Windows 8, the recently unveiled operating system from Microsoft, is a huge gamble for the software giant. The followup OS to Windows 7 is split into two different views that exist on the same machine; the user can switch between either at will: First, the mouse-and-keyboard-friendly 'desktop view,' which features that classic Start-bar-and-icons look from Windows past; and second, the touch-friendly 'metro view,' which will run on all future Microsoft tablets and which Microsoft is pushing as the future of Windows and computing.
While Microsoft's software businesses still makes more money than I can count, the fate of its position in the consumer market just might depend on whether or not Windows 8 and its dueling views are a futuristic hit or a junky, clunky flop. With the spectre of America's forceful rejection of Vista (Microsoft's flop of an OS that preceded Windows 7) looming over this latest Windows redesign, Microsoft cannot afford many missteps. In order for Microsoft to avoid a Vistacular repeat failure, it needs to give satisfactory answers to the following make-or-break questions:
1. When is this thing coming out?
There is not even a timeframe for the release of Windows 8 at this point, which is a disappointing roadblock, given that it was displayed with so much flair and excitement earlier in the week. Sure, you can grab the buggy, un-supported developer's beta now, but paying customers hardly have a clue when to expect a final version. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says to expect Windows 8 some time in 2012, with analysis pointing toward the later part of that year. Will all of the enthusiasm have dissolved by then?
2. How much will it cost, and how easy will it be to get?
Mac's Lion OS X--though not the radical overhaul that Windows 8 is from its predecessor--cost $30, took half an hour to install and didn't require any physical media for installation. It really felt like the future of operating system updates, from payment to install method to speed.
With the function and feel of their OS pointing toward the future, will Microsoft's installation, too, be easier, faster and cheaper than it has been? Though it is currently possible to install Windows 7 from the Microsoft website, Microsoft does not recommend it, nor does it give a discount from the $120 it charges for Windows 7 Home Premium.
Might Microsoft change its minds and deliver a fast-acting, CPU-and-wallet friendly digital download for Windows 8 (especially with the bitter taste of Vista still in people's mouths)? And if they don't make any of these concessions to the consumer, will retailers at least wrap the software in packaging that doesn't require box-cutters and a butcher's knife to get open?
3. Can Metro View and Desktop View live side-by-side?
Right now, Windows 8 features both the Desktop view (the classic Windows look with the start bar and icons) and the Metro view (the tablet and touch-friendly look that has grabbed most of the press). Both looks will ship on all versions of Windows 8 for PCs, and users will be able to switch between the two as they like, between the apps built for Metro and the classic apps built for the Desktop.
Early reviews say that, as of now, this doesn't really work. Transitions between Metro and Desktop are clunky and unnatural; the existence of two different user interfaces on a single desktop has some skeptical that Windows 8 ever work smoothly, no matter how much tweaking and graphical smoothing-over Microsoft does between now and the official release.
Microsoft needs to figure this out, and fast. Windows and Windows Live Senior Vice President Steven Sinofsky has said that Windows 8 will not feature "modes": that is, the ability to open "Desktop Mode" or "Metro Mode," and that the team is committed to making Metro view and Desktop view live together in harmony.
If Microsoft can't do this in a visually appealing, easy-to-use way, Windows 8 may very well become Vista 2.0. The defining feature of your OS must not be simply adequate; it has to shine. Critics shouldn't be questioning its very existence on top of its functionality.
4. Is anyone going to design apps for this thing?
On August 31, the Windows Marketplace for Windows Phone hit 30,000 apps. This sounds like a lot of apps until you hear that the Android Market has over 200,000 apps and the iTunes store has over 425,000 apps.
This is for a smartphone operating system, of course, that has less than six percent of total market share, and not a desktop operating system that has somewhere near 90 percent market share among desktop OS's.
At the Build Conference for developers, the Microsoft team touted how easy it was to write code for Metro apps, spending a good hour on the new, apparently coder-friendly Windows Runtime development platform. What would take dozens of lines of codes can now be accomplished in five!--for example.
Did the developers attending (and watching around the world) catch what Microsoft was pitching? The Windows 8 Metro view, and the nascent Windows App Store, would both benefit greatly from a glut of third-party apps; an underpopulated app selection, on the other hand, would certainly tarnish the luster of Windows 8.
5. Will Microsoft be able to sell any tablets?
They are at a huge disadvantage already, with iPads dominating the market and Android tablets slowly creeping upwards across a number of different devices. Microsoft will have to win customers away from those two just like they are going to have to pry away developers. The announcement that Internet Explorer 10 for Windows 8 will not support Flash might be one lure, as Microsoft forwent the notably-absent-from-iPads plugin in favor of improved battery life.
The combination of long battery life, brand recognition, hype and a good user experience might be enough to convince consumers to buy Windows 8 tablets. And if not, then what? With even CEO Ballmer calling Windows Phone sales disappointing, what makes Microsoft think that a similar OS will attract new consumers to their tablets?
6. Will future generations of Apple software be a threat?
Mac released Lion in late July 2011, which means that by the time Windows 8 is ready for a general release, Apple will have had up to 17 months to respond with a new software release. Lion already integrated features of iOS, including several of the most used multitouch gestures and an iOS-lookalike Launchpad for apps; how much farther will they go in their next operating system to try to catch up to Windows' touch-based OS? Or do they want to catch up at all?
One analyst has claimed that iOS and Mac will have completely merged by the end of 2012; could Apple sneak in its own tabletified operating system before Microsoft, steal its thunder and render it late to the touchy-feely party?
7. When will touchscreen PCs become widespread enough to justify a touchscreen OS?
A much-quoted promise by Steven Sinofsky: "The minute you use a touch device with Windows 8, by the time you go back to your laptop, your desktop, you're going to be hitting that screen, and I promise you'll have fingerprints all over your monitor if it doesn't support touch."
Let's ignore the truth value of that statement for now and ask: Who is buying touchscreen PCs? Right now, touchscreen PCs are more expensive than their non-touch counterparts by what appears to be a fairly healthy margin. Will the buying public shell out extra money (during a recession!) for touchscreen capability on their primary desktops? My assumption is that most Americans view touchscreen monitors as luxuries rather than necessities at this point: Can Windows 8 single-handedly change this perception? Or will the price of touchscreen PCs have to drop before they become mainstream?
Tablets are, according to even the most optimistic estimates, are three years away from becoming primary computing devices. For Microsoft to bet on Windows 8 and Metro, it must be fairly confident that either consumers will soon be flocking to touchscreen desktops or that manufacturers will be implementing touchscreen technology on all of their monitors in the coming year.
8. Will businesses use it?
Microsoft's bread-and-butter is in software for Enterprise, where it still dominates Apple to a tune of 90 percent market penetration. Businesses, however, have been very reluctant to update their Windows even to Windows 7: It took until April 2011, or ten years after Windows XP was released, for Windows 7 to overtake Windows XP in terms of total market share.
One of the major knocks on touchscreen devices and tablets is that they are not good productivity devices; without a mouse and physical keyboard, typing is more difficult, using spreadsheets and word processors is more difficult, shooting off a thousand emails and managing dozens of website tabs is slower. Windows 8--especially if all of the emphasis and programming and app development is indeed being done for Metro view--appears to have placed value on a rich user experience over productivity. Though Desktop view will remain on machines, and the classic productivity applications will still function as they did, will businesses be distracted by the commotion surrounding the animations and apps and such and stick with their older versions of Windows?
Check out more of our comprehensive coverage of Windows 8. First, take a look at the best new features that Microsoft plans to roll out with the release of Windows 8. Then see an overview of the tablet-optimized "Metro" side of the OS. And check out how Microsoft's plans for Windows differ from Apple's plans its proprietary desktop OS.