8 Questions For Windows 8

on September 13, 2012

“Make no mistake about it, this is the year for Windows,” ~ Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer

Microsoft CEO, Steve Balmer, has declared this “The Year For Windows”. Is he right? Or is that just wishful thinking on his part? Let’s ask ourselves a couple of pertinent questions and see if we can suss this out.

Question #1: Is The Nokia Hardware Special Enough To Kickstart Windows 8?

First, some analysts don’t seem to think so:

“Microsoft still needs to jump start their mobile business,” UBS analyst Brent Thill told MarketWatch. “I’m not sure Nokia is their battery.”

Second, the markets don’t seem to think so either as Nokia’s shares slumped after the announcement of the Lumia 920.

Third, in the short term, the Nokia Lumia 920 is a non-entity. With no price, no ship date and no working models, it’s more vaporware than savior.

Fourth, and most importantly, when it comes to platforms, hardware – even if it’s the best hardware – is not going to be the deciding factor. Remember Betamax v. VHS? Remember the Mac v. the PC? Having the best hardware is a good thing but it’s far from being the DECISIVE thing.

When it comes to computing platforms, developers – not hardware – is where the value is. Hardware is important. Developers are crucial. The Nokia hardware – vaporware though it is – holds great promise. But it’s just an empty promise without Windows 8 platform developers.

Asking Nokia hardware – no matter how good it may be – to save a platform is like asking a swimmer to save a sinking ship. It’s not going to happen.

Nokia’s hardware can’t save Windows 8. It’s the other way around. Windows 8 has to be a success for Nokia’s phones to even stand a chance.

Question #2: Will the “Re-imagined” Microsoft Windows Help Sales Of The Windows Operating System?

“We have re-imagined Windows from the ground up.” ~ Steve Ballmer

It’s true enough that Microsoft has re-imagined Windows from the ground up. But is that a good thing? There are, in my opinion, at least three issues with the “re-imagined” Windows 8.

First, Windows 8 is a wholly unfamiliar user interface and people hate the unfamiliar. This may well slow adoption. Ultimately, I think this understandable reluctance on the part of the consumer can be overcome. Windows 8 may be an acquired taste but, in time, people will get used to it and their initial reluctance to try the operating system will fade and be forgotten.

Second, while Windows 8 for the phone and for Windows RT appear to be wholly consistent user interfaces, Windows 8 for the Intel tablet, notebook and desktop subject their users to two completely different computing experiences.

Advocates of Windows 8 say that this is the best of both worlds. Microsoft argues that “Windows 8 brings together all the power and flexibility you have in your PC today with the ability to immerse yourself in a Metro style experience.”

Critics, however, say that it is not the best of both worlds but an unfortunate collision of two worlds – a disconnected, disjointed and disconcerting experience – a Jekyll and Hyde existence – a computing environment that subjects it’s user to a brain tax at every switch between the desktop and the tablet metaphors.

Who is right? And will this matter in the long run? Today’s partisan rhetoric is so heated that it is almost impossible to tell what is subjective and what is objective. We’ll just have to wait and allow the more casual users to give us the final verdict on this question in their own time.

Third, I think that Microsoft is “re-imagining” Windows for the wrong reasons. Microsoft is not really “re-imagining” Windows so much as they’re hoping to “re-educate” their existing Windows user base. Their goal isn’t to create the best user experience, optimized to the form factor they are using. Far from it.

Microsoft’s goal is to familiarize their desktop users with the “formerly-known-as-Metro” user interface, in the hope that familiarity will breed adoption of their Windows phone, Windows RT and Windows Tablet offerings. This explains why the Windows desktop operating system incorporates so many unnecessary and counter-productive tablet elements.

The “re-imagined” Windows isn’t about what the end user needs, it’s about what Microsoft needs. The end user needs a great user experience. Microsoft needs to have Windows 8 running on every form factor. When the two come into conflict, Microsoft has sacrificed the former in the hopes of achieving the latter.

Achieving a great user experience is hard enough when you’re really, really trying. It’s nigh on impossible to achieve when it is not your primary objective.

Question #3: Will Moving Windows Phone 8 To the Windows Kernel Give Microsoft An Advantage?

Moving Windows 8 Phone to run on the Windows 8 kernel will most certainly make it easier for developers to port their apps between Windows smartphones, tablets and desktops. However, Apple has been running both iOS and OS X on the same kernel since 2008. Android doesn’t even have a divided operating system to begin with.

Moving Windows 8 phone to the Windows 8 kernel is a good move – heck, it’s a great move. But it hardly gives Windows an advantage. It’s more a case of Microsoft finally catching up…after being a full four years behind.

Question #4: Will Microsoft’s Unified Platform Give Them An Edge Over The Competition?

“Perhaps more importantly than anything else, we bring a developer platform and a store that’s common to both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8,” ~ Steve Ballmer

Is Steve Ballmer seriously calling Windows 8 a “common” developer platform?

Windows 8 has a common name. And it has a common initial appearance. But the operation of Windows Phone 8, Windows RT and Windows 8 for tablets, notebooks and desktops is not at all the same. And the code base is not at all the same. And the applications are not at all the same.

Windows 8 is, in fact, three wholly separate, three wholly incompatible, operating systems. And just because Steve Ballmer insist’s on CALLING the three different operating systems by the same name doesn’t make them a “common” platform. Not by a long shot.

Microsoft is pursuing a strategy of taking three wholly different platforms, giving them similar names and similar initial user interfaces and hoping against hope that consumers won’t notice and will consider them to be one and the same thing. This may work in the short run but in the long run it’s bound to create consumer confusion and frustration as users discover that the Apps they have purchased to run on one “Windows” platform won’t run on other “Windows” platforms.

Developers – God bless ’em – won’t be fooled at all. They’ll well know that they have to develop three different versions of the same program no matter how closely the three platforms are named or how closely the three platforms resemble one another in appearance.

Is Windows 8 a “common” developer platform? Not hardly.

Question #5: Will Developers Flock To Windows 8?

“Those devices running Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, I’m quite sure, represent the biggest single opportunity available for software developers today. Four hundred million per year is unrivaled. I’ll bet you that the next app developer to hit it really, really big will be a developer on Windows.” ~ Steve Ballmer

Steve Ballmer is betting that the next app developer to hit it really, really, big will be on Windows. I’m betting that he’s really, really wrong.

Why? When was the last time you heard of something “hot” being developed for Windows? The platform is stagnant and all the action is taking place in mobile.

“That means Lumia … that means Surface … devices introduced in Berlin last week … those devices I’m quite sure represent the largest single opportunity for developers today,” ~ Steve Ballmer

Yeah, only here’s the thing. The developer developing for the Lumia; the developer developing for the Surface, the developer developing for the Windows 8 desktop; that developer will be creating THREE, not one, programs running on THREE separate, look-alike platforms.

Developers don’t care what a platform is called or what it looks like. They have to write the actual code and they will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are writing for three platforms, not one supposedly monolithic platform.

Question #6: Will there be 400 million new devices running the Windows Operating System one year from now?

“One year from now, between Windows phones, Windows tablets and Windows PCs, we’ll see close to … 400 million new devices running those new operating systems.” ~ Steve Ballmer

400 million is one very big number and a nice benchmark by which to measure Windows’ progress. But given the size of the existing Windows PC base, 400 million is certainly doable.

400 million Windows devices sold would be nice – in fact, it would be far more than nice. It would be extremely lucrative for Microsoft. However, if a goodly percentage of those Windows users are not on Windows 8 phones, Windows RT tablets and Windows 8 tablets, then Microsoft will have utterly failed in its Windows 8 mission. Sales of Windows 8 on the desktop will be a short-term financial windfall but a long-term financial disaster for Microsoft. Here’s why.

Fools, knaves and naysayers may not understand the importance of computing’s shift to tablets, but you can be very sure that Microsoft does.

Microsoft desperately needs to migrate their operating system from desktop devices to mobile devices. Microsoft controls the desktop (including notebook) market, but the desktop market has peaked and is starting to decline. All the action, all the growth, all the money is in mobile devices (phones and tablets). In mobile, Windows is nowhere to be found. Even if Windows 8 is an overwhelming success on the desktop, if it is also an underwhelming failure on phones and tablets, then it is a failure for Microsoft, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

Microsoft NEEDS to move to mobile. They need it very badly and they need it right now. We’ll see if Microsoft has 400 million copies of Windows 8 in play by this time next year. But more importantly – MUCH more importantly – we’ll see WHERE those operating systems are located. If Microsoft hasn’t made significant penetration into the phone and tablet space by this time next year (or has rapidly accelerating sales in those areas), then it’s all over but the shouting. Their OS will be trapped on an every shrinking desktop base and Windows will be locked out of the future of personal computing.

Question #7: Can Microsoft Overcome Their Very Late Start?

Windows (smartphone market share) — 5.4 million units, 3.5 percent share (2.3 percent a year earlier) ~ via nbcnews.com

Right now, Microsoft’s Windows 7 for phones is the third horse in a two-horse race. And Microsoft hasn’t even started the race in mobile tablets yet. Windows Phone 7 has excellent hardware but that has not been enough to garner market share. Microsoft believes that they have the better mobile phone operating system but their operating paradigm hasn’t been embraced by mobile phone buyers. Microsoft has an excellent overall mobile phone platform but they can’t seem to attract developers. Despite their very deep pockets and their extensive connections, Microsoft can’t seem to get any traction in the mobile markets at all.

In perhaps the irony of all ironies, Windows 8 now finds itself playing the roll that the Mac played vis a vis Windows in the eighties and ninties. Windows 8 for mobile, like the Mac, is the (subjectively) better platform that no one will buy.

Frankly, Microsoft has no one to blame for this but themselves. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 but Microsoft’s second attempt at re-booting their mobile phone operating system won’t be operable until October of 2012. Apple introduced the iPad in 2010 but Microsoft won’t be introducing Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets until the fall of 2012.

This has often been Microsoft’s pattern. They start so very far behind and think that they can catch up simply by being “better” than the rest. It didn’t work with the Zune. It didn’t work with Windows Phone 7. And it’s unlikely to work with Windows 8 either.

The “best” runner may always win the race but only if he starts the race at the same time as all the other contestants. What good does it do Microsoft to be the “best” runner in a race if they’re starting a full two and a half years behind the pack?

The only way to win a race like that is to stop chasing the leaders and start a new race. That’s what Apple did with the iPhone. There was no way that Apple was going to catch up to Palm, RIM, Nokia and Windows Mobile in Smartphones. So they started a new race in pocket computers instead.

Starting a new race is what Apple did with the iPad too. There was no way that the Mac – considered by many to be the “best” personal computer – was ever going to catch up to PC’s powered by Windows. Apple stopped chasing Windows PCs and they started a new race in touch tablets.

Microsoft needs to stop joining races that are already in progress and start running their own race.

Question #8: Will This Be The Year Of Windows?

“Make no mistake about it, this is the year for Windows,” ~ Steve Ballmer

So is Steve Ballmer right or is he wrong? Will this be the Year of Windows? Or will this be the year that we discover that Windows is likely to ever remain the third of three in mobile computing? Let me put it this way.

Microsoft Windows has had a great fall. Not the hardware, nor the software, nor the kernel, nor the platform, nor the developers, nor 400 million desktop sales, nor all the kings horses and all the king’s men are going to put this operating system on the throne again.

Let’s meet back here in a year from now and see what time hath wrought. It should be fascinating.