It’s too soon for Windows 8


opinion When software behemoth Microsoft burped up its Windows Vista platform in late 2006, your writer spent quite a bit of time asking large Australian organisations whether they planned to deploy the new software on their corporate desktops.

The answer was a resounding “not on your nelly” … as IT managers around the nation did their best to hold their noses and back away from the malodorous operating system.

This reply came despite the fact that almost all of the companies, government agencies and other institutions queried were still running Windows XP — an operating system first released in 2001, which had since received a billion patches, updates and retro-fits to bring it into the modern age. The problem, as most reading this article will be aware, was that for all of its flaws (and believe me, XP still has a legion … including the difficult issue of how to wake gracefully from hibernation), Microsoft’s most popular operating system was relatively stable.

Vista, on the other hand, was not.

Following the Vista disaster, it took Microsoft three years and, no doubt, cost Windows President Steven Sinofsky (pictured, above) many of his rapidly dwindling grey hairs, for the company to fix its mistake and give birth to the sweet-smelling Windows 7, which the entire industry has embraced like the true heir to the Windows throne that it is … leaving the Vista usurper behind in the dust.

But now the company looks to be making the same mistake all over again.

No sooner has the company convinced major Australian organisations like the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra and virtually the entire Federal Government that it’s worth finally dumping Windows XP in favour of Windows 7, than the company has started its sales pitch for the next version. Speaking at a developer forum in Tokyo yesterday, bombastic Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer, of “developers, developers, developers” fame, made it clear that Microsoft was already several months pregnant with Windows 8 and had pre-booked in for the epidural.

“We’re obviously hard at work on the next version of Windows,” Ballmer told the bewildered Japanese. “We’ve done a lot in Windows 7 to improve customer satisfaction. We have a brand new user interface. We’ve added touch, and ink, and speech. And yet, as we look forward to the next generation of Windows systems, which will come out next year, there’s a whole lot more coming.”

Windows, Ballmer enthused, was shortly going to arrive on a whole tranche of different form factors. Desktop PCs, of course, but also tablets, slates, tablets, tablets. Did he mention tablets?

And its release is just around the corner, if veteran Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley is to be believed, which she usually is — with the first tech preview of Windows 8 to be released this September, the release to manufacturing version in mid-2012, and the full version later next year. Fuelled by Ballmer’s comments, there are those who suspect Sinofsky will choose the Wall St Journal’s All Things D conference next week to debut the next version of Windows for the first time.

There is only one problem with this glorious roadmap for the rollout of Windows 8: Nobody really wants it.

Sure, when the first technology previews of Windows 8 are released, about a billion geeks (including yours truly) around the world will instantly download the new software and install it in a virtual machine or on a second development box, slavering over minor user interface quirks and feverishly posting screenshots on blogs as they boast to their friends how they managed to hack this or that crucial bit of third-party software or driver to work on the new Microsoft hotness.

And the media will go crazy with stories analysing Windows 8’s every strength and weakness. Will the ill-fated WinFS storage system make a return? Will Windows 8 integrate at its core with Microsoft’s burgeoning suite of cloud computing offerings? Will the preview boxed copy come with a signed picture of Megan Fox reclining at her leisure on its cover?

But out there in the real world of actual consumers and businesses, very few people will be interested.

To most consumers, Windows 8 will likely look and feel pretty similar to Windows 7, which in turn looked fairly much like Windows Vista. The reality is that it will just be the default operating system they will get pre-installed on their laptop when they buy it from Harvey Norman or Dick Smith, or They won’t pay attention to it — it will just be there in the background.

Very few will see the need to immediately upgrade — and who can blame them? Operating system design has stabilised rapidly over the past half-decade, with Windows, Mac OS X and Linux appearing very similar to the naked eye, and even Apple finding it hard to come up with new features to add into its desktop platform.

Secondly, by mid-2012, when large organisations and even small to medium businesses will start to get their hands on Windows 8, hardly anyone will really want to. Most will not yet have finished the gargantuan task of upgrading their desktop and laptop fleets to Windows 7, and these kind of desktop migrations come around only every five years — the prospect of building a new Standard Operating Environment for Windows 8 will seem at that point to be the worst kind of self-flagellation.

The truth is that many organisations upgrading to Windows 7 probably clandestinely expect their new desktop operating system to last as long as the last one — a decade or so.

Microsoft also has a wider problem.

The introduction of the iPad and rival tablets based on Google’s Android platform is changing the fundamental nature of how people use computers. It’s not that much of an extrapolation to believe that many individuals (including at their workplace) will, by mid-2012, be conducting much of their computing directly via a tablet PC. I’m already speaking to Australian IT managers who are deploying 3G iPads to their sales teams with bookmarked — where they used to deploy laptops.

The ability, which I have no doubt Apple is working on right now, for tablets to dock and become desktop PCs at need, will only accelerate this trend.

Microsoft is obviously aware of this fact, as Ballmer’s reference to Windows 8 on tablets makes clear, but it is also apparent that there will be little room for a third player in the tablet market after Apple and Google have carved it up between them … and even that is assuming the failure of existing alternatives from HP and Research in Motion (BlackBerry).

What all of this adds up to is a vast headache for Microsoft.

There are, however, some very viable options open for the company, given the existing strength of Windows 7. I believe Australians — early technology adopter nation that we are — would welcome some quite radical but completely optional user interface changes built on top of the existing Windows 7 platform.

It’s a truism that many people only refresh their operating system because of user interface changes, and Microsoft has already achieved some remarkable success with this path — leaving much of its solid mobile platform intact but building new hotness on top, in the form of Windows Phone 7. I’d like to see this approach come to the mainstream Windows family. Let’s build on top of solid foundations — not tear those foundations down every few years.

Alternatively, Microsoft could deploy Windows 8 less as a stand-alone traditional product and more of a mega-patch for Windows 7, which would cost less than a full release — say, $50 a pop — and be deployed through Windows Update to existing systems, guaranteeing full API and driver compatibility along the way.

Both of these less full-scale approaches would, I believe, be welcomed by Australian individuals and organisations alike, as they would allow people to get sweet new software candy without sacrificing stability along the way. In addition, Microsoft would gain a reputation for being a company for delivering what its users want, rather than what its engineers can dream up as the new hot feature — a reputation it has started to create with the success of Windows 7.

The alternative for Microsoft will not be good. I don’t want to have to start ringing people in late 2012 to ask if they will be deploying Windows 8. Because I already know what the answer will likely be. Not this time, Steve. Not this bloody time.

Image credit: D.Begley, Creative Commons


  1. You might on the “nobody wants it” thing. But……………

    …looking at the Windows Server roadmap, Windows Server 2012 – (or whatever they decide to call it) – isn’t THAT far away, and if the much hyped WinFS – (that was originally due in Vista) – finally shows itself, Windows 8 suddenly becomes a key plank in the stack.

    Windows 8 will no doubt hit new PCs when it drops, but as for the corporate market – not before the next version of Server.

    • I really, highly, truly, doubt that big enterprises will go for Windows 8 — Windows 7 addresses all of their concerns about XP and alternatives like Mac OS X, and the brass is focused on tablets right now. There is just no way Microsoft will be able to sell another infrastructure software refresh to them.

      Windows Server, yes — there is always room for innovation there. But on the desktop, it’s much harder to justify, and I’m seeing zero demand and interest in it right now.

  2. So, you are proposing a windows ME for win7…. yikes…

    Personally, I think win8 where the focus is put on touch, slates etc would be very good. And given it is 12 months away on your timetable, more likely longer, if MS don’t push a new version, then people will just complain that they are stagnating.

      • having used windows xp tablet edition on a compaq 1100 tablet device, i can say from a person view that there was nothing wrong with the operating system itself. worked like a dream with the in-house apps we used it with.

        lack of mainstream commercial apps is what killed it. microsoft were too far ahead of their time with the tablet form factor.

      • Windows 8 will have tablet versions – that’s why Ballmer went to all the trouble of announcing it will natively support the ARM architecture…

        • I know, but even Google is finding it hard to break into the tablet market with stand-out devices like the Motorola Xoom. I don’t know what Microsoft can do there. The iPad is monopolising this sector atm.

  3. A few things – Windows is just now returning to it’s normal release cycle after Vista. 95/98/XP were all 3 years apart, yet many organisations too to each one. Sure, you cite that stability improvements demand longer life cycles, and that’s true, but there are plenty of organisations running Windows XP or even Vista out there that may have decided against moving to Windows 7 as it first came out, or are still in a 3 to 5 year refresh cycle. Windows 8 is going to be just as attractive to these organisations as Windows 7 is.

    Sure, Windows 8 might not be such a large evolution, but it will have enough new features and include the “newness” factor that will tip many organisations over the edge to choose Windows 8, not 7, when it is released if it fits in with their fresh cycle.

    I do agree though, that a “mega patch” would be quite a bit more appealing. I beleive the days of the major OS upgrade are limited and will be completely gone within the decade. I can guarentee for now though, plenty of people will upgrade from consumers who know no better, go gamers and geeks who want the latest and greatest and organisations where it fits in to their refresh cycle.

    • hey K,

      I can see a degree of sense to some of the points you’re making, but I think it’s meaningless to talk about “normal release cycles” at this point when the examples which you mentioned — 95, 98 and XP — were released more than a decade ago.

      In addition, the Internet has changed the way organisations do operating system releases. Apple may release Lion through its own online software store. Linux has long been easy to upgrade purely online. Microsoft is the last holdout in this area — and needs to come to the party a little more.

      In addition, I disagree that Windows 8 will be as appealing as Windows 7. Windows 7 was basically Vista Service Pack 2, and many organisations will try and remain those one or two releases behind new software releases. Many organisations looked at Vista and went … “nope, we’ll wait”, but I’m simply not seeing that approach with Windows 7, which everyone seems to agree represents enterprise-class stability.

      To attract people to Windows 8, Microsoft will need to substantially revamp the operating system and add new features — which will reduce its attractiveness to large organisations, with their N-1 policies.

      • So the question is, will Windows 8 be the Windows 98, Windows 95b, or Windows ME of the series?

        I can see it aiming to be ’98’.

  4. Or maybe you shouldn’t actually care of organisations are stuck a few iterations behind the times.

    Keep releasing (more reasonably priced) major upgrades which fix critical flaws in the operating system as well as bring in new useful features.

    • Perhaps, but we saw with Windows XP what happened when Microsoft tried to innovate too far ahead of its customer base — those customers rejected it and forced the company and its partners to keep on providing support for the legacy software. There is no doubt there will be immense pressure on Microsoft to maintain Windows 7 as its mainstream, stable platform for many years yet.

  5. Now I’m confused.
    I thought we were arguing that it’s too soon for Windows 8.
    And now we are saying the MS have probably missed the boat on a tablet friendly OS.
    So too early or too late???

    (yes I know I’m trolling slightly but “Nobody really wants it.” kind of opened that door ;-) )

      • But if their strategy is to unify the desktop and tablet OS, does that mean it’s both too early and too late? ;)

        Incidentally I see a lot of promise in that concept, and if they pull it off (which is a big “if” I know) it will be a huge point of differentiation, especially in the corporate space. I love the idea of the Asus Transformer which can be a tablet or a PC, but what it’s lacking is an OS which can do both of those things well; let’s face it, Android was never built with keyboard/mouse input in mind. If Microsoft can make it work it could be a real game-changer.

        • I agree, as much as I love the Android platform and agree that iOS is incredibly user friendly, a tool that can be both a laptop and a tablet, and manage to do them both resonably well (this is key) will be a real game changer, and if there is anyone that can do this well, it will be the Windows platform.

          The tablet’s current uselessness for pretty much anything other than reading, playing games and notetaking is the main reason I recently opted for a netbook instead of a tablet as my tertiary computer.

          Were there a device that could do the everyday things that laptops/netbooks do so well, yet manage to be acceptable as a tablet for reading/consuming media, I would have been all up in it… sadly the product doesnt exist yet.

  6. While there are certain roles (salesman, rep, etc) that work fine with just a tablet, for most everyone else the best you could say for the next few years is that tablets will be augmentative devices rather than replacements for conventional laptops or desktops. The restrictions on input provided by a touchscreen only interface will ensure this, and if that is offset by the addition of keyboards and pointing devices, then the flexibility and portability advantages of a tablet go out the window. The only time we will be able to see people really move to tablets is when tablets become more like PC’s. … and so the cycle continues …

  7. Windows 7 is Vista Second edition while the upcoming Windows 8=Vista third edition. Full of gimmicks and fancy tricks. Aero Snap? There’s a far better version in XP called Tile Horizontally or Tile Vertically that isn’t limited to arranging just two windows but any number you select. There are many good useful features of XP removed and broken in Windows 7. The file manager, Windows Explorer was utterly destroyed in Vista and becomes worse in Windows 7. Poor usability. See and . Unnecessary GUI changes. Vista was innonative but horrible usability wise and removed things. Windows 7 is Vista with few new features and again many features removed and fancy gimmicks and shiny graphics added. XP was THE BEST because it did not change the GUI and move everything around just for sake of change.

    Microsoft made a classic blunder with the GUI for Windows 7. They made it completely different from XP and buried, eliminated or dumbed down most of the truly useful features. Better OS or not, they alienated all their XP customers. Bill Gates and Microsoft (and other software makers) know how to make money, over and over, from the public, by selling you THE SAME THING over and over and effectively charging you 10 times for one product. That is how Vista and Windows 7 came about.

    Here is how it works. When designing any software, they purposefully put some new defects and/or leave basic essential features out. Then a couple of years later, they come up with a “new version” in which some of those left out features are put back in. This “upgrade” or new version is, however, secretly damaged in other ways and, in reality, is really a degrade. A few years later, another “new version” comes out claiming to fix those problems–and it does, but destroys something else in the previous version that was working.

    • Wow, I’m speechless…
      Maybe we should still be using Windows XP, in 2020..

      Win7 is a far better operating system than XP.. saying otherwise is just the response of someone totally against any form of change whatsoever..

  8. For a second I thought you were suggesting MS stop innovating, then I thought well maybe that’s not a bad idea they haven’t done anything truly exciting in ages (kinnect excepted).

    I do think the proposition to shift to a more agile approach with iterative but substantial paid patches that move things along at a faster pace has some legs. We now work fully in the cloud on apple devices so the OS almost fades into the background, buying windows in a box is thankfully but a dim and distant memory!

  9. “It’s a truism that many people only refresh their operating system because of user interface changes”

    I initially missed the “many” before “people” and was going to argue the point that for technical people, interface is about the last thing that they look for – how about memory management, security management, drivers, power management, and file system… If Microsoft ever release the SQL based file system they touted initially for Vista then I will be very much happier to fork out for an OS upgrade.

  10. I have long used Microsoft Windows since the beginning. I did not really like ME, but every other version was fine, including VIsta, which was still more secure and up to date than Windowx XP, which is DEAD in the water in reality even today. I will eventually go to the next version of Windows after 7, being 8 after I see how the support and the features embrace the reality of a true upgrade. I do believe every new version IS a security update and a way to make things more current and usable. What most people worry about or concern themselves about with Server or money is irrelevant. Microsoft is not going to release anything unless they feel there is some good reasons for it, and that includes it being MORE secure and up-to-date. This is why when you use browsers, ONLY Internet Explorer 9 is more up to date with ALL browser standards, and is also why Apple was never meant to be a true internet computer in the first place. And even many who worked for Apple admitted that. I love the Windows 7.5 phones with Mango. Over 126 of my local friends changed from the iPhone to the Windows 7.5 phone with Mango, such as the HTC Titan II and Nokia Lumina 900. Excellent devices anda great O/S, ISE 9 browser and Zune that is so much better than anything Apple does. Food for thought.

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