On Friday, Microsoft will release Windows 8, the completely revamped version of its flagship operating system. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this product to the company. It has been in development for several years as the vehicle that will carry the Redmond giant into the post-PC era. It's a bold bet creating an entirely new look and feel for portable devices and aiming to bring consumers (especially young consumers) into Microsoft's traditional customer base of business users.
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I've been using the OS on a tablet and I like the colorful tiles and easy swiping from task to task. It's simple to navigate the UI and get quickly to the apps you want. However, when I turn my slate into a real working device, rather than a browser or entertainment platter, I have to forgo the flashy new look and revert back to the Windows 7 look and feel that's buried under the covers. In fact, I do much of my work there. The problem for many consumers, if recent articles in the mainstream press are accurate, is that almost no one seems to know that the Windows 7 look and feel can be enabled for desktops and tablets. A recent article in The New York Times about how confused Windows 8 users were with the new interface mentioned the option only in passing and even then without any conviction of its signal importance. Ignorance of the presence of the traditional Windows UI is the first of many, many failures of Microsoft's planning, marketing, and PR departments.
Another failure is that the new UI's name is undecided. It was "Metro," as we all know. But to avoid a contretemps with a company partner in Europe, Microsoft had to forgo the name and scramble a new one just months before release. Right now, it's officially the "Windows 8 look and feel," which thoroughly guts the point I've just made about explaining the two UI options. Internally to Microsoft, "Metro" is referred to as "Modern" a term that certainly won't sparkle anyone's eyes.
Even though the official release of Windows 8 occurs later this week, the company released its Surface tablet last week with something other than Windows 8 on it. It was running Windows RT, which is the stripped-down ARM version of Windows 8. Consumers are rightly flummoxed by this bifurcation of brands. It gets worse: The tablets are technically running a Windows RT tablet with the Windows 8 look and feel but not running Windows 8, nor will they ever be able to. If you want the Windows 8 UI to actually run on Windows 8, instead of Windows RT, you have to wait for the next round of Surface tablets several months hence. A consumer is going to understand this?
If my observation that Windows RT is the ARM version of the OS sounds odd, it might be because you're thinking of WinRT, which is an entirely different thing. That is the core API to which developers need to program to get the unique benefits of Windows 8. It runs on both x86 and ARM. WinRT and Windows RT not the tight branding quality we're used to, are they?
I'll leave off discussion of the Nokia Lumia phones that run the Windows 8 UI today on Windows Phone 7.5. However, those phones can't be upgraded to Windows Phone 8. Phone buyers will surely not view their existing "Windows 8 UI" phones with much love after being told that.
The programming aspects of Windows 8 are hardly cause for cheer. The famous slide released late last year that showed the architecture of Windows 8 and associated development technologies was revised multiple times. It's been revised again since then. I expect it will be clarified and revised again at the upcoming Build conference. The Visual Studio 2012 product, as I discussed in a recent review, shows the conflicts between the "Metro" metaphor and the traditional Windows 7 look and feel ultimately settling on a near-monochrome scheme with tab names using all-caps. If this UI does indeed point the way for the new desktop apps, as Microsoft itself has suggested, the company's business apps are in very serious trouble.
I'll stop here, as my point is clear. I've attended dozens of OS launches from Microsoft, IBM, Linux vendors, Novell, Sun, and a half dozen UNIX vendors. They all had one common element: Everyone sang from the same hymnal and that hymnal used clear terminology to express the important new features. Microsoft used to lead the way in this. Everybody at the company from the senior execs down knew the lyrics to the current release and could recite them without deviating one iota from the company line. Today, it's a chaotic scene that is, in all respects, a branding disaster one brand with several names, incompatible OS versions, competing product names, confused design principles, and hidden features. I have never seen a major company so unprepared for a major product launch as Microsoft is today.
As I said earlier, this product release is an inflection point that is crucial to the company's long-term relevance. And the company knows that. And so they did the one thing we never see big companies do when their business is shrinking: They made a bold move, a brilliant stroke, and bet the whole company on it. Nobody has the courage to do that anymore! But, they did! And now, due to horrid execution, they appear to be blowing the whole thing. If Windows 8 fails, there is no doubt that, as the desktop franchise shrinks, Microsoft will be pushed into the smaller, server-side business market. There, it will be permanently consigned to the ranks of legacy software vendors. Ugh!