Microsoft's Windows 8 Faces Legacy, Tablet Challenges

Microsoft is betting big on Windows 8's ability to satisfy both tablet and PC users. But the success of Windows 7 and legacy applications offers challenges.

As Microsoft whipped the curtain back for an early look at Windows 8 last week, the size of the company's gamble was immediately apparent. In place of the "traditional" Windows desktop and Start button, Windows 8 offered an array of colorful tiles designed to be equally tablet- and PC-friendly.

"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.

While Windows 8 (Microsoft's internal code name for its upcoming operating system, not necessarily its final moniker) takes some visual cues from Windows Phone-Microsoft's newest smartphone operating system-it offers several robust features, including multitasking (including the ability to display two apps side-by-side on the screen) and an all-new Internet Explorer 10. But even as Microsoft preps Windows 8 to appear on everything from mouse-and-keyboard desktops to touch-centric tablets, it faces some potential challenges.

Legacy Windows

As Microsoft geared up to launch Windows 7 in the latter half of 2009, analysts and pundits chattered fervently over whether consumers and businesses would abandon Windows XP in order to embrace the new platform. It was a logical question: After nearly a decade on people's desktops and laptops, XP had been patched and updated into a trusty warhorse of an operating system, relatively secure and more than capable of meeting any number of needs. Windows Vista, Windows 7's predecessor, had failed to topple XP's place on people's hard drives, largely because it failed to overcome its early reputation as bloated and annoying.

But a decade is also an eternity in the tech world, and many people seemed anxious to abandon XP for something new. Windows 7 ended up selling hundreds of millions of copies, chewing away at the market shares of both XP and Vista.

Windows 8, if it's released as rumored in 2012, won't enjoy the same pent-up demand as Windows 7. In fact, with roughly three years between operating-system releases, Microsoft could face an even harder battle in persuading people to refresh their PCs with Windows 8, especially those users who recently upgraded to Windows 7.

Legacy Applications

In a video released last week, Microsoft demonstrated the current version of Office running on Windows 8. Indeed, legacy-application support seems to be a central tenant of Windows 8; the alternative is alienating decades' worth of customers who depend on their Windows applications for everything from fun to productivity. In addition, Windows 8 will offer access to a "traditional" Windows file system beneath the all-new interface.

The big question is how Microsoft will merge that new-Windows interface and 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 power than a desktop or laptop. But how Microsoft deals with the issue will go a long way toward determining how well customers and businesses respond to Windows 8.

The Tablet Question

Microsoft has emphasized Windows 8's tablet friendliness from day one. During January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft executives demonstrated how the next-generation Windows would support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. ARM architecture powers a lion's share of mobile devices on the market today.

In developing Windows 8 from the ground up for tablets, Microsoft could counter competitive pressure from Apple's iPad and Google Android tablets. That being said, a tablet effort on this scale represents a new area for Microsoft, and by tying those efforts to its do-or-die next Windows launch, it risks having any tablet-related snafus negatively affect a well-established brand.