Last October, Microsoft announced Windows 8 at a huge launch event in New York City. Microsoft, along with its partners, had high hopes that this new version of Windows would capture the attention of the market and start growing its PC's fortunes again. Well, that has not happened.
In fact, last quarter's PC sales were off by at least five per cent and Windows 8 has failed to become the hit Microsoft and its vendors hoped it would be. Acer posted a 28 per cent drop in fourth-quarter shipments from a year earlier and its president, Jim Wong, said at the launch: "Windows 8 itself is still not successful." He added: "The whole market didn't come back to growth after the Windows 8 launch, that's a simple way to judge if it is successful or not."
Microsoft refutes this and says that more than 60 million Windows 8 licenses have been sold to date. This is a shipped number, however, and not necessarily representative of actual purchased licenses by users. It also says it is on par with the record-setting pace of Windows 7. Yet when I talk to OEM vendors, they insist that Windows 8 has been slow to take off and is not causing new demand for their products at this time.
So, why has Windows 8 been slow to gain favour with consumers and businesses alike? There are a lot of reasons for this, but I want to focus on a couple that have become rather obvious to me.
The first has to do with Microsoft's own marketing of Windows 8. Put simply, I don't believe it has clearly stated the value of this new OS, and has actually caused confusion in some users' minds about Windows 8 and its touch features.
A rather good example of this comes from a dealer who told me that a customer with a two year old laptop came in having downloaded Windows 8, and wanted to know why the touchscreen on Windows 8 did not work. For many others, the exclusion of the Start menu has been puzzling. Some have also found the tiling metaphor of Windows 8's touch panel has a steep learning curve. Microsoft's Windows 8 marketing campaign has simply failed to resonate with many users.
But aside from some marketing issues, Microsoft transitioned from Windows 7 to Windows 8 using what I believe was flawed thinking. The company believed that its partners would start shipping touch-based laptops in huge volumes at consumer-friendly prices.
Consequently, Microsoft put an emphasis on laptops with touchscreens for the launch of Windows 8, but vendors have only been able to deliver touch-based laptops in price ranges that consumers feel are too expensive. In fact, at Creative Strategies, our research shows that US consumers think anything higher than $599 (£380) is too expensive, no matter what the features of the laptop. That means that touch-based laptops priced from $799 to $999 (£510 to £640) – as most are – are out of reach for most consumers.
The bigger problem is that prices of touch-based notebooks will not come down into consumer-friendly price ranges this year. Any solid laptop with 4GB of RAM and at least 128GB of flash or a 250GB HD will still be at least $699 (£450), and most likely $799 to $899 as touch-based screens add anywhere from $120 to $180 (£75 to £115) to the bill of materials (BOM).
I don't foresee touch-based screens dropping in price until panel suppliers can get better yields and increased volumes, which won't likely happen until early 2014 at best. Without cheaper touch-based computers, it's wishful thinking for Microsoft to hope for faster adoption of Windows 8 beyond what is shipped by OEMs this year.
So, what could Microsoft have done to ensure broader consumer acceptance of Windows 8? I believe it should have worked with what it could influence in the short term, and built up to a touch-based laptop eventually, in the future.
You may have noticed that while Apple is big on touch with the iPhone and the iPad, it is absent from any of its desktops or laptops. Yet, it has added touch-like features such as "pinch and zoom" and swipe gestures in OS X. It delivers these touch features through its more cost-effective Magic Trackpad, however, because it knew early on that adding a touchscreen to notebooks or desktops would attach a significant extra cost to its products.
Touchpads cost a fraction of touchscreens, and they would have been the ideal first step towards integrating touch into a Windows 8 desktop or notebook platform and acquainting people with Windows' new tiling metaphor. But for some reason, Microsoft jumped ahead with an assumption that touch-based laptops and desktops would be plentiful, and it designed Windows 8 for these types of products from the beginning.
By my estimate, this move probably cost the company at least 18 months in lost opportunity when it comes to the initial adoption of Windows 8 by the mass market.
The good news is that in 2013, we will finally see touchpads optimised for Windows 8 that, like Apple's Magic Trackpads, mimic the touch gestures of a touchscreen via this method of input. More importantly, these new touchpads should not add much more then $20 (£13) to the retail cost of a notebook, making that $599 (£380) consumer target for a touchpad-optimised Windows 8 laptop possible. (Of course, UK laptop prices will be more than a straight currency conversion, with the usual premium added, as ever – but the fact remains that they will still get more affordable).
Microsoft has been working with all of the trackpad suppliers to deliver better support for Windows 8, but the only one that I have seen and tested is the Synaptics ForcePad, which should be in many machines by mid-year. If you have the time, check out the video below that shows exactly how this new touchpad can be used with Windows 8 notebooks to deliver an experience similar to a touchscreen toting laptop.
I have no doubt that touch is the future of personal computing user interfaces, even on desktops and notebooks. While touch was instantly acceptable as an input and navigation medium on smartphones and tablets, this type of UI is quite drastic on PCs and laptops, given generations of users who have become comfortable with keyboards and mice.
Windows 8 and its touch UI is a step in the right direction; however, I think that if Microsoft had made gesture-based touchpads the cornerstone of the initial Windows 8 adoption cycle, it would have had more success from the start. The good news is that with smart touchpads integrated into most laptops shortly, Windows 8 could gain a broader appeal in the next year.