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Editorial: Windows 8 may be Microsoft's Waterloo

updated 12:15 am EDT, Fri June 3, 2011

Windows 8 may decide Microsoft's fate

When Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer called the new Windows his company's riskiest bet, not many knew what he meant. The reveal of Windows 8 was laying those cards out on the table: it's a belief that tablets will not only be popular but the primary way to compute. We're of the mind that, much like Waterloo in 1815, the stakes are so high that it's an all-or-nothing fight -- and while Microsoft win, Ballmer might also be Napoleon.

It's easy to point to tablets as just secondary devices, either as a replacement for a netbook or as a device beyond even a full-size notebook. In many ways, that's what it is right now; the current leader, the iPad, needs a computer just to get off the ground. But as much as Microsoft has been docked for not seeing the writing on the wall, it may be right to switch over as quickly as it can. When Apple's chief operating officer Tim Cook sees tablets outselling PCs within several years, that's a warning sign that tablets aren't going away and you ignore them at your peril.

And as we all know, Microsoft to some extent already had. Windows 8 has supposedly been in the works since July 2009, virtually as soon as Windows 7 was off to the factories, but it was clear in January 2010 that Microsoft was sincerely caught off guard. We were at Ballmer's CES keynote early that month, and he held up the HP slate as the surefire way to kill what was then Apple's unknown tablet. It was pitched as an ultimate device for the home, but it was really just a netbook without a keyboard or mouse, and after the iPad was made official, it marked a long, slow decline as Microsoft's calls for Windows 7 tablets fell on increasingly deaf ears and companies like HP relegated devices like the Slate 500 to niche users such as insurance claim adjusters.

If Windows 7 has been poisonous to Microsoft-based tablets, then Windows 8 is the antidote. It may be just Windows Phone 7 writ large, but that's a good thing: it's not just touch-native, it's fresh and unique, especially in a desktop land where concepts have remained mostly unchanged since the mid 1990s. It's theoretically the best of both worlds and gives the touch interface you want with the in-depth file systems, multitasking, and processor power you would need from a full computer.

Yet there's the nagging sense that, for all of Microsoft's thunder, it's not the guaranteed success Microsoft wants it to be. Perhaps the most glaring is just that most Windows 8 systems, at least at first, won't be tablets; you'll see the same interface on an eight-core gaming PC with a mouse and keyboard as you will on a 10-inch, Atom-packing slate from a company that normally only makes phones. Many newcomers could like it, but much of the magic could be lost when it's being used on a $499 Best Buy discount notebook. Ballmer's gamble could be wasted by the very bargain-hunting buyers he tried so hard to create.

There's also compatibility, which is at once Microsoft's greatest virtue and its greatest vice. Having access to over a decade of apps and the latest games will reassure frequently stodgy corporate buyers and Call of Duty players, but that will also limit the hardware they can buy; they might never buy a tablet for those reasons, so why move on to Windows 8? And if you get an ARM-based tablet or computer of any kind, you're automatically shedding compatibility; there won't be emulation, so to get iPad-like battery life, you'll be in the same boat as any new tablet owner, rebuilding your app collection from scratch. And it may be a PlayBook owner without real app choices, not an iPad owner.

Plus, simply speaking, there's the time factor. Microsoft often likes to telegraph its moves in advance and needed to for developers to get onboard, but Windows 8 likely won't ship until late 2012. That's almost a year and a half away. In the mobile world, that's two generations off. Microsoft can crow about features now, but the iPad and its rivals aren't standing still. Apple will be shipping iOS 6 by the time we're talking about Windows 8 tablets, and while it may not equal a desktop OS for power at that stage, it could easily be a different beast.

As such, Windows 8 may well be an instance of doing everything right and going nowhere. We're seeing a much-needed rethink of computer interfaces and a much better platform for tablets than what Microsoft has offered in the past. Even so, the company is charging into a possible Waterloo against several opponents that individually wouldn't mean much but together could be fatal. The most serious Windows users don't have a need for what Windows 8 is bringing; the more mainstream users might not care or might have already bought an iPad or a Galaxy Tab by the time it's ready. And of course, Microsoft's marketing is notorious for being ineffective even when it's creative; can it even get the message out?

Ballmer has usually been a good steward of Windows and Office, but it will be a very different world in 2012 than it was in 2002 or even 2009. The same could be said for Napoleon: he was a strong leader for much of his career and even had his chance at Waterloo, but the sheer number of factors -- not all of which he could have predicted or controlled -- eventually dragged him down, and he never recovered. As much as Windows 8 could very well succeed, there's enough pressure on all sides that a failure here could leave Ballmer and Microsoft with a gradual decline they couldn't escape from. Hopefully, that doesn't include exile.

by MacNN Staff



  1. jfgilbert

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Fair analysis

    I agree with most of the article, it lists objective arguments and shows a reasonable view of the market, both attributes that are usually missing in accounts of the Microsoft/Apple/Google rivalry. I do however disagree with the last sentence: I hope that Microsoft's decline will include Ballmer's exile. It is well deserved and long overdue.

  1. MacnnChester

    Joined: Dec 1969


    desktop feel

    I have to say, I like the look of the tiles - maybe just grass is greener - compared to app icons over a picture, but hopefully by then with widgets and maybe even a bit of theme-ing, we can get those on iPads.

    Ballmer is in the bubble baby.

  1. facebook_Kevin

    Via Facebook

    Joined: Jun 2011


    Watch the videos. It's Media Center all over again

    It's still, for now, an app running on top of conventional Windows(7). In the videos they clearly show being able to run the Windows we've all come to love and hate.

    So, like MCE, you can most likely chose not to run it. Tablet versions will probably only come with the new interface and remove most the back-end Windows(7) for resource reasons. But those are tablets, so it makes sense.

    Look, Windows-is-Windows. It's core functionality is essentially unchanged since the original showing decades ago. Business and the professional market-place need the conventional windows/folders/keyboard/mouse GUI to function effectively. There is simply far too many programs and methodologies evolved for it. Microsoft is not going to wholly replace this entire system with a multi-gesture touch based one-only. There will be a choice for many Windows versions to come. Maybe at some point in the distant future all will have seen-the-light, and software at its core will be reinterpreted as a multi-touch gesture system, but not now.

    The only company that is willing to disrupt/shake-up the user and software manufacturing base that much is...well...Apple.

  1. ggore

    Joined: Dec 1969


    I don't think so.

    The touch interface will require new touch-enabled monitors, so there had better be some available when Win 8 is released, or some sort of keyboard/mouse method of controlling the interface, something Microsoft did NOT demonstrate the other day.

    People tend to kick back in their chairs when using their computers, not all the time, but a good bit of it. To expect them to lean forward and raise their arms and put greasy fingerprint schmears, dots, and tracks all over their monitors and then lean back to use their keyboard and mouse to me is just ludicrous. I have NO intention of EVER doing this.

    I suppose one could use a stylus to do the same thing, but that is just something to lose amid the cruft of papers, etc one usually has on one's desktop unless it is tethered somehow to the monitor. Business idea to make millions of dollars: a screen stylus for controlling Win8 connected to a retractable string that fastens right to the screen of your half-inch thick LED touch-monitor.

    Touch is a fine interface for an iPad or other tablet, but to use it on a 27" monitor is not something I have a hankering to do. No thanks.

  1. bluedog

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Same for OSX

    An argument that its just windows dressing on top of their old code is inapplicable here. They've rewritten the core OS to run on more than intel hardware. If I look at the description of what is being done (not having used or seen more than reviews and early reviews), its precisely the same as Apples OSX. OSX took this approach when using the NeXT OS based on BSD-Unix which is MUCH older than windows. They transformed it, put their dressing and GUI atop the unix underneath and then came up with their iOS for the iPhone and now iPad with the same BSD roots underneath.

    Its one of the smarter directions I've seen Microsoft taking rather than their misguided Windows Mobile from 1998 requiring complete rewrites of software to make things work. I suspect the Windows Mobile 7 isn't quite the transformation but was the 'dressing' they were looking to achieve, and Windows 8 will deliver. Have you noticed they aren't saying what they did with Vista in its pre-release hype? They aren't saying you'll get all this new features and technology that ended up being cut and delayed or transformed from the shipping product.

    Its clear the industry and consciousness of the average consumer has shifted their interest from what Microsoft is offering, yet they have a compelling product due to their leveraged place in business. For all past and recent announcements, this appears to be Microsoft's best direction yet. They certainly are feeling the heat of nimble competition from more than just Apple.

    Even though this is largely my opinion, I've been an Apple user and advocate since the early nineties. Its significant I even think Microsoft has a changing approach to their OS and distribution.

  1. Foe Hammer

    Joined: Dec 1969


    The Problem Is ...

    ... UNIX was and is a very well-known beast. Lots of folks have looked at that core over many, many years and have gotten it to be as solid as it is. Microsoft's rewriting of their core OS doesn't start with a known stable beast to begin with - and it's only a comparatively small group of Microsoft-only folks that are privy to the code. OS development-wise, it sounds like Microsoft has finally made it to the 1970's. Again.

    Better hurry boys. But no - you can't hurry this. But you have to hurry. But you can't hurry. But you have to hurry. But you can't hurry.


  1. ebeyer

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Conventional wisdom..

    Conventional wisdom holds that Microsoft is, at its core, a software company and that Apple is, at its core, a hardware company. But developments over the past couple of years have turned that paradigm on its head. The most popular consumer electronics device (in terms of units sold) of all time is the X-Box Kinect. At the same time, Apple has turned the music industry inside out with the iTunes store and is set to do it again with iCloud, whatever that turns out to be.

    It's easy for anyone, especially one who has followed technology news for years, to find themselves bewildered. Stay tuned.

  1. BigMac2

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Same? not so much

    Microsoft use to call so many different OS Windows it become really hard to sort this out. The actual Windows NT kernel Microsoft is using was coming from dying Vax VMS land and was developed in the mid 80. and until vista the GUI was not hardware accelerated nor vectorised like NeXTStep or MacOS X with their Postscript display.

    Microsoft never made their OS portable, and they don't use the same kernel for desktop and mobile OS. Microsoft made a big mistake on naming everything Windows for product there not compatible to each other just like Windows 8 tablet and Windows 8 Desktop will be.

  1. hayesk

    Joined: Dec 1969



    ...Microsoft really went back to the drawing board, overhauled the OS, and made it stable, secure, easy to use, and productive, then I don't see why it'd be a problem for anyone to use, including Mac users. After all, I don't know about you, but I use a Mac because it sucks the least - it has room for improvement too.

    But MS will not do that, they're afraid to disappoint the legacy Windows users out there, and for good reason. For this reason, MS will never outdo MacOS X in the usability department.

  1. viktorob

    Joined: Dec 1969


    So windows wins?

    "Apple will be shipping iOS 6 by the time we're talking about Windows 8 tablets"
    So 6 is less than 8, then Windows wins, is it?
    Thats what Steve Ballmer thinks, that since they are in windows 7 and Apple is in iOS 4, they still 2 generations ahead. I believe some one at microsoft is playing tricks on him.

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