Microsoft makes its stand
Microsoft will launch Windows 8 at events around the world this week. The new operating system represents the software maker’s biggest crack yet at remaining relevant in the post-PC era. Windows 8 introduces the most radical overhaul of the user interface since 1995. It’s do-or-die time. By Duncan McLeod.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world are intimately familiar with it. It’s been a cornerstone of Microsoft’s operating-system software since then-CEO Bill Gates unveiled Windows 95 more than 17 years ago. Yet, this Friday, when the US software giant releases Windows 8 to the general public after years of development, it will abandon the “Start” button that has almost come to define modern personal computing.
There’s logic to this apparent madness. It’s part of a radical redesign of Windows — the software that came to define the PC era — as Microsoft attempts to make itself relevant in an era of touch-screen tablets and slates and, soon, hybrid form factors that blend traditional and mobile computing.
Microsoft watched as rivals Apple and Google turned the smartphone business on its head, consigning Windows Mobile — now Windows Phone — to the periphery. It watched, too, as the iPad, built on the same operating system as the iPhone, came to dominate the still-nascent tablet category.
With Windows 8, Microsoft is drawing a line in the sand. The new software has been designed from the ground up to run on tablets and other devices with touch screens. It will also run on more traditional form factors, offering both the Windows desktop and a new tile-based interface more suited to touch-based devices.
For many users, Windows 8 is going to present a steep initial learning curve. On touch-based devices like tablets, the interface is fairly intuitive; on traditional keyboard- and mouse-driven systems finding things can be a little trickier. The Windows button on keyboards suddenly becomes much more important than it was on earlier versions of the software, and users are going to have to familiarise themselves with the new software’s use of “hot corners”.
On traditional Windows-based PCs, users will still spend most of their time in the desktop rather than the new tile-driven environment. But Microsoft is betting the farm that computing is moving to touch-based devices – so much so that it’s releasing a version of the software for tablets called Windows RT, which dispenses of the traditional desktop, offering only the new tile interface.
Though Windows RT will be sufficient for many consumers, others will demand the power of the full Windows 8 experience. Apple doesn’t have an equivalent product — not yet, anyway — and this could prove to be a trump card for Microsoft.
Also this week, the company will begin selling its own tablet computers, called Surface, in a move that has already ruffled feathers among its traditional PC partners. It’s clear Microsoft is frustrated that its partners have not come up with hardware able to knock the iPad off its pedestal and feels it can do a better job of it. Unconfirmed talk is it could even debut its own smartphones and PCs.
The company appears to be taking a leaf out of Google’s playbook by developing its own reference hardware designs while still trying to keep hardware partners sweet. It’s a tightrope it’s walking. It will need to be careful it doesn’t drive its hardware partners into the arms of Google, whose Android operating system is already dominant in smartphones and making steady inroads in tablets.
With the release of Windows 8 on Friday, Microsoft is making a stand. As it did 15 years ago, when the Internet threatened to overwhelm it, it’s sending a clear message that it’s not going to be knocked over as another seismic upheaval shakes the foundations of the technology industry. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media