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Windows 8: a Competitive Assessment

by Mark W. Hibben

The Vision

Since Microsoft first previewed Windows 8 in June 2011, they have hewed to a vision of the future of personal computing in stark contrast with Apple’s public pronouncements.  It is a vision of ubiquitous touch screens, on desktops, laptops, tablets and phones.  Given this premise, the logic of Windows 8 was simple and compelling: a single unified touch enabled OS that would provide a unified and coherent user experience across all touch devices and which would support the principal computing processor architectures from Intel and ARM.  Meanwhile, Apple management have steadfastly resisted acknowledging the validity of the Microsoft vision, even as they continue to evolve Mac OS X towards the touch-enabled future.  They know it’s coming too, even if they can’t bring themselves to admit that Microsoft have gotten out in front, for once.  Thus, Tim Cook continues to dis Windows 8 in public with statements such as “Anything can be forced to converge. . .”

The real question is how best to get to the touch screen future.  OS X Lion was introduced with a “Back to the Mac” theme, i.e. bringing iOS features to Mac OS X.  Multi-touch gesture support and the Magic Track Pad, along with full screen apps and window scrolling without scroll bars were all innovations of Lion which moved OS X closer to being a touch screen enabled OS.  Apple’s approach is evolutionary, Microsoft’s is leap-ahead. 

Microsoft and Apple have also adopted fundamentally different business strategies for their OS products, as illustrated in the accompanying diagrams. 

Unlike Apple, Microsoft moves Wintel into a space completely ignored by Apple, the touchscreen enabled desktop, laptop and tablet, all powered by Intel processors. 

Initially, Microsoft showed some ultra-light laptops (sans touch screens) with ARM processors, which would have extended RT into the lower left quadrant.  These have died on the vine as I predicted they would in my Tech Chat for August 5, 2011.  They were netbooks even more computationally underpowered than Atom-based netbooks, without even the saving grace of being able to run existing Windows software. 

As the months have worn on since Windows 8 was first previewed, Apple’s ignoring (at least in public) of the Intel-Touchscreen quadrant has come to seem an increasingly glaring omission.  Given how close Mac OS X Mountain Lion already is to being fully touch screen capable, I believe that Apple has such a device waiting in the wings, ready in case the Windows 8 strategy succeeds in the market place.

The Reality

Compulsive early-adopter that I am, I bought a copy of Win8 Pro as soon as it became available on October 26 and installed it on a mid-grade Core 2 Quad 9550 PC I keep mostly as back-up.  I also bought a Logitech t650 wireless Touchpad, which is compatible with Win8, providing full multi-touch and gesture support.  While I mainly wanted to see how well Win8 worked as a conventional desktop OS, I wanted to take advantage of the features of what was called, this time last year, the Metro interface.   Now, it’s just called the Start Screen. 

I liked Metro in its earlier incarnation, and I like the Start Screen now.  No one can accuse Microsoft of ripping off the Start Screen look and feel.  It’s totally original, engaging and responsive.  The Live tiles, with their ability to update useful information in real time, make iOS app icons seem a little dry and boring.  There’s danger of information overload, however, and many consumers may feel that Win8’s Start Screen isn’t as simple and intuitive as either iOS or Android.  Since Metro, the color schemes available for the Start Screen have been toned down, so that Day-Glo Green tiles are no longer the norm.  There’s a choice of color schemes and backgrounds, but no background photos, since the tiles obscure most of the background. 
Windows 8 apps are inherently full screen, touch enabled apps that conform to the look and feel of the start screen.  Multiple apps can run concurrently, and you can switch between them relatively quickly by swiping from the left edge of the touchscreen or the touchpad.  It’s also possible to view two apps in a split screen mode where one app occupies about 75% of the screen and the other app the remainder.  Here I come to my first real misgiving about Windows 8 on the desktop PC.  With resizable windows and multiple monitors, many concurrent apps can be viewed simultaneously, and switching between them is simply a matter of clicking on the appropriate Window.  When I ask myself if I would ever want to give up the flexibility of resizable windows, the answer comes back resoundingly “No!” 

Resizable windows are, of course, the norm for the Windows 7 compatibility mode, known simply as the Desktop, that’s available in Win8.  The Desktop affords compatibility with all existing Windows 7 applications, and also hosts most of the system management tools that Windows users have become accustomed to, including the Control Panel and Computer Management. 

Although there’s a Windows 8 PC Settings app (full screen, touch enabled) that handles mundane personalization chores, if you really want to manage your computer, Windows 8 falls back on the desktop.  Although Microsoft has claimed that converting apps to Windows 8 is easy, very little system administration functionality has been converted.  You can pin these tools to the Start Screen, but starting one of them dumps you unceremoniously into the Desktop. 

When Windows 8 was introduced at Build 2011, one got the impression that Desktop mode was there simply as a compatibility mode for soon-to-be obsolete Windows 7 apps.  With the as delivered Windows 8 Pro one is confronted with a duality of incompatible user interfaces that Microsoft seems to want to present as the norm.  For instance, if you want to use more than one monitor, then that second monitor will only be in Desktop mode.  Windows 8 apps, including the Start Screen, are not only full screen, they are single screen.  The wall between the Windows 8 apps and Desktop apps appears insurmountable.  An app can belong to one or the other world but never bridge the two.  Although Microsoft’s demonstrations have focused on the Start Screen and Windows 8 apps, in fact, with Windows 8 Pro, the user has no realistic hope of being able to stay in the Windows 8 mode exclusively. 

The frequency with which one is tossed back and forth between the two OS modes is disconcerting.  Microsoft’s decision to eliminate the Start Button from the Desktop mode and force users to launch all apps from the Start Screen only increases this frequency.  And here I come to my second major misgiving about Windows 8.  The elimination of the Start Menu from the task bar greatly impairs the utility of Desktop mode.  Although switching to the Start Screen is nearly instantaneous, it just isn’t as convenient as a pop-up menu. 

The need to use Desktop mode for system management, combined with the elimination of the Start menu in Desktop mode make Windows 8 feel very poorly integrated.  Desktop mode is clearly a second class citizen in the new Win 8 world, yet Microsoft relies on it so heavily.  The sense of demotion of the Desktop is also underscored by the lack of translucent window frames.  Since Vista, Windows users have been conditioned to regard their systems as inadequate if they couldn’t run the Aero mode, which was only available if your system passed a series of tests that Windows 7 performed.  Although translucent Window frames had little practical value, I still liked them and found them far more attractive than Mac OS X. 

The true bright spot of Windows 8 is how well it handles apps, both the new Win 8 apps available through the Microsoft store as well as existing Windows 7 apps.  Those of us who have lived in the Windows world know that app installation is far from an effortless process, and even after installation, compatibility issues can arise between the app, the installed system drivers, and other apps.  The price to be paid for the relative abundance of Windows software was always in the various system integration issues that cropped up.  Installation of Windows 8 apps downloaded from the Microsoft store is now as effortless as installing an iOS or Mac OS app from the Apple stores, and this is a real accomplishment which will go far towards expanding the Windows 8 app ecosystem.  Installing existing Windows 7 apps works as well as it always has.  Installation occurs in Desktop mode, and the apps will only be available in Desktop mode.  The key difference is that the Start screen gets a tile for the installed Desktop app. 

The Assessment

Reviews of Windows 8 have tended to be a little circumspect about recommending it for non-touchscreen PCs.  PC World’s Lloyd Case stated: “Windows 8 isn’t for everyone. If you’re mostly a desktop PC user comfortable with Windows 7, upgrading to Windows 8 is probably not worthwhile.”  Wired’s Alexandra Chang danced around the issue a bit: “Just like any new software release, there are many little annoyances — things that you’d expect to work one way, but don’t. If these bumps sound minor to you, then yes, upgrade to Windows 8.” 

I’ll be more blunt: existing Windows 7 users will tend to regard Windows 8 as a downgrade rather than an upgrade and be chagrined at having paid for it.  I therefore expect the upgrade market for Win8 to all but dry up.  At BUILD 2012 last week, Steve Ballmer pointed out that there were 670 million Windows users who were potential upgrade candidates for Windows 8.  He also stated that in the first weekend, Microsoft had sold 4 M copies of Windows 8 Pro, but then admitted that this included copies in retail channel inventories and not necessarily the number sold to end users. 

A clue to the number of Windows store downloads of Windows 8 could be seen in Ballmer’s presentation, in which he demos correcting his own presentation where he states the Windows sales number to be 3.5 M, penciling in the addition 500K. 

So it appears that 500K users downloaded the Windows 8 upgrade, and 3.5 million Windows 8 Pro retail packages were shipped off to retailers.  Not a particularly impressive start given that Google activates more than a million Android systems every day, and Apple about half that.  After the existing Windows 7 users see what they’re getting, I expect the upgrade number to decline precipitously, with about 1% of Windows 7 users having upgraded by the end of the year. 

I also expect sales of non-touchscreen PCs to be seriously impaired by the negative buzz that will be generated regarding Windows 8, which is already apparent on any number of support forums.  At BUILD, Ballmer stated an expectation of 400 M Windows 8 and RT systems to be sold in the coming year.  It’s not clear what the mix of touch screen vs. non-touch screen devices is expected to be , but I expect the sales of non-touch screen laptops and desktops to be depressed, so I expect the total sales to be 300-350 M.  Not that Mac OS X will pick up the slack.  The loss of non-touch screen sales would have gone mostly to Windows users looking to upgrade.  These people will sit tight and hope for a better Windows desktop alternative in the future. 

As a tablet OS, Windows 8 works very well, and I expect strong sales of Windows 8 tablets, since these also offer the advantage of being able to run existing Windows 7 apps and games.  The weakness of the Windows 8 ecosystem currently is the lack of apps.  There are only about 1000 on the Windows store, but I expect this to have negligible impact on sales, because of the backward compatibility offered by Windows 8.  I consider Windows 8 tablets running Intel Ivy bridge processors to be the killer device for Windows 7 users looking for a tablet, of which there are many.  The Microsoft Surface Pro, which is slightly heavier and bulkier than its ARM-based sibling, should be an instant sell-out. 

I expect Windows RT, however, to perform poorly once Windows 8 Pro tablets become readily available.  Since Windows RT only runs on ARM processors, it will be hampered by the lack of available apps and the lack of performance compared to Intel based Windows 8 tablets.  Being slimmer and having longer battery life will not be enough to save RT from being cannibalized by Windows 8 tablets, especially because the alternative ARM ecosystems of Android and iOS are better established in the eyes of consumers. 

Since Windows RT is positioned to compete directly with other ARM based devices that run iOS and Android, I expect these ecosystems to suffer little impact from Windows RT.  Thus, Microsoft’s Surface RT is not an iPad killer, or even an effective challenger. 

The impact of Windows 8 tablets on the iPad and Android tablet markets is debatable, but I personally believe there is little market overlap between the Intel based Windows 8  tablets and the ARM based tablets.  Intel tablets will appeal mostly to existing Windows users, of which there are at least a billion, who want a tablet that can also stand in as a Windows 7 machine, whereas ARM tablets appeal mostly to consumers whose intended use is more casual and recreational.  And never the twain shall meet.

What this all means for Microsoft’s bottom line I’ll discuss in detail in my forthcoming SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of Microsoft.

  • 1.
    The Vision
  • 2.
    Business Strategies
  • 3.
    The Reality
  • 4.
    Falling Back on Desktop
  • 5.
    The Assessment
  • 6.
    Impaired Sales
  • 7.
    No iPad Killer
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