Microsoft Faces Stiff Challenge To Convert People To Windows 8

A reluctance to upgrade from Windows 7 and a slow start in the tablet market could harm Microsoft’s latest operating system

Just how much of a risk is Microsoft taking with Windows 8?

The answer: a pretty big one.

If Windows 8 indeed arrives at the tail end of 2012, it will be exactly three years since the release of Windows 7. As Microsoft executives like to trumpet on the quarterly earnings calls, Windows 7 has sold hundreds of millions of copies since 2009. In the process, it also earned the critical success that largely eluded its predecessor, the much-maligned Windows Vista.

The problem of upgrading

But that success creates an issue for Microsoft as it seeks to promote this latest operating system: How do you sell satisfied customers on the idea of upgrading so soon?

The answer: You tell them that Windows 8 is uniquely suited to handle the challenges of the tech landscape as it’s evolved over the past three years. That it’s equally suited for tablets and traditional PCs, and that the adjustments to the interface by Microsoft engineers—including significant tweaks to file systems and security—will make lives easier for everyone, from teenagers to power users.

However, that might not prove enough to convince everyone who’s purchased a Windows system within the past two years to shell out the money for Windows 8. Remember that a majority of PC users clung for quite some time to Windows XP, which (thanks to any number of software updates over the years) evolved into a solid workhorse of an operating system. According to Net Applications, it still occupies some 47 per cent of the desktop market, followed by 36 percent for Windows 7. In other words, people don’t easily give up their old OS. This is potentially bad news for Windows 8 if it wants to quickly eclipse its predecessors in overall sales.

Microsoft’s first big push behind Windows 8 might instead center on its usefulness as a tablet operating system—as easy-to-use as an iPad or Android tablet, at least in theory, while also providing the power required for productivity and high-end entertainment.

Indeed, Microsoft is already signaling that it will place Windows 8’s mobility front-and-center in any marketing campaign. Pundits and tech-watchers expect the company to unveil the Windows 8 Consumer Preview (a fancy term for “beta”) at this February’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. And many of the postings on the official Building Windows 8 blog have centered on mobile-centric features such as Windows 8’s app store and support for ARM architecture.

Microsoft the underdog

But while the Windows franchise has enjoyed a relatively unimpeded competitive landscape in desktop and laptop operating systems, handily dominating that segment for many years, it’s the underdog in tablets. Apple’s iPad currently dominates the market, which is crowded with Google Android devices. Microsoft will need to make the case to consumers that its Windows 8 tablets offer something above and beyond those well-tested, deeply-entrenched offerings.

Microsoft executives have spent the past few months encouraging third-party developers to create apps for Windows 8, with the aim of scaling up a healthy ecosystem as quickly as possible. It is also leveraging other Microsoft franchises in the service of making Windows 8 tablets more attractive, at least to those users who want a lightweight productivity tool.

As part of the flurry of details surrounding Windows on ARM (the architecture that will power many of the upcoming tablets), Microsoft let slip that it will support a new version of Office software. “Within the Windows desktop, WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, code-named ‘Office 15,’” Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Live division, wrote in a posting on the corporate Building Windows 8 blog. “WOA will be a no-compromise product for people who want to have the full benefits of familiar Office productivity software and compatibility.”

Will the combination of a big apps ecosystem, Office, and WOA make Windows 8 an instant competitor to the iPad and other tablets? That’s a question that Microsoft wants answered in the affirmative. But it faces a potentially hard battle for adoption, not only on tablets, but traditional PCs as well.