Microsoft's Windows 8 represents a huge bet for the company-not only in traditional desktops and laptops, but also "post-PC" devices such as tablets.
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
"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).
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 colorful 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
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
Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.