Despite the brilliant rise of Apple, and Google's increasing dominance with Android, Microsoft is still the dominant force in traditional computing. But because Microsoft relies on other people to make its computers, it can't control the end product like Apple does so well, and it doesn't have Google's dominance online. So while corporations might still be using Windows 7 in a decade, Microsoft knows it has to do something crazy if it wants to hold on to its advantage. As it turns out, that means releasing Windows 8, which kills Windows as we know it.
This Friday, Microsoft will release its new operating system publicly into the wild, sending us tumbling into what the company hopes will be the ensuing touch revolution. Like anything vastly different than its predecessor, the reaction is decidedly mixed and fierce. No more Start button. The desktop as we’ve always known it now plays second fiddle to Metro, a new touchable interface designed for the world of tablets, minimalist and full of clickable live-feeding rectangles. Users will have to relearn simple tasks like how to print. (Ctrl+P doesn’t work anymore.) Taking notes from Facebook and Google, social is now fundamental. Searching and sharing, universal. “Programs” are gone. We use “apps.”
These are worlds colliding. Some are calling it a crisis of identity. On the one end, we have the remnants of the PC revolution. Big and clunky, fully customizable, energy guzzling machines. On the other end, tablets. Beautiful and elegant. Refined yet restrictive. Smart but stupid. Before bed, on the train, while you poop, these are conveniences the people appreciate, despite the compromise of choice and control. For the first time ever, more people are buying smartphones than PCs. Tablets are next.
Microsoft has fumbled enough balls to knows this might be its last play. Windows 8 is its Hail Mary pass so it's natural that it's an aggressive move. Even if you’ve already written Microsoft off, simply don’t care, or believe we’re living in a post-operating-system reality, the company is spending half a billion dollars on marketing to convince you otherwise. Desperation or inspiration, the company is all in. And whether we like it or not, so are we.
This is where the new operating system’s detractors bark loudest. We can go curiously, unwittingly, or even kicking or screaming, but we’re going. Windows 8 doesn’t have a “classic” mode. It’s a forceful Facebook-like shove into the future. No more drop menus or alt-tabbing. There’s a “desktop” mode, but it’s more of an app within Metro with no way of setting it to default. Meanwhile, Metro on a standard non-touch device feels frustratingly un-intuitive. Which makes sense; it wasn’t built with a mouse in mind. This is the essence of change, however. People hate it until they’re used to it all over again. If there’s one thing Microsoft needed, it was change.
Presenting the future
But does Windows 8 matter? Will we care? Are we living in the post-OS world of Chrome yet? I know which camp I’m in. I spend 99 percent of my computer time in front of Chrome for work and play. Plus the odd rotating desktop applications - Spotify, VLC, Adobe Suite. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop buying new computers. Anyone who wants to do anything remotely serious will need to buy a laptop with a real operating system. More likely than not, it’ll come equipped with Windows 8.
It’s true, the operating system is becoming less relevant because we’re spending less time on the desktop running desktop applications. From a business perspective, that’s okay. Microsoft isn’t an advertising company like Facebook or Google so they don’t need your eyes glued on their screens constantly to make money. They’re a software company. As long as you’re buying new computers (and tablets and phones), they’ll be fine. Let’s be real. Did we ever actually care about the operating system, say, after Windows 98? It was all pretty much the same. Anyone only ever upgraded when they were buying new hardware.
Google on the other hand has yet to come up with a compelling narrative as to why anyone would ever get a Chromebook. Because it’s cheaper? (Maybe.) Turns on faster? (Not anymore.) Computers are about as cheap as they can get. The laptop I’m currently writing this on is a refurbished Thinkpad T400 running Windows 7 I picked up a few months ago. Fairly sparky for only $400 (real GPU and whatnot, none of that integrated stuff). I’ve had zero problems and could probably play a game or two (at respectable settings) if I so felt inclined. These things will only get less expensive and more powerful. So the Chromebook will continue to languish for the same reason the netbook is already dead. No one wants a faux laptop.
All shapes and sizes
The main point is this: In spite of the company’s well documented decade of travails and wild goose chases and dead ends -- failed dalliances with phones, Vista, the short-lived Zune -- Microsoft remains incredibly well positioned to usher us into the future. The tablet wars have only just begun and the same goes for the race for smartphone supremacy. Ecosystems are freshly brewing, clouds are still forming. We all know about Apple’s incredible run in recent times, and their iPhone and iPad franchises are blockbuster moneymakers. But the first mover advantage never lasts for long, especially in tech. Amazon is already gaining ground. The Nexus 7 is a hit. Microsoft’s Surface has yet to launch and it’s already on backorder.
As for Apple, the biggest company in the world, OS X -- for all the company’s recent success -- represents about 8.45 percent of the whole market, a small handful of loyalists if you consider Microsoft’s 70 percent stake and billion Windows users worldwide. In fact, even as we increasingly work online, Microsoft is already more relevant in search with Bing (15.6 percent market share versus Google’s 66.8) than Apple is with the Mac in traditional computing.
Google too is still the new kid on the block. Android has been a runaway success but if the recent earnings report is any indication, for all of its production, the company hasn’t yet figured a way out to properly diversify away from its ad-based business model, one that isn’t immune in the transition to mobile. Now with the very viable Windows Phone and soon Surface, Microsoft’s empire can only expand. Just as Apple novices got a Mac after enjoying the iPhone, PC users will get a Surface (and a Windows Phone) because they're already on Windows.
Remember, the surprise winner of Apple’s recent patent battle wasn’t the iPhone, it was Windows. Apple’s primal focus on Android and stifling others has pushed Samsung, the largest producer of smartphones, straight into the arms of its OG competitor Microsoft, which is still one of the most powerful software companies in the world. We’re going to use Windows phones and Windows tablets and Windows ultrabooks. Microsoft can push its platform on us through sheer force of will.
A tablet, a PC
That’s what Windows 8 is. It’s the company’s bold bet into the future, where all of our screens will one day be touchable. Screens in our bedroom, bigger screens in our living room, smaller screens in our pockets, all interconnected in the cloud. The hardware makers are already onboard. HP, Dell, Fujitsu, LG, Asus, Lenovo, Nokia, and Samsung are pumping out various versions of Microsoft’s vision. And eventually, corporations, hospitals and schools upgrade. Enterprise remains the sole playground of Redmond.
They have hybrid models where you can snap off the screen and now its a tablet. They have iMac-like all-in-one units that you can lock horizontally into a big responsive table. They have regular laptops with simple touchscreens. Despite what Steve Jobs may have brainwashed us into believing, we still appreciate choice. Thanks to Microsoft’s more open approach, we’re going to have options again.
Microsoft isn’t confused about what it is or where it’s going. Some have pointed to the Apple approach of having a handicapped version of its operating system for tablets. Microsoft, however wants to do everything and be everywhere. By redesigning its operating system for touch from the ground up, it’s weening us, pushing us into the future. It’s morphing into something more versatile than the Apple’s tablet and something more universal than the Windows we’ve always known. By blurring the lines between PC and tablet, the iPad suddenly seems less revolutionary. (Isn't a laptop just a tablet with a keyboard?) The novelty wears off.
Of course, the company still suffers from old habits. It’s new lineup is stratified by codenames ordinary consumers won’t understand, like the Windows RT version which runs on ARM (and is incidentally not backwards compatible and can’t run full-fledged desktop software like Office or Adobe) versus the full-powered Intel edition. So at first, we’ll be confused. We might even hate it. Very soon, however, it’ll be like it never happened. We'll normalize again and by then, all of our screens will be smudgy.
h5. Above image via
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