Thursday, 2 June 2011

Windows 8: The Beginning of the End of Windows

I have a longstanding rule for evaluating new tech products: Don't judge anything by the demo.  I've seen far too many product previews that hid fundamental flaws in usability.  Until you can touch and play with the product on your own, seeing the little details of fit and performance that make it delightful or frustrating, you won't really know if it's worth your time.

So it's far too early to make any judgments on Windows 8, which Microsoft just previewed (link).  There are an incredible number of ways it could go wrong.

But.  I've got to say, this is the first time in years that I've been deeply intrigued by something Microsoft announced.  Not just because it looks cool (it does), but because I think it shows clever business strategy on Microsoft's part.  And I can't even remember the last time I used the phrase "clever business strategy" and Microsoft in the same sentence.

The announcement also has immense implications for the rest of the industry.  Whether or not Windows 8 is a financial success for Microsoft, we've now crossed a critical threshold. The old Windows of mice and icons is officially obsolete. That resets the playing field for everybody in computing.

The slow death of Windows

When Netscape first made the web important in personal computing, Microsoft responded by rapidly evolving Internet Explorer.  That response was broadly viewed as successful, but in retrospect maybe it was too successful for Microsoft's good.  It let the company go back to harvesting money from its Windows + Office monopoly, feeling pretty secure from potential challengers.

Meanwhile, the focus of application innovation slipped away from Windows, toward web apps.  New software was developed first on the Internet, rather than on Windows.  Over time, Windows became more and more a legacy thing we kept because we needed backward compatibility, rather than a part of the next generation of computing.

Windows was our past, the web was our future.

This process was made very starkly clear by the iPad.  Although the iPad is not a comprehensive PC replacement, and Apple has been very careful to say that, it is a very good PC replacement for certain tasks.  And it has probably started to eat a hole in sales of notebook PCs, a very ominous change that should scare the daylights out of the people in Redmond.

To me, Windows 8 is the first sensible response by Microsoft to the strategic challenge it faces from the web.  It apparently introduces not just a new user interface, but also a new programming model that embraces web technologies and integrates them with Windows resources and APIs.

I need to see a lot more on that programming model: How will Windows web apps really work, which APIs are available, how will these apps be sold and discovered, and on and on.  Ars Technica had a great question: What's the visual paradigm for apps that want to look modern but aren't appropriate for touch? (link):
"There are plenty of applications that are too complex and fiddly to ever be at home with a touch-first interface—consider a software development environment, or a fully-featured office suite. Leaving these stuck in a Windows 7 ghetto doesn't seem like a good long-term option."

But at least Microsoft is finally trying.  The alternative was to cling to the past and be a stationary target, gradually eaten away by the iPad and Android and Chrome and smartphones and whatever else the web world cooked up.

The risk

There's a downside in all of this for Microsoft.  By embracing the next generation of computing, Microsoft is obsoleting its current products. 

You can see this effect just by watching the Windows 8 preview video (link).  The new interface and its applications look fluid and roomy and relaxing to use.  The interface is smooth and playful.  And then they switch into Windows compatibility mode and there's an explosion of crapola on the screen.  It almost made me gag.

John Gruber says this is a fundamental flaw in Microsoft's approach (link), as does Jason Snell at Macworld (link).  I understand what they're saying -- when you're working on a new paradigm, you don't want to be distracted by any baggage from the old one.  But for Microsoft, this is about more than just responding to the iPad.  It's the company's next computing paradigm, a change as fundamental as the transition from DOS to Windows.  The thing that made the Windows transition work was that Microsoft protected the customers' investment in old applications and data.  You could keep using your old DOS applications while you gradually got used to Windows. 

So users will have an interesting choice.  Apple, with iOS, is making a clean break with the past.  So are Chrome and Web OS.  Microsoft is trying to cherry-pick the best of iOS and WebOS and Chrome, and wrap that into a product that's also backward-compatible.  Let's see, cleaner design versus backward compatible...where have I seen that before?  Oh yeah, Mac vs. Windows, 1990.  I was at Apple at the time, and backward compatibility was the magic key that kept the PC installed base loyal.  I'm sure Microsoft knows that, and they're looking to run the same play again.  Since they are not likely to create something even slicker than Apple, I think they're absolutely right to maintain compatibility in their new product. It's really their only choice.

Old Windows apps running inside Windows 8 do look awful.  But so did DOS inside Windows 3.0, and that didn't stop people from buying it.

Microsoft will pay a serious price for the Windows 8 announcement.  Most PC users haven't yet upgraded to Windows 7, and some Microsoft execs have been bragging in public about the revenue to come from upgrading all of those people.  Forget about it.  I think you'd be an idiot to buy Windows 7 for an existing PC when you know Windows 8 is coming.  It would be like buying a horse-drawn carriage after Ford announced the Model T.

So there is a risk (actually, a likelihood) that Microsoft will stall its own revenue this year.  I'm surprised that it is previewing Windows 8 so early, when it won't even have more details until its developer conference in September.  And who knows when the new OS will actually ship; ArsTechnica guesses it'll be the second half of 2012, which usually means December.  That means we're in for up to 18 months of vaporware.  If I had to pick a fundamental flaw in Microsoft's approach, I'd point to that 18 month delay.  It's way too long.  It should have been nine months maximum.

Hey Microsoft, does no one there remember Osborne Computer (link)? You can destroy a tech company by pre-announcing your next generation product before it ships.  Luckily for Microsoft, most PC companies don't have an immediate alternative to Windows, so it won't collapse the way Osborne did.  I assume the folks at Microsoft were spooked by the competition and decided they needed to preannounce Windows 8 now to prevent Google Chrome from gaining momentum, or iOS from taking over, or some other alternative like Web OS emerging, now that HP is talking about licensing it (link).  But the long delay raises the risks to WIndows.  Microsoft has now bet its future on Windows 8.  If it's late, or if it's not a great experience, that could turn into a very serious financial issue for the company, and it could invite customers to switch to something else.  A few years from now we could look back at this as Microsoft's death rattle. 

Or as its new beginning.

What it means to the rest of us

The history of platform transitions is that they are huge opportunities for developers.  They reset the playing field for apps and devices.  Look at the history:  The leaders in DOS applications (Lotus, Word Perfect, etc) were second rate in GUI software.  The leaders in GUI apps (Adobe, Microsoft, etc) were not dominant in the web.  It's actually very rare for a software company that was successful in the old paradigm to transfer that success to the new one.  Similar turnover has happened in hardware transitions (for example, Compaq rode the Intel 386 chip to prominence over IBM in PCs).  And yes, there is a hardware transition as part of Windows 8, since it will now support ARM chips, and you'll want a touchscreen to really take advantage of it.

So if you're running an existing PC hardware or software company, ask yourself how a new competitor could use the platform transition to challenge your current products.  Here's a sobering thought to keep you awake tonight: the odds are that the challengers will win.  The company most at risk from this change is the largest vendor of Windows apps, Microsoft itself.  Microsoft Office must be completely rethought for the new paradigm.  You have about 18 months, guys.  Good luck.

By the way, web companies are also at risk.  Your web apps are designed for a browser-centric, mouse-driven user experience.  What happens to your app when the browser melts into the OS, and the UI is driven by touch?  If you think this change doesn't affect you, I have an old copy of WordStar that you can play with.  Google and Facebook, I am talking to you.

If you're running a hardware company, how will you need to change your devices to take advantage of the new OS?  Shipping a device that isn't Windows 8 ready will soon be as risky as shipping a PC in 1993 that couldn't connect a mouse.  (Unfortunately, because Windows 8 is so far out, I don't know if Microsoft has even fully defined the hardware spec for a Windows 8 PC.  The OS cries out for a flat panel screen that docks, so you can use it on your lap or as a monitor. Microsoft has a lot of work to do, and the PC vendors will face a lot of uncertainty.)

If you're starting up a software or hardware company, you should ask yourself what new opportunities will be created for you by Windows 8.  What category of app or website will be made obsolete by this new operating environment, and can you seize it?  (For starters, who's going to take down Office?)

And if you're making a competing platform, this is your opportunity to strike.  Microsoft has given you more than a year's advance warning.  The race is on to replace Windows.  Can you create a better alternative?  How will you protect the legacy apps and data of PC users?  If you're looking to license, can you line up enough vendors, and a reference hardware design, to get to critical mass before Microsoft does?

I have no idea how this will all turn out, but finally after 20-plus years of GUI dominance on the desktop, fundamental change is at hand and the dice are rolling again.

This will be fun.

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