured that iOS 5.0 users have one or more of a few devices, making tweaks to UI and graphics simple. 

This is the part of the reason Android took a while to get up to speed: coding for a wide variety of devices and OS versions is time-consuming and tedious.  They even have a name for the phenomenon Android faces: fragmentation.

Microsoft is working with Nvidia, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Intel on Windows 8-ready chipsets, and that’s before you even get to the manufacturers actually putting devices in consumers’ hands.  Samsung, Dell, Nokia, Asus, and others are all going to try to differentiate themselves by building completely different hardware. 

Unless Microsoft steps in and sets a minimum hardware spec for manufacturers to stick with, like it has with Windows Phone 7, it could repeat the problems that plague Android development.

Microsoft's Recommended Screen Resolutions for Apps

More resolutions, more complexity for developers.

Revolution, Not Evolution… Eventually

Metro is a large shift for Microsoft, not an evolution like Windows 7’s Aero or the Windows UI schemes before it.  The simple, vector-based Start Menu leads windowless, minimalist apps that feature simple typography.  The change is drastic and only becomes more jarring if you have to switch to the Desktop app to use “legacy” Windows applications.

Some Windows enthusiasts absolutely hate it.

To reach new consumers with Metro, while keeping the familiar look of Windows 7 around for existing users, Windows 8 comes across as sort of a Jekyll and Hyde operating system.  Metro-style Windows 8 excels in a touch-only environment, while legacy-style applications work better with keyboard and mouse.

Can existing Windows 7 users adapt to Metro occasionally intruding upon their classic workspace?  Do new Windows 8 users really ever want to see the old desktop? Metro is where Microsoft wants to go in the future, and Windows 8 is half-step transition towards that end-game.  Can Microsoft convince Windows 7 users, iOS users, Android users, and new consumers to gamble on and pay for a half-step?

Fingers Crossed

The Consumer Preview released in February is far beyond the Developer Preview released on September of last year, so it possible that Microsoft could correct many of these issues before Windows 8’s rumored October 2012 release window.  The company needs to tighten its belt and a release a solid product to gain some ground on Apple and Google.  Microsoft can’t stumble on this one like they have on some operating systems in the past (Windows ME and Vista come to mind).

Depending on what Microsoft does, Windows 8 could be the beginning of a slow decline or a magnificent rebirth.