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Why Windows 8 is Microsoft’s most vital launch in years

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Microsoft Windows (s MSFT) was a fact of life for an entire generation raised on the PC. But we live in a different world now, and perhaps nothing underscores how much that world has changed more than the fact that the version of Windows that Microsoft is getting ready to launch this year is its most important product launch in decadeWindows 8 Start Screens.

It has been 17 years since the general public was genuinely excited by a new version of Windows: people actually lined up to buy Windows 95 like it was the iPhone (s AAPL) or something. Years of meandering followed: Windows ME was a joke, Windows XP was an updated but essentially similar experience to Windows 95, Windows Vista was an attempt to correct XP’s security issues but turned into a joke of its own, and Windows 7 was what Vista should have been yet failed to inspire. In the meantime, Apple and Google (s GOOG) captured the attention of software developers and the public with mobile computers built around iOS and Android.

But Windows 8 is going to be different. Tomorrow morning in Barcelona (at a telecom industry conference, of all things) Microsoft is going to unveil the Consumer Preview Edition of Windows 8, and if it arrives on schedule and without incident later this year, it could accelerate the world’s transition toward a mobile-first vision of general purpose computing.

Windows 8 is a huge development for Microsoft in several ways:

  • The Windows user experience has been radically overhauled with the Metro user interface, which has been a critically acclaimed (if not revenue-generating) part of the Windows Phone design. Metro will be unfamiliar to the millions raised on the concept of the “Start” button (now the Windows logo button on Windows 7) in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, but it allows Microsoft to embrace a new era of computing that is more and more about the touch screen.
  • Microsoft developed a version of Windows 8 for ARM processors, a chip brand unfamiliar to most average computer users but which is at the heart of nearly every single smartphone and tablet sold over the last several years. Even though Intel seems to have finally gotten its act together in the power-sensitive mobile space, ARM is an industry standard for mobile processing and will allow PC companies like HP to build power-efficient tablets in hopes of competing with the iPad.
  • Microsoft has always had a big problem: introducing radical new changes in Windows breaks a lot of business applications that were built for previous versions, which has led the company to move slowly through transitional periods. Windows 8 represents one of the biggest leaps forward for mainstream Windows developers in what seems like forever, but Microsoft had no choice but to include a “Desktop” user interface version of Windows 8 that will run old applications. The transition between Metro and Desktop could be jarring, and conservative support for Metro may not expose as many Windows 8 users as possible to the best parts of Windows 8.
  • Applications written for the Metro user interface will be sold through the Windows Store, as opposed to the more traditional shrink-wrapped or downloadable software sold for Windows. Sharing revenue with Microsoft will be a new experience for the Windows development community, although it’s established practice for iOS developers and Microsoft will actually take a smaller cut than Apple once an app’s revenue passes $25,000.

The traditional PC isn’t going anywhere just yet, but just ask HP (s HPQ) and Dell: (s DELL) nor is it in good shape. Wednesday could be the first day when we realize whether or not Windows 8 can be a product that allows the traditional PC industry to refocus itself around both traditional PCs in lighter forms as well as iPad competitors.

The stakes for Microsoft are enormous. The company largely subsists on two cash cows: Windows and Office, and Windows sales are under pressure with the slow decline of the PC market.

But there’s also an existential crisis at hand for Microsoft. It defined personal computing in the years after Apple lost its way in the 1980s, and now that Apple is very much back in that role Microsoft desperately wants to remind the world that it is capable of setting a new bar for personal computing.

After getting a few glimpses of Windows 8, the tech industry started wondering if Microsoft has finally come up with something unique. Come Wednesday, when enthusiasts can begin to put the software through the paces, we’ll start to get a better idea of whether Microsoft is ready for a new era.

36 Responses to “Why Windows 8 is Microsoft’s most vital launch in years”

  1. Devin

    It’s weird that some people see touch interfaces as a step ahead when it is very clearly a step back. Just because they touched the screens on star trek doesn’t mean it is the way of the future. Touch technology is actually quite old and the reason it never came into main stream is because it is ghetto. The mouse is a much more advanced, civilized, and easier way to manipulate programs. Why would i palm a screen liek some kind of small child or caveman when i can “touch” it digitally with small hand gestures that easily, quickly, and gracefully perform the same function. Even though I still think touch interface is ghetto, at least it half makes sense on mobile devices. Who sits at their desktop in a way that they can reach out and touch the screen? That would be retarded. I would laugh for hours just watching someone try to use a computer like that. This bizarre quasi-futurist push toward touch interface is nothing more than a fad. Soon the novelty will wear off and people will realize that it just makes any device really freaking hard to use, and sloppy as hell. I’ll stick with being able to pin point a single pixel in one microsecond with the slightest of hand gestures from the comfort of my chair, feel free to poke at some little screen like a caveman, smudging the screen while you mistakenly keep pressing the wrong link over and over again.

    Man Windows 8 is going to fail so badly. Epic fail.

  2. I think that MS will wipe Android from Tablets that are bigger than ~7″. Less than ~7″ is pocketable and mobile. Above that size are devices that can be used for productivity use-cases.
    Those are much more closer to desktop. MS can eliminate an Android presence there. And rightfully so. If Google wasn’t as busy as it was so far doing a parallel dev for Android and ChromeOS, they might have been ahead of the curve. Alas they only woke up recently and MS will have the better integration.

  3. Hiram Bertoch

    “allow PC companies like HP to build power-efficient tablets in hopes of competing with the iPad.”

    This sentence is funny. Still comparing everything to iOS even though Android activates more devices in a day, than iOS does in two weeks. I like both os’s but I like the media’s gullibility even more. It is funny to observe.

    • Andre Goulet

      And iOS makes 75% of the profit for Apple and by far the most money for devs, so where do you think the real battle is going to be? HP doesn’t want to be profitless like all the other Android makers, they want to make a decent profit like Apple does. So, who do you think they will target?

  4. Lexi Heigh

    The iPad and other tablets are horrible for a lot of very useful work. I have no intention of using the metro interface on my 27″ screen. However, if I grab my tablet and go, I’d like my apps to transmorph into metro interfaces. The reset of us are busy laughing at these stuipid articles about how the world has changed. It hasn’t. It’s a little cooler – a little prettier with ipad around, but for me, it’s a convienient web surfing device………more details:-

    • Arvin Alba

      For some reason, this actually made me smile – so now the spammers, realizing that their old comments are irrelevant, decided to copy paste snippets of the comments of other commenters?

  5. It’s Microsoft’s most vital launch in years, in part because it’s Microsoft’s *first* launch in years. As the article points out, they’ve only had 2 major-version OS releases in the past 10 years.

  6. Just as with Bing, Silverlight, that phone they discontinued, etc., etc., MS just got to the pier and the ship already sailed. You’ll know they’re really dying when corporations ditch Office and the OS configurations. That will be the beginning of the end.

  7. Windows 8 will suck because of Microsoft’s history of alternating suckiness in OS releases. Proof: 95 (good), ME (sucked), XP (good), Vista (sucked), 7 (good), 8 (will suck).

  8. Apple is just short of being a 500B company, based on consumer. Where to go next to avoid the feedback loops of the law of large numbers? Spreadsheets, Docs … enterprise?
    If the Mercedes announcement is true then they already will go head to head in another consumer area with some licensing? Steve Jobs might not have liked it or enterprise, doesn’t mean it will not be done by the new leaders.
    Hey Lexus with your mouse driven interface pay attention the kids will think that’s the equivalent of a rotary phone.

  9. Good grief – another stupid, uninformed article about the pretty (and pretty useless) ipad device. Does windows have a fighting chance? Of course not – because we will all be running our accounting systems, CRM, data analytics, router management, and office productivity on a ipad. News flash – the world has changed for 3% of users. The reset of us are busy laughing at these stuipid articles about how the world has changed. It hasn’t. It’s a little cooler – a little prettier with ipad around, but for me, it’s a convienient web surfing device. Real software is not web based for the most part, so it’s an extremely limited device, but I’ve got one – it’s cool, but I don’t do anything other than read these stupid articles on it. BTW, This comment was typed on a real keyboard on my Dell E6520 laptop – not my ipad.

    • Andre Goulet

      Wow, don’t get out much, do you? Have you been to the average office lately? Not much love for Windows there… there’s a world of change going on, none of which benefits MS. 95% of my requests are for non-Windows devices. Other than where we have no choice but to keep Windows, for now, almost everyone wants anything from EEEPad Transformers to iPads to MacBooks to iMacs. Out of roughly 500 users that I take care of, I’ve had exactly 1 person that wanted to stay with Windows. And she wanted an Ultrabook. 1.

      • “95% of my requests are for non-Windows devices.”

        Except 95% of the worlds computer owners use Windows…so either other devices need more support, or you don’t live on earth.

    • Jimmy, jimmy, Jimmy. It ain’t cool to drool in the land of envy. Come out from the dark and join the Bright Side.

      And, on the brighter side of things, another thoughtful article that gives pause to the thinkers amongst us.

  10. I don’t think it’s all in. Since both interfaces will persist, the challenge will simply be for Microsoft and developers to integrate the two together. The iPad and other tablets are horrible for a lot of very useful work. I have no intention of using the metro interface on my 27″ screen. However, if I grab my tablet and go, I’d like my apps to transmorph into metro interfaces. However, at the office, as long as our various VPN, ERP, and MIS systems softwares continue to work on it, it’ll be in the upgrade pipeline.

  11. At least Microsoft flipped the script. Previously, pundits complained that Windows was terrible for mobile devices. Now, pundits are wondering if Windows will work on the desktop! This is definitely an “all in” poker move.