As an Enterprise Architect and Editor for your friendly neighborhood technical blog, I spend quite a bit of time trying to read through the pea-soup Redmond fog to make educated guesses on where Microsoft is going with their technologies and tools. This used to be a lot easier, with most new products and features leaking out of Microsoft like a sieve through MSDN blogs or direct interaction with employees at the occasional conference. But lately they’ve slammed the blinds shut on prying eyes like mine in an attempt to pull some Apple-esque product marketing coups; a move that has left many an industry expert to speculate on the motivations and choices they are making. In some cases, it’s the speculation and uncertainty that in fact become the news, leaving the real story to be buried under attacks on Steve Ballmer, predictions of “catastrophe”, and overall FUD. The real story is that Microsoft is taking some big chances and doing exciting things they’ve never done before… and that scares the HECK out of us!
But our fear and overall shock at the radical change in direction shouldn’t make us lose sight of the fact that some real innovation is coming our way, whether we’re ready for it or not.
As a relatively old man in this industry, I remember the days before Windows. IBM ruled the PC world and only businesses could afford them. But Bill Gates had a dream that everybody would want one of these machines and so Windows was born from OS/2′s ashes by offering a desktop GUI without the high cost memory requirements. And for the next twenty years Microsoft out maneuvered, out bought, or outright crushed anybody that threatened the dream of every person in the world having a PC, and all of those PCs running Windows. But in the past five years the very definition of “Personal” Computer has shifted from desktops to handhelds. Microsoft, clinging to their flagship desktop roots, tried mightily to jam the Windows desktop experience onto these smaller form factors only to fail miserably, a failure which has allowed competitors Microsoft thought they had successfully fought off (Apple and Linux(Android)) to become industry leaders. Now Microsoft finds itself in a tough spot, playing catch up in an industry it once monopolized.
But adversity tends to bring out character, and Windows 8 is the direct result of some clever innovation as well as some hugely courageous risk taking on Microsoft’s part. Rather than push desktop metaphors onto ill-fitting form factors in an attempt to leverage their existing marketshare, they’re putting all features up for review. Nothing is sacred, not even the beloved Start button. Like a child leaving the safety of the side of the pool, Microsoft is putting their flagship product into the deep end to compete for the new personal computer or drown trying.
Microsoft does however have a bit of a lifeline. While Windows 8 is going to usher in a new swath of tablets, ultrabooks, and touch-enabled laptops all but the most fool-hearty traditional PC desktops will remain safely on Windows 7 shores. Having just completed a large scale adoption cycle from Windows XP to Windows 7, most organizations are not in a hurry to adopt Windows 8 which could leave Microsoft with some time to sort out just how to balance their latest innovations with the reality of massive legacy deployments.
Buried in the sheer magnitude of Windows 8 features is a number of innovations that each involve their own risks. Failure on any one area is not likely to be enough to sink the whole OS, but taken together they represent a formidable amount of change for any user base to adopt.
Innovation: The Windows Runtime (WinRT) is a long overdue replacement for the aging Win32 architecture that has been the foundation of Windows since the very beginning. With first class support of the latest input, media, and networking technologies as well as the ability to use language projection to support a number of languages and environments right out of the gate, WinRT is a giant leap forward for application development. While currently limited to Metro UI styled apps only, WinRT will be the future of software development within Windows.
Innovation: The Metro UI model is a radical departure from the previous Windows GUI. In fact, it is not a windowed interface at all. Rather than opt for massive amounts of system personalization, Microsoft is instead forcing apps to follow a simpler, more consistent user experience. Metro UI applications are largely independent and full screen making window and desktop management unnecessary. New gesture based interactions allow users to quickly work with data that would have taken dozens of clicks in a mouse and keyboard world. Cross application integration is made more consistent and simpler with Charms, specific pathways for applications to interact. Finding and launching applications has become simpler with tile based menus and the removal of the Start button. Fancy animations and Aero glass effects are gone in order to avoid wasting CPU cycles, and more importantly power. No part of the user experience has been left untouched in an effort to provide a simpler, faster, and more fluid user interface.
Risk: Innovation or change in user experience by definition is disruptive. Even so, the Metro UI represents a heck of a learning curve, particularly for those of us who have been using windowed base GUIs for the past two decades. Many of the fundamental UI metaphors have changed. Furthermore, while the new Metro UI works well with tablet or other touch enabled devices traditional desktop users have found many of the changes incredibly frustrating. By forcing their users to learn a new way of working with their computers, Microsoft is both setting themselves up as a source of user malcontent and also opening the door for these users to switch to what could possibly end up being a more familiar interface; OSX.
Innovation: While it’s not exactly the first app store around, the market for Metro apps on Windows makes the Apple App Store look like small potatoes. By creating a consistent source for all Metro apps on the Windows OS, Microsoft is going to make applications easier to find, install, and execute. And of course, much to the delight of Microsoft shareholders they will be able to rake in a percentage of every app sold. But Microsoft is also incenting developers to make their apps available for trial at no cost, so consumers will be able to take advantage of more free software than ever before. Also by allowing ads and custom billing solutions within apps, the Windows Store will be considerably more developer friendly than the Apple AppStore. And lets not forget about XBox Live integration which will help to converge our PCs with our living room entertainment.
Risk: While Windows 8 Pro users will still be able to download software directly to their machines outside the Windows Store, or insert a CD for installation, Microsoft has decided to lock down the Windows RT version (version running on ARM devices) to only allow apps to be installed via the Windows Store. In the past this sort of thing would be met with the wrath of government fair-trade watchdogs or involve multi-buhzillion dollar fines in Europe. But Microsoft is the underdog in mobile devices with no monopoly to protect and so its unclear whether this will meet with the same fate as having IE or Windows Media Player pre-installed in prior versions of Windows. Regardless of which version the user installs though, Microsoft is going to have an immediate and open conduit to consumers from which to sell apps through their stores. Companies like Valve who operate an app store for Windows games are directly threatened by Windows Store and have been pretty darned vocal about their concerns. Others cite concerns over possible Windows Store censorship of competing apps including the FireFox and Google browsers which won’t be able to run in Desktop mode on Windows RT.
Innovation: Microsoft has seldom ventured into the hardware manufacturing space, but for Windows 8 they have developed two different versions of tablet devices. These devices will showcase the Windows 8 experience as Microsoft intends it to be experienced by consumers without OEM interpretation or bloatware. Shipping in a smaller, less powerful ARM version as well as an x86 ultrabook replacement model the devices themselves are well designed and equipped with features common to most tablets today. One rather innovative feature is their smart covers that incorporate a touch senstive keyboard and mousepad into the screen protection. While pricing is still yet to be defined these tablets are intended to compete directly with the iPad and Android tablets.
Risk: In a recent SEC filing, Microsoft admitted that by competing with their OEM partners in the tablet space they run the risk of alienating their long term Windows partners. In addition to the competition created by the Surface tablet Microsoft has also further limited the Windows RT OEM partners to only two per ARM chip provider (Lenovo, Asus, Toshiba, and Samsung thus far have been identified). HP has already dropped out of the Windows RT market favoring the larger x86 models instead. By attempting to strictly control the hardware side of the equation with Windows 8, Microsoft is walking a thin line between partner and overlord. While the intent is clearly to make sure that consumers get the best Windows 8 experience possible, they are turning what was once an open market into a much more restrictive one which could force OEMs to reconsider their support for competing operating systems.
While the grand scale of the changes Windows 8 represents come with certain risks, some of which I’ve written about and certainly many more I’m not able to see from my vantage point, one thing is very clear. Microsoft isn’t backing down from the challenge to create a new user experience. Even in the face of some pretty stiff criticism (some by yours truly), you gotta give them credit for being willing to put Windows itself on the line.