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Pulling Back from Windows 8

Earlier this month, tech analyst firm IDC, which is widely known for its quantitative analysis of technology sectors, announced that its calculations showed PC shipments dropped by 14% in the first quarter of this year. The projections had been for a contraction of nearly 8%, so the actual number was stunning in its magnitude. As IDC pointed out, it was the single biggest year-over-year drop since the company began tracking PC sales in 1994. A 14% decline is such a great acceleration of a trend informally referred to as the "beginning of the post-PC era" that it should invite us to examine the reality more closely. I believe we can fairly say that we are no longer at the dawn of the new era, but completely in the post-PC era and the numbers are simply catching up with the reality.

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Hidden in IDC's analysis was an unusual assertion; namely, that Windows 8 had not only not helped PC sales, but actually depressed them. This statement reflects IDC's belief that market dynamics are turning treacherously against Microsoft operating systems. Let's spiral back 10 years for a little more perspective. At the turn of the century, the established cycle of events in the Wintel duopoly was that Intel would release new, more powerful processors, and a few months later Microsoft would release a version of Windows that would sop up all the hardware's extra cycles. The careful incremental advances enabled Intel and Microsoft to benefit from the technology advances of the other.

This so-called "virtuous cycle" came to an end about five years ago, when the multicore era began in earnest and operating systems could no longer consume all new capacity in a way that was meaningful to consumers. Nonetheless, even though the gears didn't mesh with the same precision as they had previously, the profit engine continued to function: New releases of Windows 7, for example, drove PC sales. (In fact, by several measures, Windows 7 was Microsoft's best-selling operating system ever.)

For the symbiosis between Intel and Microsoft to break down completely would mean that a new release of an OS would have no effect on PC sales. But the current situation is worse: Windows 8 drove down PC sales. This presumably means two paths were taken by buyers: The first is that users of previous Windows versions took a look at Win 8 and decided to stand pat and not upgrade. From what I observe, this is the path most businesses chose. The second path is that of consumers desirous of getting a faster PC or laptop; they took a look at Win 8 and decided to get some other device instead of upgrading.

Their response certainly mirrors what we've experienced at Dr. Dobb's. When Win 8 came out, we bought a test machine with the new OS loaded on it, fairly confident that we'd need it for testing the inevitable batch of soon-to-arrive Metro apps. But these apps have not materialized. All PC-based Jolt products so far ship with a very workable Windows 7 version. Few, if any, vendors are shipping new features that work only on Win8.

Moreover, that Win8 test machine has been a long experiment in frustration. Microsoft's design decisions, both at the UI level and below, serve to continually get in our way. Here and there, a helpful feature provides some welcome aid, but its benefit is invariably swamped by the difficulty of the features that surround it. There is no happy momentary lift, but rather relief at a moment's respite from the cumbersomeness of the UI. We shall shortly strip off Win8 and replace it Windows 7.

Reader interest in Windows 8 apps is just as muted. Articles on Microsoft's latest technology such as ASP.NET 4.5, Visual Studio 2012, and TypeScript fare well, but Win8-specific apps have been a non-starter.

It would be wrong to dismiss Microsoft as a dinosaur incapable of moving with the times. The company has done excellent work with Azure, Office 365, and its server products. In the consumer space, the XBox and Kinect show that Redmond still understands important segments of the markets it needs to have onboard to survive. While it's now clear that Windows 8 is a fiasco, I admire the company for its bold bet. This is not the product of an organization that cannot adapt to changing circumstances, but one that read the tea leaves wrong. Now, the question is how fast Microsoft can fix their bet.

— Andrew Binstock
Editor in Chief
[email protected]
Twitter: platypusguy

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