With BUILD just around the corner, opinions are running high about what next week's Windows 8 unveil will bring. But here's a thought:
Even if Windows 8 is the most awesomest OS you've ever seen, who's going to buy it?
Of course, you, dear geek reader, don't count. You, like me, like to live at the cutting (sometimes bleeding) edge of everything. So outside of developers and geeks, who is the customer for Windows 8?
It Isn't Business
We can safely assume Microsoft's bread-and-butter business customer is not going drive record sales of Windows 8. For starters, much of what's new in Windows 8 is focusing on consumer value and experiences. The new immersive tile UI is cool, but it's probably not what a business wants to put in-front of its call-center/task-driven/Office-addicted employees. In fact, many businesses still would be content with Windows XP if it wasn't now (or almost now) unsupported and unavailable on new PCs, so even the modestly improved "Classic Shell" in Win8 (i.e. Win7-like explorer) offers little incentive to upgrade.
In fact, Windows XP plays a big role in the problem facing Windows 8.
As reported today by Gartner, businesses are suffering "upgrade fatigue" having just finished major upgrades to Windows 7. Due to the utter disaster that was Windows Vista, most businesses skipped that version and upgraded directly from Windows XP to Windows 7. In fact, by Gartner's reporting, 80 percent of companies upgraded from XP to Windows 7. That's an amazing accomplishment for Win7, but a big problem for Win8.
What has Microsoft inadvertently taught companies? You can upgrade your OS every 10 years. No need to incur the pain and costs of upgrading every 2 to 3 years as business used to do in the 90s.
Add to that the slowing hardware cycles in business (which often help usher-in new OSs) and increased push to virtualize the desktop, and it's clear business is not likely to help Windows 8.
It's Isn't Consumers
So if business isn't the customer, it must be consumers, right? Microsoft certainly seems to hope so with a big emphasis on consumer features in Windows 8. But do consumers (non-geek) really buy Windows anymore? Do they buy any operating system, for that matter?
Unlike 1995, when people stood in line to buy copies of Windows 95, the OS in 2011 is a commodity. It's an invisible layer that just comes with a PC, phone, or tablet. With constant crashing and BSODs a thing of the relative past, people have forgotten about the plumbing layer that makes their PC tick.
No, consumers don't buy Windows. They buy new computers, and an OS comes with the computer. But unfortunately for Microsoft, the sales of new computers are starting to fall-off, too. So the primary well through which new versions of Windows are pushed to consumers is starting to dry-up, with the consumer flocking to "cool" Apple hardware and tablets.
And like business, the family PC is lasting longer than it used to these days. Gaming has largely moved to the console (for which Microsoft is getting its share via the Xbox), and browsing the web, checking email, or creating a Office doc just doesn't need more megahertz.
Tablets or Bust
If the neither business or consumer customers are interested in buying an OS, then it's fair to conclude that Windows 8 is not for desktops. Sure, it will trickle-out to desktops via new computer purchases and the lagging corporate giant finally upgrading from XP, but the success of Windows 8 will not come from its traditional home on PCs and laptops.
For Microsoft and Windows 8, it's tablets or bust.
Think the new Metro Tile UI looks a little crazy on a desktop? Fine. Microsoft doesn't care, because it has clearly been designed to make the Windows tablet experience more exciting. You already know what you're going to get (and likely what you want) on a desktop with Windows 8: a lightly improved version of Windows 7. But on a tablet, everyone is ready to be wowed with something radical (and not in the deflating "WOW Starts Now" Vista sense).
That said, consumers still don't buy operating systems.
In this era of tablets, shoppers do not go in search of an "iOS tablet" or an "Android tablet" (see: Google Buys Motorola). Instead they buy the iPad, the Motorola Zoom, or the Samsung Galaxy. They buy the experience, software + hardware.
Who Will Control Microsoft's Fate?
Based on this complete analysis, the success of Windows 8 is going to come down to the hardware Microsoft can bring to market for Windows-powered tablets.
Traditionally, with the exception of Xbox, Microsoft leaves hardware manufacturing to partners. And so far, there's no reason to think Microsoft won't continue to rely on this model with Windows 8 and tablets. But given the unbelievable importance to Microsoft of a successful Windows 8 tablet, which will depend in large part on hardware, is Microsoft ready to leave its fate in someone else's hands?
Look left or look right and Microsoft's peer competitors are all controlling software and hardware:
- Apple with iOS and the iPad
- Google with Android and (acquired) Motorola hardware
- Amazon with custom Kindle Android and assumed tablet hardware
Is it time for Microsoft to pivot and take control of the entire experience? Will Microsoft follow the Google model and acquire a major hardware partner (I wonder who that would be…) while still licensing the OS to the remaining partners?
If there's one announcement not widely rumored for BUILD, I would predict it will revolve around this very issue. And since Microsoft isn't likely to depend on the same partners that have failed to help Windows Phone, maybe BUILD will bring the introduction of the Windows Tablet (Designed by Microsoft in Washington. Assembled in China.).
We'll find out in a few days. Either way, Windows 8 isn't for desktops, it's for tablets.