Microsoft Windows 8 Beta Nears, With Challenges Ahead

Microsoft's Windows 8 is prepping for its beta release. The operating system faces significant challenges, but also industry-defining rewards.

Microsoft is prepping for its big moment: the unveiling€”and probable launch€”of the Windows 8 €œConsumer Preview€ (a fancy name for beta) at this year€™s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

Windows 8 faces not one, not two, but three separate challenges in its quest to prove a worthy successor to Windows 7.

The first challenge was created by Windows 7 itself. The successor to the much-maligned Windows Vista, Windows 7 proved a hit with both consumers and businesses, eventually selling hundreds of millions of licenses since its release in late 2009. Coming eight years after the solid-but-aging Windows XP, it satisfied the pent-up demand for a new operating system. With all that in mind, will customers rush out so soon to upgrade to Windows 8?

The second challenge is the tech industry€™s paradigm shift away from traditional PCs and toward mobility devices as the primary computing platform in users€™ lives. In other words, although Windows holds a dominant share of the operating-system market, its competition is no longer primarily Mac OS X; now it needs to push back against Apple€™s iOS and Google Android. With PC sales softening, Microsoft needs Windows on other devices in order to satisfy stockholders and sales numbers.

That bleeds into the third challenge: making Windows a viable competitor on tablets. Microsoft has responded by redesigning Windows from the ground up. Windows 8 users are greeted by a start screen of colorful, touchable tiles linked to applications, which facilitates tablet use. For power users and traditionalists, the desktop interface that defined previous Windows releases is accessible through a single tap or click.

Rumors indicate that Microsoft will enhance the mobility of the Windows 8 ecosystem with Windows Phone 8, a significant upgrade to the current Windows Phone 7.5. In an early February report, the blog paraphrased Windows Phone manager Joe Belfiore (in a leaked, Microsoft-produced video meant for Nokia executives) as saying that Windows Phone 8 will €œuse many of the same components of Windows 8€ and that areas of overlap include €œkernel, networking stacks, security and multimedia support.€ Developers will apparently have the ability to reuse massive chunks of code when €œporting an app from desktop to phone.€

Microsoft executives have already been encouraging third-party developers to build apps for Windows 8, which features an app storefront similar to those offered by Apple and Google. But the creation of a robust, mobile-centric €œWindows 8€ ecosystem spread across everything from tablets and PCs to smartphones would move Microsoft past Apple, which still relies on two separate operating systems for its mobile and PC efforts (with iCloud keeping files in sync between them), and Google, which relies on Android for mobile and Chrome OS for its Chromebook laptops.

As with any enormous leap forward, Microsoft risks plunging right off the proverbial cliff. A unified and integrated ecosystem across a multiplicity of devices would be a hard thing to unwind, if the concept proves a dud with audiences. If Microsoft succeeds, though, it would successfully advance itself in the tech space to the point where even Apple and Google might start to sweat.

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