Microsoft’s looming Windows 8 crisis… and it isn’t sales

For months now, Microsoft and its partners have been promising a late October blitz that includes the official release of the much-anticipated Windows 8 operating system along with a series of tablets from across the vendor spectrum, including a tablet from Microsoft itself.

Windows 8 is a radical departure from earlier versions of Windows.  With Windows 8, Microsoft is attempting to unify the user experience across a variety of device form factors while also enabling apps to run across that platform spectrum, from phones to tablets to traditional PCs and laptops.

That said, although there is so much new in Windows 8, Microsoft has also made the decision to jettison interface elements that the company considers non-touch friendly.  This includes the Start Menu and other items that users have come to depend on.  It is for this and some other reasons that Windows 8 reviews have not been nearly as positive as the ones that Windows 7 enjoyed and there is ample evidence that early adoption of Windows 8 lags far behind what was enjoyed by Windows 7 at this stage of the game.

I’ll be clear: I believe that Microsoft’s decision to remove the Start button itself from the desktop will prove to be one of the biggest blunders that the company has ever made, at least in the short game.  Even if the Start button were reinstated and simply opened the Start screen, it would be far more intuitive than what’s in place right now.  That said, over time, people will get used to the new world order.

However, I don’t think that slow sales and an ill-conceived user design choice are going to be Microsoft’s only challenges when it comes to Windows 8.

Instead, I believe that a different architectural decision is going to create the most havoc for the company as Windows 8 and Windows RT (the tablet edition of Windows 8) make their way to market.

Windows 8 vs. Windows RT

As an IT pro, you probably know that Windows 8 will come in two different versions: Windows 8, which is used on Intel x86-based computers, and Windows RT, also called Windows on ARM, which will run on devices with ARM processors.

As a consumer that doesn’t read tech blogs or materials, I see mass confusion on the horizon.  As people line up on October 26 to take home their shiny new Surface RT tablets, they’re going to discover that the tablet is not, in fact, an upgrade of the Windows XP or Windows 7 computer they have at home.  They can’t load all of the software that they’ve accumulated over the years and they can’t connect to all of the same devices that they can with Windows 8/x86.

In this, I see major backlash against Microsoft as people discover that Windows RT really isn’t Windows at all, but is a facsimile of Windows 8 with some missing pieces, at least when compared to a full Windows 8.   No one has done a very good job educating the user space that Windows RT isn’t Windows 8.  Although Windows RT’s web page does say “load applications exclusively from the Windows Store,” nowhere does it say “Warning: Your existing software will not work with Windows RT.”

You may be wondering how Microsoft can get away with saying that the same apps run across the platforms in many cases.  This capability comes courtesy of WinRT… yes, WinRT, not Windows RT.  Whereas Windows RT is a version of the full operating system, WinRT is the runtime environment in which native Windows 8 apps operate.  The full Windows 8 also includes this WinRT environment, thus allowing Windows 8 native apps to move seamlessly between Windows 8 and Windows RT.

That’s a good thing… at least for Windows 8 native apps.  But it does nothing for older software.

Personally, I believe that Microsoft needs to do much more consumer education to ensure that it’s clear that Windows RT and Windows 8 are really very, very different operating systems.

I’ve seen people make the argument that, when the iPad came out, no one expected it to you native Mac OS X apps, even though the device is sold by Apple.  I believe that there are two key differences between Apple’s situation then and Microsoft’s now:

  • The iPad came on the heels of the wildly popular iPhone.  The market was already accustomed to the new world order for Apple devices.
  • The iPad’s operating system wasn’t named Mac OS X RT.  As such, there was no naming confusion to get in the way.

Summary

I should point out that there are things to like about Windows 8, but they’re overshadowed by what could amount to major challenges as the veil is lifted on the latest entrant to the Windows line.

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  • gromek

    “The full Windows 8 also includes this WinRT environment, thus allowing Windows 8 native apps to move seamlessly between Windows 8 and Windows RT”
    How can a Windows 8 native app “move seamlessly” between Windows 8 and Windows RT if Windows 8 is based on x86, while Windows RT is based on ARM? x86 and ARM have different instruction sets, and are not binary compatible.

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  • NotHappyinNew York

    When I installed Windows 8 it obliterated all my Windows7 software – including MS Office (Excel, Outlook, Word) etc. Obliterated. 8 layers into the Mumbai or Manilla call centers later, one after another CSR said, “oh yes, it does that. That software doesn’t work under 8.” Microsoft eats its young – or its old, depending.

  • Ángel Eléctrico

    It is interpreted.

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