This is it – it’s finally out. As of this morning, you can now put down your £25 upgrade fee, and purchase the finished version of Microsoft’s new operating system. Windows 8 is the fat fruit of more than three years of labour to produce an OS that can ensure Microsoft’s continued relevancy in a touch-oriented world. With PC sales stalled, and smartphones and tablets on target to outsell PCs in the next few years, Windows 8 must succeed.
Microsoft knows this, of course, but that doesn’t mitigate the conundrum that it faces: The entire Microsoft empire is built upon the desktop – upon Office – and yet here the behemoth is, backed into a corner and forced to develop a touch-based operating system that confounds billions of users, and spits in the face of millions of developers and specialists whose livelihoods have been built on desktop Windows.
Faced with this dilemma, Microsoft chose the easy way out: It developed a fantastic touch-first interface – the new-style (Metro) Start screen, Windows RT – and slapped it on top of an updated version of Windows 7. You can see the Microsoft boardroom now: “We can have the best of both worlds!” says Steven Sinofsky. “A desktop UI to keep our current customers and stockholders happy, and a tablet UI that will crush Apple and Google.”
As consumers who actually have to interact with this crazy, cross-paradigm hodgepodge of an interface, the utter ludicrousness of this decision is plain to see. For developers and specialists, though, the problem is far worse. For these experts, who are the actual lifeblood of the Windows ecosystem, Windows 8 comes across as confused. If you’re baffled by Windows 8, then I assure you that developers, sysadmins, and other businessy types are looking at Windows 8 with the same agape, aghast scrutiny that one gives a circus freak.
You see, in business, the absolute worst thing is uncertainty. The last 30 years of Windows might have had its ups and downs, but at the end of the day Microsoft has provided a very stable platform that millions of commercial entities have used to create trillions of dollars in profits.
The Windows ecosystem, if we were to tally up all first-party and third-party profits over the last 30 years, is probably one of the richest veins the world has ever seen. It is this stability (and eventual monopoly) that catapulted Microsoft to the top of the stock market in the 90s, and has kept it in the top 10 ever since.
In short, Windows (and Microsoft to a major degree) is only as valuable as its ecosystem. You might not like Win32 or .NET, but the sheer fact that you can create an app that can instantly be used and understood by two billion users is incredibly empowering. Take that stability away, and instead of an obsidian, unassailable bulwark, you are left with a precarious pyramid of cards that’s just waiting to be pushed over by Apple or Google or Mozilla or, well, just about any tech company that has spent its life in the shadow of the Microsoft monolith.
With the release of Windows 8, no one in the software industry really knows what to expect. Microsoft, with assurances that it’s the Next Big Cash Cow, has tried to lead third-party developers to the promised land of Metro apps – but as evinced by the severe lack of Metro apps, developers clearly aren’t taking the bait.
Likewise, it still isn’t clear how the IT industry is meant to cope with Windows 8. Are enterprises meant to create Metro versions of their in-house, bespoke apps? Should support departments brush up on their Metro skills, or is it wiser to just ban Metro from the workplace? Oh, but wait: Banning Metro isn’t possible, because Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, hasn’t even included a group policy to disable Metro.
Perhaps most worryingly, though, consumers don’t seem to be on board with Windows 8. Windows 7 flew off the shelves when it was released in 2009, and went on to become the fastest selling operating system of all time. With two billion non-touch-enabled PCs in the world, and only small, mostly-cosmetic changes to the Desktop side of things, can you really see Windows 8 following in its predecessor’s footsteps? The inability to configure or disable Metro all but nullifies Windows 8′s chances of success in an enterprise setting, too.
When giants fall
With Windows 8, everyone can see that Microsoft is uncertain about the future of PCs – and uncertainty coming from one of the world’s largest companies is cripplingly contagious. By keeping the Desktop around – even on Windows RT, which can only run four desktop apps! – Microsoft is signalling to consumers, developers, specialists, stockholders, and employees that it hasn’t a clue what the future holds. Compare this to Apple, which always exalts its operating systems and devices as the best thing since sliced bread, even if they aren’t.
It might have sounded like a good idea in the boardroom, but by shipping an operating system with an identity crisis Microsoft has put itself in an almost untenable position. Barring a miraculous intervention by third-party app developers, Windows 8 looks like it will be a jack of all trades, but master of none. On mobile, iOS and Android’s ecosystems will prevail; on desktop, Windows 7 will be hard to supplant.
Instead of hedging its bets, Microsoft should have risked it all on an honest-to-God tablet operating system. Sure, it might’ve failed, but at least it wouldn’t have poisoned the incredibly lucrative Windows well. Instead of equivocating and vacillating and hopping from one foot to the other in something resembling an awkward rain dance, Microsoft should’ve shown the world that it’s serious about mobile computing. In one fell swoop, Microsoft was praying that it could stitch up the mobile and desktop platforms into one neat little package; instead, I fear that Microsoft may have blown it all.
For more on Windows 8, see our full review of the operating system here.