Why Microsoft 8 doesn’t matter
September 15th, 2011
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.
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’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.
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.
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?