Daniel Eran Dilger
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Why Microsoft 8 doesn’t matter

Daniel Eran Dilger

Gadget blogs are in a lather to photograph every piece of new prototype hardware seen running “early beta” builds of Windows 8, thinking that the completely new Metro-fied release might dramatically shake up the tablet market. They’re wrong, here’s why.
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Microsoft’s shift in strategy with Windows 8 is remarkable. Since Windows 95, Microsoft’s flagship operating system environment has changed very little in appearance on a functional level, mostly folding in ornamental features like the new color scheme of Windows XP or the translucency and gloss of Windows Vista.

The core functionality and behaviors of the Start Bar, Control Panel, Windows and Internet Explorers have all remained largely unchanged across the last 15 years.

That’s all about to change. Windows 8 ushers in an entirely new user interface and an entirely new development style. Like Apple’s iOS, Microsoft is closing the door on windows, at least in the Metro side of things where content and apps exist as full screens rather than in the overlapping clipping regions ushered in by the Macintosh in 1984.

Microsoft gives its developers Windows 8 tablets with a taste of Bob

Microsoft’s OS approach very different than Apple’s

However, rather than inventing an entirely new user interface appropriate for mobile devices as Apple did, first proving it in mobile phones, then moving it into the iPod touch and then a larger form tablet, and then incorporating the most appropriate elements of the new environment into its desktop OS, Microsoft has charted its own course.

Microsoft began by inventing an entirely new user interface that was not appropriate for mobile devices. It then proved it to be a failure on the Zune and then again as its replacement for Windows Mobile. Windows Phone 7 has erased Microsoft’s faltering success in smartphones and replaced it with resounding failure of epic proportions.

In desktops, it attempted to bring its entire Windows desktop to netbooks, where it ran poorly. To improve things, Microsoft tried to remove functionality and charge extra for its reinstatement, repeating a failed Vista strategy of 2007 in netbooks with Windows 7 in 2009.

In 2010, Microsoft then took the least appropriate elements of its desktop environment and tried to make it into a tablet, calling it Slate PC in a effort to distract from earlier, failed attempts to do the exact same thing over and over again across the previous decade.

Once that collapsed, Microsoft then took the Metro work that failed to spark any interest from buyers on the Zune and WP7 and used it as the new launchpad for its next generation of desktop software in 2012, radically changing a product that already enjoys monopoly control over the entire PC market to force it into a new role it is not equipped to do. It’s almost as if Microsoft is being run by HP.

Why Windows 7 on Netbooks Won’t Save Microsoft
Windows Phone 7: Microsoft’s third failed attempt to be Apple
What will HP do with Palm’s webOS? Most likely: fail

Unlearned lessons from Vista

The last time Microsoft tragically tampered with its monopoly position in Windows, it did so by introducing some significant changes to how certain things worked and looked with Windows Vista. Some nerds loved Vista but the public that actually buys PCs hated it, making it the least successful launch of the decade. But Vista did far less to shake up Windows than Windows 8 will.

Vista confounded users by simply changing around some of the Control Panel options, failing to work with some existing software and hardware, and operating a bit slower than the previous XP had on the same machines. Windows 8 goes far beyond making a few minor changes. It entirely rethinks Windows into a product that is no longer Windows but actually a Zune-Bob layer of hyper functional magazine graphics obscuring the Windows desktop.

Further, a key feature of Windows 8 is that it will run on ARM, finally making it possible to produce a highly efficient Windows tablet device. Unfortunately, Microsoft has no plans to actually support existing Windows apps on ARM, meaning that ARM tablets running Windows 8 will only really deliver the new Metro Zune-Bob layer of crap that the market has shunned over the past two years while not delivering the familiar functionality and utility that actually represent the real value of Windows itself.

Microsoft failed to learn anything from its mistakes with Vista. While Apple’s Steve Jobs was mortified by the bungled release of MobileMe, apologized for it while making amends and promising to do better, and ultimately referred to it as a mistake while unveiling its successor under a far more forgiving release schedule, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer has insisted that Vista was not a mistake at all, refused to acknowledge any problems, and talks about the release as if it were merely misunderstood by an idiot public. That’s an alcoholic level of denial.

Windows 95 and Vista: Why 2007 Won’t Be Like 1995

Fortunately for users, there’s already an ARM tablet that runs Windows.

Imagine if you could access the full power of Windows on a light, thin, highly portable tablet device that cost just $500. You don’t have to wait until the end of next year to get this. It’s been around since last year. It’s called Citrix running on an iPad. Anyone who needs to run Windows apps remotely can already do so, without any work from Microsoft.

What Microsoft fails to understand is that the value of Windows is not that it is branded by Microsoft; it’s that it provides some functionality that people need. Microsoft can pump out all sorts of irrelevant crap (and it has, from Surface to Vista Aero to Slate PC to Zune to WP7), but the reason people buy Windows is not because they love Microsoft and want to buy everything it makes, but rather because Windows does something useful that they need done.

To drive home that point, consider that people who need a mobile Exchange client are best served by the iPhone and iPad, devices that plug into Exchange Sever as well as or better than Microsoft’s own mobile clients, but also do a lot that Microsoft’s own branded devices don’t.

People buy Windows for Windows apps, not out of Windows loyalty

The fact that the iPad has allowed users who need to access Windows apps to do so for a year now says a lot about Microsoft’s delusional arrogance in regard to thinking that people want stuff with the Windows brand rather than just Windows functionality. Enterprise customers, including many who are beholden to Windows, have been buying iPads by the truckload. In come cases, it’s to run Windows apps via Citrix. In others, it’s to avoid having to manage a Windows desktop for a user who doesn’t really need a dedicated PC to do his job.

A key reason why lots of PC users have switched to Macs since 2006 is that they could access the native functionality of Windows, either using Boot Camp or a virtualization tool. It’s really something that the average retail price of a PC laptop is now under $500 while Apple’s MacBooks start out at $1000. Despite that gulf, the perception of value among Macs has caused Apple to outpace the growth of the PC market by several times, every quarter for several years now.

People are already getting Windows functionality without buying a Windows-branded PC, and they’re already getting Windows functionality on a tablet without waiting for Microsoft to deliver a Windows-branded device. If the market supports paying at least a $500 premium to buy Apple laptops over generic PCs, how will Microsoft convince buyers to pay the same price as an iPad to get a version 1.0 Windows 8-branded tablet sometime next year after Apple has another year to refine iOS, iPad hardware and sell another 50 million iPads?

Particularly when their only choices for getting a Windows 8 tablet will be to either get a full powered, but much more expensive Intel-based tablet that runs hot enough to need a fan, or an ARM-based tablet that won’t run the very apps they expect Windows to run?

Tablet troll fight: Android vs Windows

Windows Enthusiasts keep looking at Windows 8 with a reverential respect for Microsoft for creating a new product with the Metro look, but fail to see a pattern emerging around products that sport that UI. Have they already forgot about the Zune and Windows Phone 7? Wait let me check… yes still not selling worth a damn.

A flashy, handsome UI makes for nice demos to excite the base, but it didn’t save Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets or HP’s webOS TouchPad, and it won’t set a fire under sales of new PC Tablets built by HTC or Samsung or Dell or Acer. In large measure, this will be because Microsoft’s “no compromise” approach to Windows 8 actually makes a huge compromise: it fails to recognize that the value of Windows comes from running Windows apps.

Apple expended significant efforts to maintain seamless backwards compatibility every time it shifted its Mac platform, first from 68k to PowerPC, again to Intel, and again to 64-bit. Microsoft is simply shrugging away what will be a huge issue for buyers. If users have to resort to Citrix to run Windows apps on a “Windows” tablet, they might as well benefit from Apple’s enormous economies of scale and get a cheaper, slicker iPad that can actually run real iOS apps as well.

As I’ve noted previously, the biggest impact Windows 8 will have is in dividing the Apple haters between Android and Windows, setting in motion a fracture that will leave pundits wondering which they should throw their support behind as they try to distract attention away from the iPad. That will weaken the propaganda supporting Android’s existing product options and blow the cloud of Windows 8 vaporware up to an unattainably high peak of expectation that Microsoft will never be able to reach with its shipping product.

But ultimately, Windows 8 won’t matter because firstly, the PC market is in steady decline, and secondly, the “tablet market” simply fails to exist outside of Apple’s own iPad sales. For anyone to challenge that, they’ll need to build an alternative the offers similar functionality at a similar or better price. Apple’s only credible competitor in smartphones is a willfully infringing distribution of free software being distributed by an advertiser via carrier subsidies.

If Microsoft can’t compete against that in smartphones, how will it fare in tablets, where even Google’s billions can’t ship boxes loaded with free software?

  • Ludor

    yogsod: Boy, you are tiresome.

  • duckie

    @yogsodoth
    Wouldn’t it be great if they could connect to more than one Exchange mailbox at a time? Oh, hey, iPad has done that since last year. When did you say this amazing Windows 8 tablet was coming out again?

  • yogsodoth

    @Ludor: Well, dang, your opinion of me means so much.

    @John: Hm. The chart I saw was from July and showed a higher percentage – mind you, maybe that was WP7 and WinMo combined. (Can’t believe people are still using WinMo – ech.)

    @duckie: Too bad they didn’t have it when my company did our tech review to decide whether or not to buy iPads for the execs. ;-) They wound up with PlayBooks instead… I feel sorry for them.

  • John E

    @ yogsodoth: there is no “maybe” here. can’t you just fess up and admit you got it wrong, and Dan’s 1% stat was correct? that the “faster penetration than Android” point of your whole last paragraph of your long post was therefore wrong? (in fact, it’s definitely slower, as Ballmer admitted in a backhand way this week – but wait for Nokia!). and your critique or Dan’s response that “they don’t seem to count W7 phones replacing WinMo phones” was also flat-out wrong – because in fact, they do?

    deal with it.

  • chucklehead

    @yogsodoth { 09.16.11 at 1:33 pm }
    “Those problems don’t exists in managed code. For those who use unmanaged code, yeah, sure that’s a problem. Which is why managed code changed everything. Applications running in the .Net CLR really don’t require anything other than switching the build target – that’s the entire point of the runtime. I myself maintain several code-bases at work for x86/Itanium that require nothing beyond recompiling. No code changes needed.”

    Which popular applications are written in managed code? Does Adobe use it to write Photoshop or Lightroom? Does Microsoft itself use it to write Office programs? If not, why not?

    If managed code changed everything, making it so easily portable, then why isn’t Microsoft trumpeting the easy portability of all that existing software?

    I’m not just asking flame-bait questions. I would honestly like to know which high-profile apps from major software producers actually use managed code. More importantly, what percentage of commonly used apps are written in managed code. If the percentage is low, then what are the reasons? If the percentage is high, then why is software availability on ARM even a question?

  • yogsodoth

    @John: Seems to me that’s what I did. We call that “maybe” a colloquialism, perhaps you’ve heard of them?
    This is why people have conversations, to correct errors.

    [A "colloquialism" is a informal, popular word or term similar to slang, not an idea you invent out of thin air to substitute as facts in an argument until somebody proves you are wrong. - Dan]

    @chucklehead: Managed code hasn’t really been used for low-level access to the Windows API (read – custom elements for GUIs) until Windows 8. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t NEED that level of access to write a good application, but it’s often a handy shortcut. It just means a LOT of recoding for moving between platforms… which is fine if you’re only supporting x86/x64. Once other processor architectures are involved it’s a whole ‘nother ball game – which, methinks, is why MS is introducing ARM support and fully-managed APIs at the same time. They don’t want to have to support Win32, which is an ancient API, on ARM. Basically, ARM support on Windows 8 will mean retooling applications in that class – which Adobe does every year anyway, and MS does roughly every 2 years. The current application lifecycle (release as frequently as possible to maximize profits) means that vendors and devs can incorporate ARM versions as they see fit.

    [Adobe, Microsoft and even Apple all took several years to port their key Mac apps (Photoshop, Office and Final Cut to Mac OS X, and then finally to full Cocoa. That was to an audience of 30-50 million Mac professionals ready to pay hundreds of dollars for those apps. You imagine the same vendors (and others) will port their apps to the reach the zero installed base of Windows 8 Metro, a population of Zune users who buy as much software as Android users. Really? You expect this to happen before 2020? - Dan ]

    Can Adobe write a Photoshop that runs well on a Tegra2 as well as x86/64? Well, maybe. I’m not sure how the AIR platform works, but it’s my understanding that it is its own runtime, and that runtime already runs on ARM (and Itanium, and MIPS). If it doesn’t require Win32, it will be trivial for Adobe to port Photoshop and all its other apps to ARM. That is a single example, but one of the biggest. As for other dev houses, pretty sure they’ll be able to switch to the new managed framework easily, simply by replacing Win32 calls with WinRT calls.

    [Photoshop is not written in AIR. Not even Lightroom is AIR. AIR is web+flash. You can write a poorly performing web game in AIR, and then spend months porting it to Android AIR. That's about all AIR is good for. It's like writing apps in "100% pure Java" and expecting them to run on multiple platforms, well. Ever used the Eye-Fi app? It's AIR. Looks foreign and ugly on every platform, slow as balls, unstable mess. Photoshop was actually written in a proprietary thing that is only designed to deliver ports for Win32 and Carbon, which is why it took so long to develop a 64-bit port. This is for Adobe's pro customers. Why would they port this to a zero installed base platform beta 1.0 tablet imposing the excessive UI rules of Metro to an audience of crickets? - Dan]

    @vikram: Corporate profits are measured by the year, not the quarter. Last year, MS made $4.5 billion, and Apple made $3.9 billion. Quarterly profit reports mean absolutely squat, because they don’t include any costs other than basic operating costs (companies always hold their capital costs to the end of the year – or even longer, if possible).

    [Now you are really talking out of your ass. Apple reported $7.32 billion of profits in the LAST QUARTER. Last year it was reporting around $3 billion per quarter. And no, there is never a "basic operating cost" thrown out at the end of the year that isn't figured into quarterly reports. Just because you can line up words doesn't mean that they are conveying an accurate idea. So please stop with the fact invention. - Dan]

  • roz

    @yoga perhaps you can provide a link to support your version of Apple’s financial results.

  • gslusher

    @yogsodoth:

    “Actually, they seem to care more about playing Angry Birds than getting shit done. Getting shit done on an iPad on-screen keyboard isn’t exactly the easiest thing around.”

    You seem to believe that EVERYONE works the way you do. You may work best with a keyboard, but a lot of people, including very smart people and professionals, don’t need to use a keyboard all that much. Examples:

    - Physicians and nurses. My family doctor would LOVE to use an iPad at work, as he does at home. The large practice where he works basically uses text interface. Graphics/charts are nearly unreadable and entering information via the keyboard takes a lot of his time. He’s found medical apps for the iPad that would cut his “computer” time by at least 50-75% and give him more options. (There are now iOS apps approved by the FDA for making diagnoses from x-rays.)

    - Pilots. Several airlines are issuing iPads to their flight crews, replacing 20-30 lbs of charts and tables that were maintained MANUALLY–replacing pages. (In the early 1960s, I used to do that for my mother, who was an airline pilot.)

    - Aircraft maintenance technicians: They can take an iPad right to the job, again replacing heavy, bulky, manually-updated manuals and/or laptops.

    - Real estate agents to show photos, listings, etc. to clients.

    - Sales reps – an iPad is much more convenient and “user-friendly”–for the rep AND the client–than a laptop.

    - Teachers and students from elementary school through university.

    - Legislators. (I can’t remember if it was here or on another blog that someone said that the Dutch parliament is issuing iPads to all members, instead of laptops.)

    - Police and firefighters. Right now, their computers are bolted into their vehicles. It would be much better for firefighters to be able to carry an iPad with building layouts, maps, hazmat info, etc., with them right to the job.

    - Field engineers of all types (e.g., working for architectural engineering firms)

    - Professional photographers are already using iPads to show clients the shots they’ve just taken. (The iPad Camera Connection Kit includes both a SDHC card reader and an USB port into which one can plug a reader for CF cards, which are more used by pros.)

    - Musicians to compose and record music and even perform.

    - Retail: Apple isn’t the only company to use iOS devices as POS tools.

    - It goes on and on: plumbers, construction contractors, etc. A few weeks ago, I had some work done on a large tree in my yard–a large branch had come down. One of the partners in the firm came by to look it over and give an estimate. He did the estimate on his laptop in his truck, then printed it. I asked if it would be easier to do with an iPad. The big smile that crossed his face said, “YES!” Same with the equine vet who cares for my horses.

    Don’t be so narrow-minded and naive.

  • Lance

    To OP:

    Your post nailed it. Microsoft really had some great ideas with Win8 but so far its poorly executed. Metro likely will have the shortest half-life of any OS in recent history (metaphorically speaking, its the OS version of a Uuq isotope).

    My advice to Microsoft – abandon Metro, focus on core OS changes, enhance parallelism, continue developing into a modular, service oriented OS and you have the beginnings of something that will make Windows 9 or 10 great.