Microsoft Rolls The Dice On Windows 8

Microsoft is gambling Windows 8 can be an operating system for “post-PC” devices such as tablets, says Nicholas Kolakowski.

When Microsoft released Windows 7 in October 2009, the software giant had two very particular goals in mind (aside, of course, from selling a whole lot of copies of its flagship software). The first was to remove the lingering stigma of Windows Vista, which never managed to overcome its early reputation as an unwieldy and bug-ridden operating system, and the second was to wean the public off Windows XP, which was reliable and robust but also nearly 10 years old.

In the end, Microsoft managed to accomplish both those tasks.

However, even as Windows 7 swallowed market share and filled the company’s coffers, the tech industry began to undergo some fundamental changes—a transition, in the words of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, to a “post-PC” world in which tablets and smartphones effectively replace desktops and laptops as users’ primary devices.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, in a series of speeches throughout 2010, assured various audiences that the company was preparing a response to the ultra-popular iPad. It wasn’t until this January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, though, that the nature of Microsoft’s counter-strategy started to take shape to the outside world. There, Windows and Windows Live president Steven Sinofsky took the stage to announce that the next version of Windows would support system-on-a-chip architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments.

That would give Microsoft the ability to port the next version of Windows onto tablets and other mobile form factors powered by ARM offerings.

“Under the hood, there are a ton of differences that need to be worked through,” he told an audience of media representatives and analysts. “Windows has proven remarkably flexible at this under-the-hood sort of stuff.”

At the time, Microsoft executives refrained from offering any actual glimpse of the next Windows in development. That would need to wait until June, when the curtain was finally whipped back from “Windows 8” (Microsoft’s internal code name for the software that is subject to change before the final release, rumored to be sometime in 2012).

Tearing up the Windows rulebook

Whereas previous versions of Windows featured a desktop with folders, paired with a taskbar and “start” button, Windows 8’s user interface is a set of colourful tiles that open applications—a design that draws many of its visual cues from Windows Phone, Microsoft’s latest smartphone operating system. In theory, that will allow Windows 8 to play on everything from desk-bound workstations to the smallest touch-enabled tablet.

“This represents a fundamental shift in Windows design that we haven’t attempted since the days of Windows 95, presenting huge opportunities for our hardware partners to innovate with new PC designs,” Mike Angiulo, corporate vice president of Windows planning, hardware and PC ecosystem, reportedly told the audience during a June 2 demonstration of Windows 8 at the 2011 Computex conference in Taiwan.

Among Windows 8 features are multitasking (including the ability to display two applications side-by-side on the screen), an all-new Internet Explorer 10, support for legacy applications such as Office, and access to a “traditional” Windows file system beneath the all-new interface. The operating system will apparently accept both touch and traditional keyboard-and-mouse input with equal ability.

The big question is how Microsoft will merge the new Windows interface with old-Windows support in ways that are elegant and efficient on all form factors. Given the system requirements for applications such as Office, that may prove a taller order on tablets and other mobile devices with less under-the-hood power than a desktop or laptop. For the moment, Microsoft is remaining quiet on how it intends to deal with some of those larger engineering hurdles.

Indeed, Windows’ radical change in user interface hints at the enormous risks Microsoft is taking by stepping so far outside its traditional Windows comfort zone. By linking its tablet efforts to the next Windows launch, the company risks having any tablet-related snafus negatively affect a well-established brand. On top of that, Microsoft will need to sell Windows 8 to users and businesses that only recently upgraded to Windows 7.

Windows 8 will also face competition on a number of fronts. In the tablet realm, Apple’s iPad continues to dominate the market, which is increasingly crowded with Android-powered devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. In traditional operating systems, Microsoft will go head-to-head against not only Apple’s Mac OS X franchise—whose newest iteration, “Lion,” includes baked-in cloud features and a streamlined user interface—but also Hewlett-Packard’s webOS, which will appear on everything from smartphones and tablets to desktops and laptops.

How Microsoft deals with that competition—and how well it sells Windows 8 as a value-add over Windows 7—will ultimately determine how well customers and businesses respond to the next version of its popular operating system.