Microsoft’s Windows 8 is nearly finished, and it’s a significant break with Microsoft’s past.The company has built a “two-in-one” operating system that attempts to appeal to two fast-growing markets at once.
The new “Metro” interface was designed for touch screens, and is meant to make Windows (finally) viable on tablets. That’s the fastest-growing market in portable computing: unit sales are predicted to grow nearly 3x to nearly 200 million units by 2016. (See first chart.)
There’s also a traditional “desktop” interface, which is used to run old Windows apps. It’s meant to keep Windows strong in the portable PC market, which is starting from a much higher base, and is still expected to grow 70% by 2016, to about 360 million units.
The risk, as outlined very well by former Palm and Apple employee Michael Mace in a recent blog post, is that by doing two things at once, Microsoft will do both poorly. In this outcome it will not capture the tablet market from Apple, and will also alienate millions of existing Windows users and corporate buyers, and spur them to consider an alternate platform.
Our initial impression, based on the nearly-final version of Windows 8 released today, running on a non-production laptop (not tablet), suggests this is a real risk. Specifically:
- For consumers interested in tablets, it’s more complicated than the iPad. Windows 8 does more things than iOS — including running millions of legacy Windows apps in a classic Windows desktop, and making it easy for apps to share data, among many other differentiators. But it requires more training to use. In particular, users will have to learn to “swipe from the edge” to get certain core features, and some of those features change depending on where you are in the operating system, and from app to app. Microsoft will have to convince consumers that the extra features are worth this additional complexity.
- For corporate PC buyers, it’s too different from older versions of Windows. Although Windows 8 has a classic desktop available, traditional Windows users cannot ignore the new “Metro” interface — all Windows 8 PCs launch into it, and certain functions can be done only with Metro. This could make Windows 8 a hard sell to corporations, who will only train employees on a new product if they’re convinced it will make them more productive. (Microsoft has strongly hinted that it expects corporations on old versions of Windows to upgrade to Windows 7 first, then Windows 8 later.)
However, there could be a sweet spot for Windows 8: individual business users who are buying a single personal device that they want to use both at work and at home.
During work hours, the Windows 8 PC would be used like a regular PC, with access to standard corporate apps that were written for older versions of Windows, and users would spend most of their time in the desktop. Outside work, it could be used primarily to consume content, play games, and interact on social networks — the kinds of activities that are best on a tablet, and that Metro is perfectly suited for.
Photo: Good Technology
This plays into the growing “bring your own device” (BYOD) trend in corporations, where individual users bring new devices in, and IT departments are forced to figure out how to manage them.As recent studies from Good Technology suggest, a lot of tablets are finding their way into big corporations this way — 72% of companies Good surveyed in October 2011 are considering a formal BYOD program, versus only 60% at the beginning of 2011.
Most of those tablets today are iPads. (See chart 2.) This is where Microsoft has its best chance of blocking the iPad, or at least capturing some of the inevitable growth from BYOD tablets in the workplace.
Microsoft’s PC partners can serve this market by making convertible two-in-one devices, which easily change from a tablet into a computer with keyboard, or “dockable” tablets that can be plugged into a keyboard and used like a regular PC.
Microsoft can serve this market by ensuring that Windows 8 tablets can be easily managed and secured with current tools, which would spur IT departments to support them (and perhaps favour them) in formal BYOD policies. It could also help end users by making the Windows 8 desktop more like the traditional desktop, so work users can truly spend most of their work time in the classic desktop without having to learn the quirks of Metro — allowing them to remain fully productive when they switch.
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