Is Microsoft wrong to release a desktop version of Windows 8?

Opinion

Is Microsoft wrong to release a desktop version of Windows 8?

Gartner has generated a significant amount of coverage this week by raising some fairly obvious issues that you would have expected Microsoft to have addressed by now concerning Windows 8.

In case anyone missed it, a press release announcing Gartner analysts would debate the future for Windows 8 at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2012 that runs from 21-25 October, began with the following statement: “Microsoft is taking a big gamble over the next few months with Windows and Office...It is a risk that Microsoft must take to stay relevant in a world where mobile devices with new modern experiences are becoming the norm.”

ReleaseIn the release, Gartner vice president Michael Silver said the advent of smartphones and tablets had relegated the PC’s role to “simply a peer with other devices” and Windows 8 was designed to help Microsoft enter the tablet market and improve its share of the smartphone market.

His colleague, research vice president Steve Kleynhans, said Windows 8 was more than just a “low or even high impact major release” of Windows, describing it as “the start of a new era for Microsoft”. Comparing it to NT, he suggested Microsoft’s “RT era” which is being launched with Windows 8 could, like NT, run for about 20 years. The technology “underlying Windows 8 will last a long, long time”, he suggested.

The challenge for Microsoft is that the radical changes made to Windows in the latest release of the OS might not be welcomed by businesses that prefer to “reduce technology risk by deploying mature, stable, well-supported products”.

As Silver pointed out, although Windows 8 will be formally launched in October, “the reality is that most organisations are still working on eliminating Windows XP and deploying Windows 7. Organisations will need to decide whether they continue with Windows 7 or consider Windows 8”.

I can’t imagine that, for many, the decision will take long to make. Moving to Windows 8 in such circumstances could be hugely disruptive.

Of course, Windows 8 should, in the near term, play a much bigger role at the ultrabook, tablet and smartphone level where its tiled UI is better suited for touchscreen devices. As Gartner notes, it’s an OS “that looks appropriate on new form factors of PC hardware including tablets, hybrids and convertibles” but this has also led people to question “its appropriateness for traditional desktop and notebook machines”.

On paper, Microsoft’s approach differs from Apple’s in that Windows 8 is the latest version of the desktop OS adapted to accommodate tablets and smartphones whereas Apple’s OSX and iOS are distinct OSes (even if more and more features from iOS are being imported into OSX over time). The irony, however, is that if Windows 8’s initial success is at the tablet and smartphone level, the path it takes will be similar to iOS (although it could be potentially more disruptive at the PC level than Apple’s strategy is to its desktops with OSX).

Perhaps the most chilling passage in the entire Gartner release is when it refers to the OS that everyone at Microsoft would rather forget. “Windows Vista, for example, never gained significant success in corporate environments.... The bottom line is that IT leaders are questioning whether Windows 8 will suffer a similar fate.”

Ouch. If that happens, Windows 9 could be the new Windows 7. It could also end up being primarily a tablet, smartphone and ultrabook OS as the available desktop screen estate shrinks even further in the coming years. In which case, might Microsoft have been better advised taking the Apple route and producing two versions of Windows 8? It could have launched a simple traditional desktop OS for the PC and a more radical tile-based version that included features more suitable for tablets, smartphones et al?

Maybe it would have been even better if Microsoft had just launched Windows 8 for all those non-PC form factors, including ultrabooks, tablets and smartphones, and left Windows 7 alone on the desktop for another year or so. There’s no reason why taking a risk with Windows 8 won’t help Microsoft “stay relevant in a world where mobile devices with new modern experiences are becoming the norm” but I can’t see why it has to take the risk with Windows 8 for traditional desktops and notebooks as well.

This was first published in September 2012

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