Microsoft's tagline for its new Windows 8 operating system is "Windows reimagined." But it's the Windows user that's been "reimagined," too.
Recognizing consumers' growing influence on IT departments and company spending, Microsoft has been shifting its focus from the board room to the living room in an effort to regain ground lost to rivals like Google and Apple, whose smartphones and tablets have in past years proved more adept at creating devices that scratch the consumer's itches.
Microsoft’s coming out party for Windows 8 in New York City on Thursday underscored the company’s focus on enticing consumers to embrace Windows 8 tablets and PCs, as well as the tension Microsoft faces in pitching to both the everyman and the enterprise all in one breath. Microsoft is betting that if parents, students and average Joes snap up Windows 8 computers, companies will follow suit.
“Windows 8 brings together the best of all worlds. It’s the PC and the tablet, your work life and your home life,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at the press conference, while a slide behind him declared Windows 8 a marriage of "work and play."
“Windows 8 helps you do everything and makes it a lot of fun, frankly, to do nothing,” he added.
Though Microsoft has had plenty of practice marketing itself to the average user -- albeit with mixed results -- Windows 8, which will power both PCs and tablets, marks a particular challenge: Of all Microsoft's consumer-facing products, Windows-powered machines makeup the category perhaps most closely associated with offices and conference rooms.
But references to “enterprise” were few and far between at Microsoft’s presentation Thursday. Security features that would be of interest to businesses received several fleeting mentions, while the Redmond giant instead focused on apps, ease of use and social features.
Microsoft's Windows 8 teaser.
Everything was “fast,” “easy” and “beautiful,” and there were even a few references to Windows 8’s “magical” properties, a term so overused by Apple, it’s been all but trademarked by the Cupertino company. Windows executive Julie Larson-Green repeatedly noted how much “fun” it was to use Windows 8.
“Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC really is,” Ballmer said, per Wired’s live blog. “Just look, seriously, just stop and look at all of these gorgeous and gorgeous machines and how alive they all are with activity. You can imagine what your own Windows 8 device will look like and how incredibly personal it will be.”
Excel 2013 got a brief close-up during Microsoft's demonstration, but it was a fraction of the airtime allocated to apps like OpenTable, UrbanSpoon, Wikipedia, Hulu and Jetpack Joyride, which Larson-Green pointedly noted was a favorite of her 12 year-old son -- not your typical executive. Microsoft executives also highlighted the social networking features of Windows 8, encouraging attendees to “imagine a start screen filled with everything and everybody most important to you.”
Microsoft's ability to make Windows 8 hip and desirable to consumers will help determine whether the operating system can sustain its enormous PC market share -- and whether Microsoft's first tablet in ages can dent the iPad's dominance. With Windows powering 91.77 percent of all personal computers, Microsoft still supplies the brains for most users' laptops and desktop computers, both in and out of the office. But PC sales have been soft as more shoppers opt for tablets, and Microsoft's future rests on making inroads in mobile by persuading consumers, in particular, to reach for Windows 8 devices in place of iPads.
To be sure, though it wasn't front and center Thursday, Microsoft is aggressively working the enterprise angle elsewhere.
"Windows 8 gives people the experiences they want while also giving IT departments the enterprise grade solutions they need," a Microsoft spokesperson told The Huffington Post in an email. "Over the past year we’ve met with hundreds of business customers to discuss their Windows 8 plans. From large to small business, customers are telling us that they are planning to adopt Windows 8 for many different reasons -- some are eager to deploy devices that give their employees the convenience of a tablet with the productivity of a PC."For Microsoft's sake, hopefully the tech giant's fun-social-beautiful-easy pitch will resonate more with consumers than it did with reporters. “Excitable talk on stage!” the Wall Street Journal wrote in its live blog. “We're tuning out.”