What does Windows 8 have to do to succeed?

Following up from my previous post on why Windows 8 is so important I wanted to speculate on what we’ll see next week, or rather what we have to see in order to believe that Microsoft can succeed.  First we’ll talk about Microsoft’s strengths and weaknesses and how they need to exploit and/or correct them.  Then we’ll talk about the key characteristics of the (general purpose) NUI OS world.  And finally we’ll talk about a few key Windows 8 things we need to see.

Microsoft has two big strengths that they really need to exploit in order to make Windows 8 succeed.  The first is their classic strength around being a multi-vendor platform.  They need to get a large number of hardware manufacturers creating a substantial number of differentiated and interesting devices and pushing them heavily through all available channels (web/mail order, retail, distribution, direct corporate sales, etc.).    This is a key strength against Apple, though if done poorly (as with Vista) can turn into a key weakness.  They have to give the OEMs a lot of freedom to innovate and differentiate on hardware, but they have to keep enough control to make sure the OEMs don’t create devices that show off Windows 8 poorly.  This is something that the Windows Phone 7  guys addressed with their very restrictive “Chassis” definition.  Windows 8 can’t be as restrictive as Windows Phone 7, but they need to make some attempt to keep things from turning into the wild wild west.  Talking about the channel front a bit, this is where I think Android has stumbled in the tablet space.  Android Tablet manufacturers tied themselves too closely to the mobile phone sales channels, making it difficult for customers to find and purchase appropriate devices.  For example, for a long time Best Buy kept Android tablets displayed in a back corner of their mobile phone area.  This made them hard to find, and hard to find expertise to help you with them.  Or I know someone who wanted a WiFi-only Samsung Galaxy Tab.  Samsung withheld this device for many months in favor of 3G-enabled devices that you could only buy with 3G service.  Finally my friend gave up waiting and purchased a WiFi-only iPad.  Microsoft has well-developed channels in both the PC and Mobile spaces, with vendors like Dell able to work magic in the PC distribution space (even though it has bombed in the Mobile Phone distribution space).  If Samsung, Toshiba, and others use both their PC and Mobile businesses to create and sell Windows 8 tablets then Microsoft has a huge advantage over Apple or Android.

The second strength Microsoft has is the one that really has differentiated the target end-user successes of Microsoft and Apple over the years.  Apple targets multi-media consumption (and creation with the Mac) while Microsoft targets the Information Worker.  If Microsoft pulls off the trick of being truly competitive with Apple for consumption-oriented users while being the clear offering of choice for Information Workers, then it can recreate the success it had with Windows 3.0 and beyond in the new world.  And Microsoft brings many advantages to the table in trying to do this.  For example, the ability of a Windows 8 tablet to join an Enterprises’ Domain (and have all its management and security benefits) would immediately make Windows 8 the tablet favored by Corporate IT (including the Chief Information Security Officer) for all internal use.  But this won’t matter if end-users don’t love the devices, so Microsoft can’t count on Domains to overcome a weak end-user experience.  But if the end-user is excited about Windows 8, this becomes a huge differentiating feature.  Another factor will be how seriously Microsoft’s other products, particularly Office, embrace Windows 8 tablets.  Everyone of my friends and family who has switched to the Mac has also run Microsoft Office for Mac on them.  Imagine now that a full-fledged version of Microsoft Office (including Outlook) comes out that is fully usable on Windows 8 Tablets; suddenly carrying just a tablet with you on business trips becomes a real option.  So Microsoft has a lot to bring to the table, and bring it they must!

One more strength is Microsoft’s view of Windows as a general purpose platform.  Whereas Apple has been somewhat hostile to third-party e-book readers (e.g., they won’t let them actually sell you a book through their app) Microsoft is more likely to be telling Amazon et al  “Please come make Windows 8 Tablets the best e-book readers on the market; what more can we do to help you succeed?”  That attitude, spread across the entire application space, could be a huge advantage.

A final strength?  That docking station that turns your iPad into a Mac replacement I mentioned?  That could be a truly trivial thing for a Microsoft OEM to do with Windows 8.

I’ve already alluded to one weakness, that the same ecosystem that is such a strength can kill you by producing bad products.  Or by ignoring you.  One of the problems Microsoft initially had with Windows was that its ecosystem (e.g., Lotus) wasn’t developing for it.   Windows 8 has to be exciting enough that the ecosystem clearly favors it over Android.

Another weakness is Windows bloat.  This one has probably caused more advanced criticism about the idea of a Windows 8 tablet than anything else.  It is usually couched in terms of “why would you want something as bloated as Windows on a tablet”?  But then people forget that IOS is a reworked Mac OS.  So the real question is, has Microsoft reworked Windows sufficiently so that a Windows 8 tablet doesn’t suffer from Windows overall bloat?  There are promising signs.  In Windows 7 Microsoft introduced MinWin (part of a multi-version restructuring cleanup they’ve had underway) as well as made changes that allowed many services to not be started until they were needed.   Windows 7 was the first version of Windows to run well on smaller hardware configurations than its predecessor.  Assuming they’ve continued to invest in this restructuring work it would be easy to see how they could keep bloat from killing the Windows 8 tablet experience.  Even a recent reveal, that Windows 8 COLD boot time may be as low as 8 seconds, is evidence that Windows 8 is lean enough for tablets rather than suffering from the bloat we became accustomed to a decade ago.  But still, until we see otherwise most people will continue to worry that Windows is too bloated for tablets.

Another weakness is that from an end-user perspective Windows has been way too non-prescriptive and confusing as a platform compared to IOS.  For example, media experiences are spread across Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, Zune, Silverlight, Flash, HTML5 and others.    While Windows 8 will no doubt continue to support all of these (and Windows 8 tablets most of them), is there a clear primary streaming media story for Windows 8 tablets?   This is a space where for decades Apple has really shined and Microsoft has continually shot itself in the foot.  Microsoft has no more toes to blow off and needs to have a clear preferred experience, in this area and in many others, to gain the consumer love that Apple currently enjoys.  And yes, I do realize that I’ve made openness of the platform both a strength and weakness.  One that Microsoft will have to navigate carefully.

Lastly I’ll mention “3 screens and a cloud” as both a strength and weakness for Microsoft.  Microsoft has talked about this for many years, but to date hasn’t shown much in terms of their offerings.  The 3 screens references the PC (which would include tablets), the phone, and the TV.  Unifying these can be a critical advantage for Microsoft, or an achilles heal.  If we see more unification around Windows 8 it becomes a powerful advantage.  If not, Apple (and Google) are pursuing their own “3 screens and a cloud” strategies that will eclipse Microsoft.  Fortunately there are both hard signs (e.g., XBox Live on Windows Phone 7) and many rumors that suggest Microsoft is finally getting its act together in this space.  Hopefully BUILD will offer us some more evidence this is true.

Ok, so what are the key elements that we now associate with a NUI environment that Microsoft must address?  The first is the most obvious, which is a modern visual and interactive style that takes advantage of TOUCH and GESTURES as the primary interaction method.  This must extend throughout (e.g., you can’t have people trying to touch little X boxes to close things or drag scroll bars as you would do with a pointer; either at the OS or app level).  One of my test experiences playing with a Windows 7 tablet was the NY Times Newsreader App.  On my iPad I just swipe to go to the next page.  On a Windows 7 tablet I have to find and tap (nee click) on an arrow to go to the next page.  On a Windows 8 tablet just swiping has to work.  Incorporation of voice recognition, use of the camera and other sensors, etc. are all pluses that Microsoft can (must?) use to differentiate.  Microsoft has good enough voice recognition to do free form speech-to-text.  Will we see that finally achieve widespread usage in a Windows 8 tablet?  Will Microsoft, or its OEMs, build support around Window 8 for virtual projected keyboards?   Or 3D video conferencing?  Or….

A second element is a more locked down application environment.  You may recall that apps were dead prior to the introduction of the second version of IOS and the App Store.  This was because Windows (and Mac OS and Linux and…) had such a wild west attitude towards applications that they made systems unreliable, slow, and non-secure.  Phrases like “DLL Hell” may still ring a bell.  And certainly you’ve experienced the inability to fully uninstall an application.  Any modern OS has to have an application model that can be sandboxed for reliability and security, can install apps simply and quickly, can uninstall apps just as simple and quickly, and doesn’t have side effects on unrelated apps.  Windows 8 must have such an app model or the end-user experience will suffer greatly compared to IOS.  In fact, the existence (and enforcement?) of such a model would do a great deal to eliminate most of the major issues that Windows has suffered over the last 20 years.

An “app store”.  Apps have been around forever.  But until the iPhone’s App Store came out there was no easy way to find them, know they weren’t laced with malware, know they weren’t likely to reduce system reliability, purchase them easily, download them easily, and install or uninstall them easily.  Attempts to create marketplaces for existing applications didn’t really work because they addressed few of these characteristics.  But with a new app model, and of course its own experience with the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, Microsoft could introduce a Windows 8 “app store” that has all the characteristics necessary for a modern NUI-based OS to succeed.

Lastly, I’ll mention a design center for Consumption-oriented experiences.  The truth about the iPhone, iPad, etc. is that they are replacing newspapers, books, DVD players, portable game players, etc.  They are how you keep your kids entertained on a long road trip, and yourself on a long plane trip.  They have become our companions when dining out alone, and our personal shopping assistants when we are in a store.  Their larger screens make them more suitable for this than a Smartphone, yet they still are of a size and weight that you can carry in a purse or your hand.  And so it is critical that any modern OS put consumption experiences ahead of creation experiences (where such tradeoffs are required).

Microsoft has already revealed some key elements of Windows 8.  We know it will support the tablet form factor, including the use of ARM-based chipsets (a practical if not absolute necessity).  We know it will offer both a modern NUI-style user experience evolved from the Metro experience designed for Windows Phone 7 as well as the traditional GUI experience.  On the rumor level we’ve heard about a new app model reportedly called AppX, along with an associated “app store”.  There are also plenty of rumors about relationships with XBox and Windows Phone 7 (e.g., that Windows 8 will run WP7 apps, which is technologically trivial to accomplish).   I imagine tablets will always use the NUI interface, but that’s one thing we’ll have to wait on.  For example, will Microsoft do anything to enforce this (e.g., a tablet edition that doesn’t include the old interface while the Pro or Enterprise edition includes both).  I think we can assume this is all true, including the rumors.

But there is much we don’t know.  How deeply will the NUI experience extend?  Will new applications be NUI through and through?  What happens when you run them from within the GUI (aka, traditional) shell?  What happens when you run an existing GUI-based app in the NUI environment?  Did they alter the common dialogs and graphical elements to make them more finger friendly (as Windows Mobile did with 6.5)?   We should get answers to these questions next week.  And they better be good.

What is the new App model?  This is going to be the most revolutionary change to the Windows ecosystem since Windows itself.  What is happening with graphics?  This is one of the most awaited disclosures we’ve seen in a long time.  And tell us please about that “app store”.  This is the most important discussion next week because it impacts the expertise of the entire Windows developer ecosystem.  How much their existing knowledge and skills is still applicable vs how much they have to start from scratch will impact both their enthusiasm for Windows 8 and the time to market for apps that conform to the new model.

There is a lot we may or may not find out next week.  This is a developer conference, so Microsoft may withhold much in the way of end-user feature information.  Will they, for example, disclose what the primary media strategy for Windows 8 is?  I don’t know.  They will certainly save as much news as they can for nearer the launch of Windows 8, but it will be small compared to what we learn this coming week.

I’ve run out of steam so I’m going to leave things here.   Windows 8 will either be the release that propels Microsoft to leadership of the next two decades of computing or that confirms it is on the road to oblivion.  Yes, I think it is that important.   Are you looking forward to the big reveal as much as I am?

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13 Responses to What does Windows 8 have to do to succeed?

  1. Pingback: Всем сотрудникам отдела! «

  2. Adnane Aqartit says:

    Don’t agree that Apps repositories haven’ been here before, have you tried a Linux before! There is a good exemple of what should look a OS App “Store”, but i think Microsoft feel realy shy to “copy” visual things from Linux.

  3. Richard says:

    As an independent software vendor Windows 8 makes me shudder. Going down the path of an AppStore equivalent where M$ take 30% of revenue is bad and worse is that they have the right to refuse my application. This is monopolistic behaviour and should not be permitted.

    Yes, the desktop experience will not have this limitation but I expect most of the small purchases (and wide audience) to be in the Metro part of Windows.

    It’s seriously making me consider moving to Android.

    • halberenson says:

      Let me address this three different ways.

      I share your concern, more about the possibility of Apps being unfairly refused than about the fact that MS takes a percentage (and we don’t know that percentage yet though certainly there is evidence that MS has been thinking 30%). On the percentage front I really don’t think this is unfair for three reasons. The first is that the ISV is getting a substantial distribution benefit by having MS put the app in front of the user, pre-verify it is free of Viruses, handle payment, etc. You want access to the “wide audience”? Well, that is what Microsoft is charging you to get. The second is that much of the money goes for the overhead of running the App store, particularly for low-cost consumer apps. Yes, 30% of a $25000 Enterprise app seems excessive. But MS is going to allow side-loading of those. What I don’t know is how they will handle something like a small business ISV who sells to perhaps a few hundred or thousand customers, perhaps through a channel that does custom installation and hand-holding. If they can sideload then I don’t see a problem. If they can’t then I think that there will be enormous pressure on Microsoft by its ISV base. Lastly, since all software in the app strore are burdened by the same 30% “tax” all prices will rise to take this into account. Your competitors have no pricing advantage over you. Perhaps you would have sold your App for $3.00 if there was no app store percentage to be paid and will now price at $4.00. And so will everyone else writing the same category of app.

      Second, I don’t see the anti-trust issue here especially in regards to Microsoft. What law are they violating? As long as Microsoft has clear rules about apps in the app store, and applies those rules equally to itself and apps from others (including competitors) then what is the issue? As you point out you can go to Apple (who has dominant marketshare currently) or Android. The real issue would be if Microsoft used its app store to, for example, distribute Skype but blocked Google from distributing Google Voice. That would start to raise anti-trust concerns. However, Apple is getting away with exactly this type of behavior (for now).

      Third, I consider Android a red herring here. From a security standpoint it is a disaster, precisely because its app loading experience isn’t locked down and malware authors are exploiting the situation. There is going to be a day of reckoning where a major malware event occurs and people are advised to stop using Android (as happened with Windows and Internet Explorer a number of years ago). So one day you’ll be looking at Walt Mossberg et al suggesting people go with some other OS. Also, so far Android has failed to make major inroads on tablets (though I expect that to change). So the question is, does Android really get you to where you want to be from a business perspective or does its wild wild west approach just make you feel better? There are certainly apps on the margins (e.g., pornography) that might have to go to Android because neither Apple nor Microsoft want to be known for (or face the legal consequences of) distributing them. But those are going to be few and far between.

      The bottom line though is that Microsoft needs the apps more than anything else and will respond to pressure from developers. But, because Apple has proven the locked-down model both protects end-users and attracts developers, I don’t think you are going to convince Microsoft they should go the wild wild west route again. Where I think the most leverage will be is on (a) making the % of revenue smaller (I’d like to see it be a sliding scale where more expensive apps pay a smaller percentage) and on (b) making sure the side load mechanism is available to those addressing the SMB channel and not just the large enterprises who sign Enterprise Agreements.

  4. dholbon says:

    It’s about time that computer operating systems came of age – why are we still using a keyboard and mouse… by now we should have the ability to talk to the machine, an aspect promised a decade ago but now but sidetracked by “sleek designs” and “apps” which are a backwards step.

    Cloud computing falls into this category for all broadband connections less than 100 Meg, its all retro thinking and propaganda by the PR firms retained to brainwash unwary users. This includes most senior managers and others, so scared of being seen as computer illiterate.

    I don’t want a computer, a keyboard, a mouse, a shiny box or expensive 30” monitor, what I want is a machine that I can talk to which can display its output on my 1080P television.

    All the components are there but the operating system to enable it is not – stuck in the 1990’s box.

    Time for computing (operating systems) to take the next step forward… please let’s not keep going backwards.

    Windows 8 and 7 (of nine) and all previous versions to XP are based on the same model.

    Microsoft will not survive another re-hash of XP after ver 9.

    • halberenson says:

      I’m not auite sure what your point is about XP. IOS, MACOS, Android, and Linux are all based on the same underpinnings that dates to 1969 (Unix). Windows XP and later’s NT kernel appears to be the most modern of the current popular operating systems despite all the baggage it carries.

      I think the rest of your comment deserves a blog posting of its own as a response, and I’ll try to get to it very soon. But I will point out that if you start talking to your computer on an airplane then I’ll be amongst those who want to bonk you on the head, and if you talk to it in a restaurant then my wife will be amongst the majority of patrons who want to bonk you on the head, and if you try to talk to it in a noisy location then you’ll want to bonk yourself on the head ala Monty Python’s Chanting Monks. But there is much more to this.

  5. Moss says:

    Thank you for your very insightful article! Now that the build conference is over I’m interested in reading your observations. Is it time to throw our hats into the windows 8 ring? Has Microsoft given us a year’s notice to get in on the next bubble?

  6. W T says:

    I’m not against tablets. I’m writing this on one — running Windows XP. I’m not against having a _powerful_ tablet that I carry around with me everywhere running Windows 8, either; I would much prefer that to an iPad. But using that nice portable tablet is not how I spend most of my day or make any money. I have a laptop with a DreamColor calibrated display, SSD, a 4-core Intel processor, and NVidia professional video card with a GB of memory in it alone. It has both eSata and USB 3.0 ports as well as HDMI 1.4. That’s my portable machine. Desktop is a workstation class system with multiple monitors and two GPUs (No fingerprints on any of those screens!) and an external RAID with backup drives. And both laptop and desktop run Windows 7, not Mac OS. My neighbor has his Windows system tricked out to be able to run high-end games. He might use a tablet as an input device. My other neighbor does engineering design on his Windows box at his work. I can’t think of a single software developer or QA engineer at my company who uses only one monitor any more, much less a small one. Go to most of the high-end 3D effects houses in LA and you’ll find mostly Windows boxes, not Macs. Why? Because of the openness to both hardware configuration and software on Windows systems. Think of making Visual Studio or Maya into touch-screen apps. Disaster!

    You will never be able to do serious word processing on a tablet without a keyboard. Typing with no tactile feedback sucks (if your adult fingers will even fit the small on-screen key size — mine usually don’t), and handwriting recognition is still too if-y even with a stylus. You will never be able to do serious computing work on a tablet — i.e., without the ability to have powerful multi-core CPUs, very large memories, multiple hard drives accessible at gigabit data rates, low-latency access to servers, high-end graphics cards, etc. And that includes voice recognition. And because you often DO need to be able to pick out a particular point on a screen, even just to fill out a form — which you just can’t do with a finger — you will always need the ability to use a stylus or a mouse.

    This is what I’m afraid is getting lost in all this talk of Windows 8: most of the _real_ work we do simply doesn’t fit a light-weight, low-power, small-screen tablet. Those desktop, compute-intensive systems are where Microsoft shines, both in apps like Office and in the OS itself (despite the bloat and obnoxious “design” of the later versions). So my question is “What does Microsoft need to do to make Windows 8 succeed as something OTHER THAN a tablet OS?” My one-word answer: make it USEFUL. (Something they have totally failed to do with WinPhone 7, by the way.) Things like not having to go the cloud to sync files between systems, being able to sync email via Outlook without having to have an Exchange server; things like having a file explorer where the tree view actually stays in sync with the folder and files that I am viewing in the other panel. Having the ability to find the particular program that I need to run quickly and easily without having to wade through a bunch of visual noise on multiple screens. And being able to use my mouse, keyboard, and stylus, not my fingers on a screen, to get things done while sitting at my desk, and without having to wave my hands around between screen, mouse, and keyboard either. It’s got to be USEFUL…

    One more thing: the day I have to go to a Microsoft store to buy Adobe or Autodesk or PhaseOne or TotalMedia or Eclipse products is the day I move to Linux. Get real.

    – W T

    • halberenson says:

      You bring up good points, but also display misunderstandings of where Windows 8 is and where I think Windows is going in the future. Just because Windows is evolving to more fully support touch, and that WIndows 8 itself has a lot of focus on introducing Microsoft’s new tablet support, doesn’t mean that classic desktop users and apps are being abandoned. Most of the work done in the release was totally independent of the tablet support. Fast boot, Secure Boot, upgrading Windows Defender, built-in 3G networking support, rewritten Task Manager, etc. weren’t done because of the need to get serious about tablets. They were things that benefit the overall Windows community and were driven primarily, if not entirely, by the needs and requests from the classic Windows community. Take two of the things I was a tiny bit involved in, the Windows Defender upgrade and Secure Boot. These were both longstanding desires to make Windows a more secure platform. The pieces just finally came together to make them happen in Windows 8. Or take the inclusing of Hyper-V. That is clearly aimed at the higher-end “workstation” kind of Windows user, not at Consumer Tablets. While I don’t know the real numbers, I would estimate that 80-90% of the Windows 8 team worked on things that were not specifically targetted at the tablet space. Some of these Microsoft has talked about, others they have yet to reveal.

      Does Microsoft’s focus on the Metro UI for this release mean they did less than they might otherwise have for the Desktop UI? You bet. But then Microsoft is in a crisis w.r.t. the iPad and Android Tablets. They can’t just ignore this huge shift in consumer and Information Worker buying habits. If they do then what classic Windows users like yourself will find is that Microsoft turns into the next Novell, slowly sinking into oblivion and leaving classic Windows to slowly die on the vine. In other words, they have to win in the broad tablet space in order to maintain the overall viability of Windows for tablets and non-tablets alike. Although Microsoft may shine in compute-intensive systems, those are a small niche in the overall client business. The reason Microsoft can sell Windows (to OEMs) for well under $100 a copy is because they sell hundreds of millions of copies. If they just targetted the few million people who use Windows as a “workstation” then the price per copy would have to be several thousand dollars. Put another way, the hundreds of millions of Consumers and Information Workers using WIndows subsidize it for the few million workstation and super power users.

      Even within the Tablet realm I think Microsoft is doing things that take Windows beyond what you are positioning as a Tablet. For example, they maintain support for a digitizer and the resulting ability to do high-precision pointing with a stylus. Or, in fact, you can use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. You have dual-monitor support, so when you dock your tablet you can use your nice 30″ monitor. You can have a tablet with a Core I5 (or I suppose I7) in it. There are production tablets out there with the I5 (as well as the developer unit Microsoft gave away at Build). My Toshiba R705 notebook, which is pretty typical of what Information Workers use these days, has a Core I5 in it. It is also great for running Visual Studio. I don’t see how a docked Core I5-based tablet will be any less useful than a docked R705 is for “real work”. But the tablet will be far more useful when I’m trying to read the Wall Street Journal at lunch or watch a movie on an airplane. The Acer Iconia Tab I’m using to play with WIndows 8 comes in a nice package that when you first see it makes you think it is a notebook. It is a tablet and keyboard dock that clip together so you can transport them as a single notebook-like unit. So when I’m carrying it around in my briefcase I keep them together and have a hardware keyboard (and pencil-eraser style pointing device) for “serious word processing”. But when I just want to walk around with my tablet I can leave the keyboard dock at home or in the office. I expect huge amounts of innovation around these concepts when production Windows 8 tablets hit the street. We saw some of that with the original Tablet PC, but the action there ended up centered almost completely on Convertibles because the standalone tablet experience was so poor. With a first class tablet experience OEMs will be far more incented to create nice tablets that can be transformed into “content creation” devices with various kinds of docking or wireless solutions.

      The other thing about Microsoft’s touch-oriented work is that it benefits non-tablets heavily. For example, how many people do a brief calendar check, brief scan of email, check out the news, etc. during the day? It is far easier to run into your office and do that with a touch-oriented interface than it is to start playing around with your keyboard and mouse. And so Touch and WIMP are not mutually exclusive, but Touch has to be optimized for touch!

      There are things you mention that I just don’t get. I use Outlook without an Exchange Server and have no problem with sync (to Hotmail specifically). It also syncs just fine with IMAP and POP3 accounts, but unless those are secondary accounts I just don’t get why you want to use such a heavyweight solution. What do you want Outlook to sync with? And what are the problems you have doing so? Also, I don’t get your comment about moving to Linux if you have to purchase Adobe et al through the Microsoft Store. Not that this is likely to happen, unless they write Metro apps, but why the F would you care?

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