Hewlett-Packard created a bit of a stir this week it promoted its PCs by announcing that it was bringing back Windows 7, the operating system that Microsoft replaced nearly a year and a half ago. Despite claims such as “HP really wants people to buy a Windows 7 PC instead of a Windows 8 machine” by The Verge‘s Tom Warren, the promotion was more of a marketing stunt than a retreat from Microsoft’s flagship operating system by one of its most important partners.
Still, HP’s willingness to trade on the perceived unpopularity of Windows 8 is an indication of the steep challenge facing Microsoft as it considers the design the the next versions of windows, which may or may not be called Windows 9 but which is expected to be introduced, in at least preliminary form, at Microsoft’s Build developers’ conference in April.
The Vista challenge. The last time Microsoft faced a somewhat similar challenge was in 2007, after Microsoft released Vista as an overdue replacement for Windows XP. Vista opened to less-than-enthusiastic reviews, made worse by the fact that the launch, the first major update of Windows in more than five years, was heavily hyped by Microsoft.
Vista was not as bad in reality as it is in memory, but it did have some very serious problems. First, Microsoft, as it usually did, grossly understated the hardware requirements. Customers who upgraded older systems faced serious performance issues and even some new machines weren’t up to the job, even though Vista automatically disabled some processor-intense graphics features on slow systems. A lot of user interface features were changed for no apparent reason. And Windows XP’s notoriously promiscuous willingness to install any software it was offered was replaced with a nagging feature called User Account Control that required an administrative password for the simplest of configuration changes. Bottom line: People hated it.
But there were two saving graces for Microsoft in the situation. First, computer users saw no real alternative to Windows. Mac market share was growing, but not so much as to be threatening. The dislike for Vista might cause people to delay PC purchases or to demand machines that could be downgraded to Windows XP (sound familiar?), but the customers weren’t going anywhere.
Superficial problems. The problems of Vista were mainly superficial. Some tuning and upgrades to faster systems, whose prices were falling quickly, took care of performance. The more objectionable user interface issues were fixed and UAC was tamed. Windows 7, released in mid-2009, was a fairly minor reworking of Vista, a fact revealed by its Windows 6.1 internal version number. It was a relatively easy fix and was an immediate critical and popular success.
There is no easy fix for Windows 8. The Windows 8.1 update dealt with some of the most obvious issues: The UI formerly known as Metro is now somewhat more flexible and less space-wasting on big displays, Metro users have less need to run the Desktop, and users of traditional desktop apps on traditional desktops or laptops now get to spend more of their time in the legacy Desktop environment without bouncing out to Metro.
But the vexatious reality is that Windows 8 remains a two-headed operating system that does everything, but nothing well. Apple has wisely understood that the worlds of touch devices and of keyboard-and-pointer devices are separate and irreconcilable. The iPad can’t do everything a Mac and do, the Mac can’t do everything an iPad can do, and Apple and its mostly very happy customers are just fine with that.
Fundamental duality. It would be a major shock if Microsoft announces that Windows 9 will change the fundamental dual nature of Windows. I think Microsoft really should pull the two halves of Windows 8 apart and come out with two operating systems (or at least two user interfaces, not quite the same thing), each optimized for its own usage. Tablets should get a touch interface–son of Metro. Traditional PCs, likely to be the smaller market in the future, need a UI designed to work primarily with a keyboard and a pointing device, and that would probably look more like legacy Windows than Metro.[pullquote]It would be a major shock if Microsoft announces that Windows 9 will change the fundamental dual nature of Windows.[/pullquote]
I’m not convinced there is much of a future for touchscreen notebooks. I have used Windows 8 and 8.1 on both conventional clamshell touch notebooks and convertibles of varied design and I am not convinced that any of them come close to a MacBook. In fact, running Windows on a MacBook is a superior experience to most Windows notebooks because of the superiority of Apple’s touchpad.
The big question is just what will make a Windows 9 tablet an attractive proposition? The answer has to be what Microsoft has always thought it was: Office. Though consumers have learned to live without Office, the productivity suite remains extremely important to business and professional users. Unfortunately, Office 2013, Microsoft’s companion to Windows 8, changed just enough to be annoying to Desktop users while being all but unusable with a purely touch interface. If Office is the big selling point for the Surface (Pro or otherwise), it is also the reason you never see a Surface without a keyboard attached.
Office is the key. The mystery Office for Metro, about which Microsoft has been very, very quiet, is the key to the whole project. If Microsoft can come up with versions of Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint that provide the features users demands while working well on a touch device, it has a chance for a dramatic revival of the franchise. Of course, this is a very difficult thing to do and Microsoft, working in Apple-like secrecy has thus far provided almost no clue about where it is headed.
The Build conference, to be held in enemy territory in San Francisco April 2-4, is looking to be the most important milestone for Microsoft in a long time.