Windows 8: Worth the wait, but is it too late? 15 Sep 11

Windows 8 video demo screengrab

The release of Windows 8 is now in the home stretch, and the vast majority of the world’s computers are about to begin getting the digital equivalent of a complete makeover.

The newest form of Windows — which, despite all the attention Apple gets, still operates more than 90 percent of computers — has a couple of things going for it. It supposedly will run anything that runs on Windows 7 so there won’t be that awful, elongated period when software is suddenly no longer compatible with your machine.

More importantly, Windows 8 borrows heavily from the relatively new user interface metaphors for tablets, which will make it much more palatable for tablet makers to offer Microsoft what could be a third strong contender (along with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android) on this surging device vertical.

If there is a heaven, this version of Windows will no longer be what has been seen by many as cavalier attempts to force a bad variation of full-blown Windows on mobile devices, tablets and smartphones. Instead, Microsoft seems to be walking away from the Golden Goose that has been its OSstrategy. In a way, there is no clearer acknowledgement of the direction the computing world is going.

It’s sort of make or break for Microsoft in a long-term sense. The company that first touted the tablet as the wave of the 21st Century but couldn’t close the deal is now going all-in based on momentum which eluded them a few short years ago but was brilliantly exploited by Apple.

Microsoft is a sort of widows and orphans company in tech: They pay a dividend, take in lots of money from software sales, leases and support, and have an overwhelming lead in the installed base sweepstakes. But in the hearts and minds of the self-anointed technorati, Microsoft has not been synonymous with cool for a long time.

For a while that didn’t really matter. When you print money and are a virtual monopoly, it’s almost better not to be on the tip of anyone’s tongue (especially government regulators) and be a grudging favorite of IT departments and people for whom cost is the main consideration, given the Apple cost premium for traditional computers. For a long time, the only credible competitor was Apple, a gnat in terms of market share (even now in the traditional space) and prospects (back in 1997, when Microsoft helped to bail its competitor out).

This isn’t like the time this sleeping giant decided to wake up to the Internet revolution, finally take Netscape and AOL seriously, and start a war which pushed aside upstarts and extended their dominance in the browser space they had largely ignored. There is a mobile Internet revolution going on, Apple is setting the agenda, and there are a thousand small players who could change the game at any time.

We will only know when the PC era has ended in retrospect. It won’t just be when other kinds of computers outsell laptops and desktops — it will be when college students, grandmas, road warriors and cubicle slaves use one only when they are forced to a public library or some Internet cafe in a Middle Eastern backwater village.

We aren’t there yet, because tablets don’t do everything we need to do, and we don’t think of them as complete replacements. I am writing this on an iPad, and have used one since before they were available to the public, but even I can’t do everything my computing life requires on it. I reach for my iPhone to do many things — some that even a tablet seems cumbersomely inappropriate for. And if I have to do a lot of things, quickly, and use a keyboard a lot, and read a lot, I still go to a “real” computer.

The thing is, I can see the writing on the wall, and so can Microsoft. Until now, its mobile strategy hasn’t resonated nearly enough, arguably because the need to support the cash cow that is Windows has imposed design parameters for mobile operating software that objectively makes no sense. With Windows 8, Microsoft is taking a leap — not of faith, but with its core strategy.

It’s the right — and only — call to make. The question is, will there be any room for error, and yet another re-boot with a future (horrors) Windows 9?