Windows 8 will sell millions of copies when Microsoft releases it sometime later in 2012. Those in the market for a new PC will head to their local electronics store and find row after row of laptops and desktops loaded with the operating system. Microsoft will flood the airwaves and Websites with millions of dollars worth of expert, focus-grouped advertising.
But if Windows 8 doesnt succeed on tablets, it will have failed in its core mission: spread the Windows franchise beyond the traditional PC and onto the mobile devices that have increasingly become the center of many users computing lives.
In a bid to capture the mobile device audience, Microsoft made a radical adjustment to the Windows 8 interface. The new start screen features large, colorful tiles linked to applicationsthe better to touch, in the case of tablets. From there, the traditional desktop interface is still accessible via one click or tap.
These touch-centric tweaks are intuitive and user-friendly. Many businesses will certainly appreciate the merging of a lightweight tablet user interface (UI) with traditional Windows functions and support. But will that be enough to persuade consumers to purchase a Windows 8 tablet over, say, an iPad 3 or other touch-screen rival?
At its most reductive, any operating system is just a platform for running applications. In light of that, Windows 8 on tablets will ultimately succeed or fail on the strength of its app ecosystem.
These days, any ecosystem incorporating mobile devices needs a large collection of apps in order to succeed with both consumers and businesses. Google Android and Apples iOS both offer app storefronts with hundreds of thousands of offerings, and both have seen their accompanying devices rack up impressive sales over the past few years. (Granted, Android tablets havent sold nearly as well as Android smartphones, but thats another story entirely.)
Ecosystems without impressive app counts, meanwhile, have suffered on the marketplace. Hewlett-Packards webOS never really had a chance. Research In Motion is racing against time to build at least a starter collection of apps for its upcoming BlackBerry 10, the operating system on which it has pinned hopes for a significant revival.
Microsoft knows what it needs to do in this area. For months, its touted Windows 8 as an ideal platform for third-party developers looking to make some money. In conjunction with the release of the Consumer Preview, Microsoft opened the Windows Store and made a variety of Metro-style apps available to download and try at no cost. The rumor mill suggests that the next major upgrade of its Windows Phone platform, referred to as Windows Phone 8, will rely on the Windows 8 kernel, allowing developers to reuse significant portions of code when transferring apps from desktop to phone, and potentially increasing the stickiness of the ecosystem as a whole.
But, ultimately, itll be up for the developers to create the actual products, and the users to rush for the ones they find most interesting. Microsoft can only hope that Windows long history of big sales will persuade those developers to join the cause.