Microsoft launched their new Windows 8 operating system. It appears from all of the reviews that this change is more like Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 (When you were like, “woah, what’s this whole Start menu thing?”) than it is like Windows XP to Windows 7 (When you were like, “yep, same old windows but it looks a little cooler”). In honor of its launch I want to take a few minutes and think about why Microsoft is doing it and what it could mean for them as a company.
Microsoft’s advantage has always been cost. PCs are cheaper than Macs because any manufacturer who follows Microsoft’s specifications when they build their computer can use Microsoft’s OS (HP, Dell, etc…). This drives price competition where none exists for Apple. This price competition used to drive individuals, but, now that hardware is effectively a commodity, the price difference is down to a few hundred dollars. Without the price advantage, Macs are growing in usage 20% year over year and Microsoft Windows is increasingly being viewed as something you use at work.
Businesses care about a few hundred dollars per computer, because they buy thousands per year. They also care that people have a computer that supports the software most white collar workers use every day, MS Office. Just how biased are businesses towards PCs right now? I was just helping a friend decide between a Mac and a PC for her work computer. She chose the Windows machine, in spite of the fact that she uses a Mac and an iPhone at home, because her office would have required her to boot in Windows anyway so they don’t have to support the Mac version of Office. These stories are still common, but they’re becoming less so.
Microsoft has spent years earning the reputation of producing a product that is business friendly and user unfriendly. Until now, that model has worked really well for them. That model worked in a slow internet, thick client, strict physical security, low personal use of tech world. In the new 4G, broadband, SaaS, Google Docs, BYOD world it’s not going to fly. People will demand their employers figure out a way to let them do “this cool thing I can do on my iPad” and employers will find more and more ways to enable their employees.
If you don’t believe me, just ask RIM. For years other phone operating systems started and went nowhere (including Windows CE). RIM held the market hostage because smartphones were so expensive that only businesses purchased them and it was just too easy for a business to setup a Blackberry Server. Then iPhone and Android hit the market and employees started asking their employers to “make my phone get my email”. The resistance from IT only lasted a couple years, and overnight RIM was a wasteland. The same fate awaits Microsoft without a huge change. Windows 8 (as well as SkyDrive and Office365) are intended to be that change.
I’ve worked in a lot of corporate IT shops in my lifetime and I can tell you one thing for certain. You are NOT going to have Windows 8 on your work laptop or desktop any time soon. No chance. Businesses will do the prudent thing and “wait and see”. They want to see if any security flaws are discovered, they want to see if their printers and third-party software will work on Windows 8, and they don’t really have any reason to pay for it. If more than 10% of enterprise clients have adopted Windows 8 by the end of 2013, I will be shocked. So don’t mistake slow corporate adoption for failure.
Microsoft’s best case instead has to do with how people use Windows 8 personally. Does the new “Metro” interface get the kind of buzz around it that Siri gets around her/him/it/whatever? Do people start buying touch screen displays to take advantage of the Window’s 8 touch-friendly feel? Do Windows people start making fun of Apple people because they have a different OS on their phone than they have on their computer? If the answer’s yes to all of these, then buy some Microsoft stock because what comes next will be huge revenues.
Instead of calling your help desk to say, “Please don’t upgrade my computer from Windows XP to Windows 7 because I’m used to the old way.” You’ll call them and say, “Hey, when are we doing the Windows 8 upgrade because I love what it gives me at home and I want that joy here?” These types of questions will make IT departments less likely to allow users to bring their Macs and iPhones to work and more likely to standardize on one platform again. Or, at the very least, not be tempted to abandon Microsoft.
Really, for Microsoft, anything but the Best Case Scenario is bad. Right now Microsoft has a large open wound, if they half stop the bleeding they’re only prolonging their death. That said, we did a best case, what’s the worst?
If people don’t like Windows 8 or it’s as buggy Windows ME was, then they won’t buy it. They’ll buy Macs, iPhones, and Androids in their personal lives and instead of cheering their IT department to bring them Windows 8, they’ll begin asking louder for Macs or Google Docs. Instead of Windows 8 eventually leading to pressure on the IT department to support Windows, it will force them to stop insisting on it.