Windows 8: Back To The Future

on October 26, 2012

[dc]D[/dc]ue to scheduling conflicts I could not be in NYC yesterday for the Windows 8 launch but watched it intently as it was streamed around the world from Microsoft’s Web site. But what I saw was both impressive as well as confounding for many reasons.

Let me start with the confounding issue first. Once Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage with his bubbly personality, he expressed “excitement” about Windows 8 and he was right to do that. Windows 8 will always be known as the version of Windows that ushered in the age of the touch UI to the Windows world. And just as Windows 95 solidified the GUI in PC users mind, Windows 8 will burn into people’s conscience the fact that touch should be a key addition to the Windows User Interface. And before he spoke, other Microsoft executives showed off a plethora of laptops, all-in-one touch PCs as well as tablets that are already touch enabled so they can take full advantage of Windows 8 touch features.

But as I listened to Steve Ballmer speak, I could not help but think that his message was one of “welcome to the past” instead of “welcome to the future.” We all pretty much know that we are well into the post PC era and demand for traditional PCs are stable, stalled, or even in decline in many areas of the world. In fact, while we still expect to see between 300-350 million P’s sold WW annually for a few more years, the hard fact is that traditional PC vendors are having a tough time making any money on PCs anymore and some of them may get out of the consumer PC business completely in the next 12-24 months.

Smartphones and tablets are quickly supplanting a need for a full-fledged PC. User surveys show that tablets especially can handle as much as 80% of the tasks they used to do on a PC and that consumers are spending less time on their PC than before. This is not good news for the PC vendors as well as Microsoft and Intel. As more customers are ushered into the world of tablets by cheaper models from Amazon and Google, as well as Apple’s new entry into smaller tablets with the iPad mini, tablet unit shipments will outnumber the amount of PCs sold annually WW by 2015.

We also sell 1.4 billion cell phones a year and by 2013, 65% of the cell phones sold in the US will be smartphones. And by 2015, 60% of all cell phones sold WW will be smartphones. In fact, instead of the post PC era being used to describe where we are today, a more accurate terminology could be that we are finally entering the age of truly personal mobile computing, with smartphones and tablets leading the way.

But I also viewed the Windows 8 event as impressive and important due to the demand for new traditional PCs will stay stable or decline, there are well over 700 million PCs still in use today and Windows 8 represents an important step or bridge to the future of PC UIs and the role touch will play in these devices. Also, millions of PC customers are already familiar with touch through their purchases of tablets and smartphones, Windows 8 has to be considered an important evolution of the graphical user interface for existing and new PCs and laptops.

While I view Windows 8 as important, the one area that I think it will have its greatest impact in will be with devices that are truly touch enabled. This includes new hybrids or combo laptops and tablets that can take full advantage of Windows 8’s new touch interface. However, I am less confident it will be a huge success with existing PCs where the only input is a mouse or a touchpad. Current input devices were not designed with touch in mind and therefore do a rather poor job with navigating through a rich touch based user experience. The exception to this may be when Synaptics’ new ForcePad is installed in new laptops. This is a trackpad that maps the touch UI interface and mirrors some of the touch UI features through this innovative new trackpad optimized for Windows 8. Apple does this already with their Magic Trackpad. Interestingly, Apple does not believe their laptops or desktops should be touch enabled as they view the use of the hand or finger having to move from keyboard to screen as an unnatural way to navigate these types of devices.

There is also another key issue that may keep Windows 8 from being adopted faster and that is the added cost of laptops that sport touchscreens. At the moment, putting a touch screen on a laptop adds about $150-$200 to the cost of the laptop. That is why we still see most of the laptops sold at least through 2014 having non-touch based screens as consumers are inclined to buy on price instead of features in most cases.

While I see Windows 8 working well with touch based devices and see it having a harder time being adopted by users whose laptop or desktop is not touch enabled, Still, Windows 8 will be important to the collective PC market today. And it represents the next major evolution of the user interface for PCs, even if the market for PCs will not be a major growth market in the future.