Windows 8: Making Microsoft cool or a desperate throw of the dice?

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When Windows 8 goes live in October it’ll represent the culmination of Microsoft’s bid to completely change the way people perceive it.

For years now, Microsoft has been the buggy, beige-ridden OS of the masses. But over the past few months, it’s given itself something of a corporate makeover. It announced partnerships with the likes of Nokia and HTC, and launched its own Surface tablet. It also changed its logo for the first time in over two decades and effectively killed hotmail.

Without Windows 8 though, none of that matters. If it doesn’t work, it’ll mean that the Redmond-based giant’s pipe dream of controlling an ecosystem of phones, tablets and PCs will turn into a nightmare. Apple fans around the world will start dancing in the streets.

If however it does work, it could see Microsoft completely kill its Cupertino-based rival in the cool stakes.

That’s probably why tech research company Gartner reckons Microsoft is taking a big gamble over the next few months with Windows and Office, the two products responsible for most of its revenue and profit.

It is a risk, it says, that Microsoft must take to stay relevant in a world where mobile devices with new modern experiences are becoming the norm.

According Michael Silver, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, Microsoft got caught on the back foot when the tablet market started to take off.

“When the PC dominated personal computing by providing a single device for messaging, internet access, gaming and productivity, Windows was a powerhouse for Microsoft. However, smartphones and tablets, led by the iPhone and iPad, have changed the way people work, making the PC just one of several devices people use. The PC is increasingly simply a peer with other devices.”

With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to address the excitement of the tablet market by adding tablet interface to Windows.

“Microsoft’s approach is very different from Apple’s and Google’s, where phones and tablets have much more commonality than PCs and tablets,” says Silver. “This plays to Microsoft’s strength in PCs, leveraging it not only to enter the tablet market, but also to improve its share of the smartphone market.”

It could well work too. As our publisher Matthew Buckland noted back in February “Windows 8, available as a developer preview, is also looking beautiful — and pretty innovative”. Each developer preview since then has been even better looking than the last.

“Windows 8 is not your normal low or even high impact major release of the operating system (OS),” says Steve Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner. “It’s the start of a new era for Microsoft — the RT era — which follows the NT era, which began in 1993 and is just now starting to fade out.”

That said, Garner reckons Windows 8 could see Microsoft battling to keep traction in the business space as organizations like to reduce technology risk by deploying mature, stable, well-supported products. Windows Vista, for example, never gained significant success in corporate environments, and its lack of success — just eight percent of PCs run by Gartner clients ran Vista at its peak — has reduced its useful life as third parties have already started cutting support for it.

In terms of quality, Windows 8 shouldn’t suffer a similar fate. It’s development has been much more thorough, including crowdsourced elements. Unlike Vista, the devices shipping with Windows 8 will also be ready for it.

While there have been suggestions that the Metro-style user interface (UI) on Windows 8 might not be ideal for PC, it’s worth bearing in mind that switching back to the conventional Windows “Start Menu” style UI is relatively simple.

It could also take a while for it to become the de facto OS is the business space:

“Windows 8 has been released to manufacturing and will be formally launched in October, but the reality is that most organisations are still working on eliminating Windows XP and deploying Windows 7,” says Silver. “Organisations will need to decide whether they continue with Windows 7 and or consider Windows 8.”

But if it can capture the same kind of cool it has with the Surface, the new-look Outlook and its logo, then that probably shouldn’t be too much of a worry.

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