Linked by Thom Holwerda on Mon 13th Jan 2014 10:06 UTC

Paul Thurrott on the next version of Windows and the future of the platform.

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Threshold is how it recasts Windows 8 as the next Vista. It's an acknowledgment that what came before didn't work, and didn't resonate with customers. And though Microsoft will always be able to claim that Windows 9 wouldn't have been possible without the important foundational work they had done first with Windows 8 - just as was the case with Windows 7 and Windows Vista - there's no way to sugarcoat this. Windows 8 has set back Microsoft, and Windows, by years, and possibly for good.

With even Paul Thurrott claiming Windows is in trouble, it becomes virtually impossible to deny it is so.

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Microsoft in transition
by davidiwharper on Mon 13th Jan 2014 12:38 UTC
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What we are witnessing is a painfully slow transition process, and attempting to judge the overall execution mid-stride does everyone a disservice.

From a technical standpoint, Microsoft has been here before, and I imagine that the Windows 8/Threshold story will be very similar to Windows Vista/Windows 7.

In 2006, when Windows Vista was released, it was a disaster. I remember setting up a new machine very shortly after Vista was released, and the problems were obvious: the extra security features were so onerous that they interfered with normal usage, a lot of software was incompatible, and many peripherals were as well (in fact, Canon entered the Hall of Shame for me that year when they simply refused to release Vista drivers for some of their devices).

Fast forward to Windows 7's release in 2009. By now most vendors had caught up, and Microsoft had gone away and ironed out the worst issues in Vista. With a fresh coat of paint, better support for middling hardware configurations, and the addition of XP Mode for really troublesome software, Windows 7 was critically acclaimed and sold like hotcakes. Vista was forgotten and consigned to its grave.

Windows 8 has different problems to Vista. Its architectural problems are more about shoe-horning the tablet-oriented Modern/"Metro" environment onto desktop and laptops without touch screens. Instead of being incompatible with older software, it faces a dearth of touch/Modern apps. But it is basically the same underlying issue: an attempted paradigm shift which hasn't yet been completed.

There are two things going on here. Firstly, Microsoft are attempting to broaden their install base beyond traditional desktop/laptop devices. Secondly, they are attempting to create a unified code base so that one Modern app can run on any Windows-related device. On the latter front, this is already getting closer: Windows Phone apps are now being ported over to Windows 8/RT more and more frequently, even by low-level independent developers. In terms of the unified install base, this is really the thrust of Threshold I suspect. And when that happens it will suddenly make much more sense for developers to target Modern Windows - although Windows 8, Windows RT, Xbox, and Windows Phone don't necessarily have great numbers individually, as a group they represent a pretty decent install base. So the Windows 9 wave, if handled well, has the potential to create a virtuous circle for Microsoft: a unified codebase means more apps more quickly, more apps means more users, and more users means still more apps.

This leads us into the business side of things. Does this all mean that Microsoft will go back to dominating the operating system market overall? I doubt it, but I still think they will be a very important player. The plan appears to be to subsidise this next-gen platform (Modern apps, in-house devices, Bing & other online services) using revenue from legacy businesses (Windows 7, server software, etc.), and await the point where the new businesses are profitable in their own right. For a lesser company, this pivot might be unachievable, but Microsoft has huge cash reserves and is still very profitable, so they have the financial muscle to be able to pull it off.

The other thing to note in all of this is that I think the doom and gloom for Microsoft is driven by a misunderstanding of the sales figures. Firstly, there was a boom in PC sales after Windows 7 was released in late 2009. The vast majority of those PCs are still in use, and are not yet in need of replacement; however this time is now arriving and Gartner has predicted that the fall in U.S. PC sales is now over ( Secondly, tablet sales are highest in households where PCs are very likely to already exist. Pew Research reports that tablets are more common in households which are wealthier, better educated, and have children present (*...). This is exactly the sort of demographic which is likely to own a tablet as a companion device: they can afford two devices, they are more likely to be technologically capable (better education levels), and they are more likely to have a use case (children who want to browse the web, use social networking, and play games).

What does this mean in terms of the current 'malaise' and the future for Windows? I think that in terms of understanding what happened to Windows 8 it is important to realise that it simply arrived at the wrong time and had an ecosystem that was too immature to be commercially viable. When the next wave of primary device purchases hits, there will be a brand new opportunity for Microsoft: the Modern environment will have matured and probably have a critical mass of apps available, and the release will likely arrive on or around the five year anniversary of Windows 7's availability, which is almost exactly when many PCs (especially desktops) will be nearing their expiry date. As with Vista/7 before it, undoubtedly a narrative will emerge that Windows 9 is comparatively "good" where Windows 8 was "bad", overlooking the catch-up in the supporting ecosystem but also unleashing pent-up demand from people who hung on to their old machines for as long as possible to avoid having to deal with Win8.

After that, the theory goes, people who obtain and like the "new" Windows on their more traditional devices will discover that they can get the same experience on a tablet and a phone, so when it comes time to replace their Android or iDevice, the successor to Windows Phone and Windows RT may well get a renaissance of its own. That's a decent plan if Microsoft can pull it off.

All that said, there's considerable potential for Microsoft to stuff this whole thing up. The release of Windows 8.1 was handled poorly, particularly the inability to download an offline installer for use on multiple machines (think about that when you see the stats on why there are still so many 8.0 users who haven't upgraded yet!), and the lack of a Modern version of Office - even a stripped down one ported over from Windows Phone - is just mind boggling. Meanwhile, Windows Phone development has been glacial, and on the app front developers rightly wonder whether the Modern environment will stick as Microsoft has a history of killing off once-heralded development platforms without warning.

However, as I mentioned above, the company has titanic resources at its disposal. Vista alone would have killed lesser players, as it cost $6 billion to develop. It was released not because it was ready but simply because, even in Microsoft land, it simply had to be in order to start getting money in the door again. By comparison, I suspect Windows 8 cost a lot less to develop, given that it basically took the pre-existing Windows 7 core (virtually unchanged in Win8) and bolted the pre-existing Windows Phone 7 UI and Metro design language on top. (In addition, Windows NT's code base was always designed with multiple architectures in mind - Windows NT 4.0 ran on four - so developing an ARM port, while ambitious, is not something which would have needed a complete rewrite.) So in terms of overall funding, Microsoft has (compared to Vista) plenty of money left over to subsidise the emerging ecosystem where required: paying for app development, potentially giving the Windows Phone/Windows RT successor away to OEMs for free, and obviously funding the underlying architectural changes needed for the Threshold wave.

The bottom line here is that it's way too early to count Microsoft out, and I think that doing so overlooks the fact that we are in the middle of a transition period. Only when Microsoft has fully executed its new strategy will we finally start to get a sense of where things will stand going forward.

Edited 2014-01-13 12:45 UTC

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