updated 12:15 am EDT, Fri June 3, 2011
Windows 8 may decide Microsoft's fate
When Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer called the new Windows his company's riskiest bet, not many knew what he meant. The reveal of Windows 8 was laying those cards out on the table: it's a belief that tablets will not only be popular but the primary way to compute. We're of the mind that, much like Waterloo in 1815, the stakes are so high that it's an all-or-nothing fight -- and while Microsoft win, Ballmer might also be Napoleon.
It's easy to point to tablets as just secondary devices, either as a replacement for a netbook or as a device beyond even a full-size notebook. In many ways, that's what it is right now; the current leader, the iPad, needs a computer just to get off the ground. But as much as Microsoft has been docked for not seeing the writing on the wall, it may be right to switch over as quickly as it can. When Apple's chief operating officer Tim Cook sees tablets outselling PCs within several years, that's a warning sign that tablets aren't going away and you ignore them at your peril.
And as we all know, Microsoft to some extent already had. Windows 8 has supposedly been in the works since July 2009, virtually as soon as Windows 7 was off to the factories, but it was clear in January 2010 that Microsoft was sincerely caught off guard. We were at Ballmer's CES keynote early that month, and he held up the HP slate as the surefire way to kill what was then Apple's unknown tablet. It was pitched as an ultimate device for the home, but it was really just a netbook without a keyboard or mouse, and after the iPad was made official, it marked a long, slow decline as Microsoft's calls for Windows 7 tablets fell on increasingly deaf ears and companies like HP relegated devices like the Slate 500 to niche users such as insurance claim adjusters.
If Windows 7 has been poisonous to Microsoft-based tablets, then Windows 8 is the antidote. It may be just Windows Phone 7 writ large, but that's a good thing: it's not just touch-native, it's fresh and unique, especially in a desktop land where concepts have remained mostly unchanged since the mid 1990s. It's theoretically the best of both worlds and gives the touch interface you want with the in-depth file systems, multitasking, and processor power you would need from a full computer.
Yet there's the nagging sense that, for all of Microsoft's thunder, it's not the guaranteed success Microsoft wants it to be. Perhaps the most glaring is just that most Windows 8 systems, at least at first, won't be tablets; you'll see the same interface on an eight-core gaming PC with a mouse and keyboard as you will on a 10-inch, Atom-packing slate from a company that normally only makes phones. Many newcomers could like it, but much of the magic could be lost when it's being used on a $499 Best Buy discount notebook. Ballmer's gamble could be wasted by the very bargain-hunting buyers he tried so hard to create.
There's also compatibility, which is at once Microsoft's greatest virtue and its greatest vice. Having access to over a decade of apps and the latest games will reassure frequently stodgy corporate buyers and Call of Duty players, but that will also limit the hardware they can buy; they might never buy a tablet for those reasons, so why move on to Windows 8? And if you get an ARM-based tablet or computer of any kind, you're automatically shedding compatibility; there won't be emulation, so to get iPad-like battery life, you'll be in the same boat as any new tablet owner, rebuilding your app collection from scratch. And it may be a PlayBook owner without real app choices, not an iPad owner.
Plus, simply speaking, there's the time factor. Microsoft often likes to telegraph its moves in advance and needed to for developers to get onboard, but Windows 8 likely won't ship until late 2012. That's almost a year and a half away. In the mobile world, that's two generations off. Microsoft can crow about features now, but the iPad and its rivals aren't standing still. Apple will be shipping iOS 6 by the time we're talking about Windows 8 tablets, and while it may not equal a desktop OS for power at that stage, it could easily be a different beast.
As such, Windows 8 may well be an instance of doing everything right and going nowhere. We're seeing a much-needed rethink of computer interfaces and a much better platform for tablets than what Microsoft has offered in the past. Even so, the company is charging into a possible Waterloo against several opponents that individually wouldn't mean much but together could be fatal. The most serious Windows users don't have a need for what Windows 8 is bringing; the more mainstream users might not care or might have already bought an iPad or a Galaxy Tab by the time it's ready. And of course, Microsoft's marketing is notorious for being ineffective even when it's creative; can it even get the message out?
Ballmer has usually been a good steward of Windows and Office, but it will be a very different world in 2012 than it was in 2002 or even 2009. The same could be said for Napoleon: he was a strong leader for much of his career and even had his chance at Waterloo, but the sheer number of factors -- not all of which he could have predicted or controlled -- eventually dragged him down, and he never recovered. As much as Windows 8 could very well succeed, there's enough pressure on all sides that a failure here could leave Ballmer and Microsoft with a gradual decline they couldn't escape from. Hopefully, that doesn't include exile.