The Fate of Windows 8: Hate, Great or Late?

Challenged on several fronts, the pressure is on Microsoft to deliver an outstanding next generation operating system.
Don't look now, but here comes another version of Microsoft Windows.

We'll probably see the release of a public beta of Windows 8 at Microsoft's developers conference in September. You'll be able to download and install the beta in just five months. The company has already shipped closed test builds to PC makers.

Are you ready for a new version of Windows?

Is Microsoft?

The smart money is on Windows 8 shipping next year, at the same time as the Internet Explorer 10 (IE10) browser, which will run only on newer Microsoft operating systems, including Windows 7 and Windows 8, and probably an upcoming version of Windows Phone.

Microsoft has succeeded wildly in the past with versions 95, XP and the current version, Windows 7. These wins contrast sharply with catastrophic fails in the form of Windows ME and Windows Vista. The big question is: Will Windows 8 win or fail? Will users love it or hate it?

The stakes have never been higher for Microsoft. The lateness and general low quality of Windows Vista hurt the company's reputation, and made way for the rise in popularity and market share of Apple's Mac OS X. The company can't afford another Vista.

The new operating system beta will be released into a rapidly changing PC world. Apple's Mac OS X Lion will probably be launched this summer -- before the Windows 8 beta -- and is expected to be a hot release.

The Apple iPad has succeeded in the tablet space where Microsoft has tried for years to gain traction. The iPad is driving demand for bigger and better MPG tablet-style computing, even on the desktop. Linux, Chrome OS, Android and other threats still lurk.

How will Microsoft leverage Windows 8 to slow the decline in Windows market share?

A controversial series of allegedly leaked screenshots appear to show that the next version of Windows will support a built-in PDF reader, as well as a full-blown app store that sells everything from tiny tablet apps to Microsoft Office.

Some say the screenshots are fake. Still, we know quite a lot about Microsoft's plans even without the screenshots.

In addition to supporting all the usual Intel chips, Windows 8 is being designed to run on a new generation of "system-on-a-chip" platforms, including low-power ARM chip devices, something that is probably panicking longtime partner Intel. It's also expected to feature faster boot-up times.

A new interface will offer a revamped multi-touch, physics and gestures (MPG) for tablet systems in what is probably a too-little, too-late attempt to catch the Apple iPad. As I've said in this space before, the winning strategy would be for Microsoft to offer a Windows Phone 7 tablet edition. But it appears at present that Microsoft wants to keep pursuing what has thus far been a losing strategy: Full desktop Windows on tablets.

The dark-horse feature that could really change how people use Windows would be a Kinect-style gesture interface for controlling everyday apps -- or at least games -- on desktop PCs. Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 is the fastest-growing consumer gadget in history. A PC interface for Kinect built into Windows 8 would require dedicated hardware to be built either by Microsoft or OEM partners.

So-called Kinect hackers have already created home-made versions of this kind of interface using Microsoft's own Kinect platform.

Microsoft also hopes to integrate cloud support in the new OS, with Office 365 available via a subscription as one example.

The Trouble with XP

The impending release of Windows 8 highlights a legacy problem for Microsoft. How do you get rid of old versions of Windows?

Windows XP shipped ten years ago, and only this month did Windows 7 overtake XP in usage in the United States. Globally, XP still dominates with over 46 percent share.

People talk about Windows competing with OS X and Linux, but the real competition for each new version of Windows is all the old versions.

Windows 7 shipped two years ago, and it still hasn't reached the 1/3 mark in terms of overall usage (fewer than 32 percent of all US Windows users use Windows 7 and fewer than 20 percent use Windows Vista).

Microsoft has long tried to differentiate from Apple by supporting much older software and hardware, making Windows radically backward compatible. But it's not clear that the benefits outweigh the system complexity this strategy requires. At some point, Microsoft needs to cut ties with the past, and force users to upgrade both hardware and software.

In the meantime, the Windows 8 beta is hotly anticipated. This will be a crucial launch for the Redmond giant. The company has all the technology and expertise needed to blow away the competition and strengthen its dominance in the desktop operating system, and with it, considerable control over the direction of consumer, business and enterprise computing.

But to succeed, Microsoft will need to bring it all together, and aggressively ship its very best technology in one integrated, well-orchestrated release.

Can they do it?

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