The Windows 8 Muddle

This isn't shaping up to be the transcendent week that Microsoft wanted it to be.  The Windows 8 announcement isn't a failure by any means, but the coverage is a lot more mixed and confused than I'm sure Microsoft would have liked.  That's partly due to some clever marketing by Microsoft's competitors, and partly due to some mistakes made by Microsoft itself.

The situation all came together for me this morning when I did a brief appearance on Bloomberg TV, a cable business channel in the US.  The segment was supposed to cover the new iPad Mini and Windows 8, with equal time given to each one.  The Bloomberg folks spent time with me yesterday prepping the questions on each subject.

The equal billing of iPad Mini with Windows 8 is itself bad news for Microsoft.  Windows 8 represents the reinvention of Microsoft, one of the biggest changes the company has ever made.  The iPad Mini is a follow-on product in the iPad line.  It's a very nice follow-on, and probably one that will sell very well, but it's not at the same level of importance as Windows 8.  However, hardware gets more attention in the tech press than software.  It's more tangible, and people react to it emotionally. So the Mini jumped right into the mix.

Apple very cleverly timed the Mini announcement a couple of days before the formal Windows 8 rollout, distracting the press from Microsoft's story.  It reminds me a bit of the way the iPhone rumors undercut the Microsoft Zune launch in late 2006.

Leaking Flagship

Even with the competitive game-playing, Microsoft's announcement should have been OK.  But then Microsoft failed to ship the Intel-compatible "Pro" version of its new Surface tablet on time.  Instead, the only Surface device being reviewed right now is the Windows RT version, which can't run existing Windows software.  Since Surface is the Windows 8 flagship, and hardware gets more coverage than software anyway, the concerns about Windows compatibility in Surface RT are dominating a lot of Windows 8 press coverage.

One of the most biting Surface reviews was David Pogue's in the New York Times, who compared Surface to owning "a new Ferrari...that has to be refueled every three miles."  (link).  PC Magazine called it "a disaster" (link).  You can see more reviews summarized here.

There's an answer to the concerns about Surface RT: wait and buy the pro version.  But the last thing a vendor wants to do right before the December buying season is tell customers not to buy.  You'll hurt sales of not just Surface RT, but all other Windows 8 products as well.  So Microsoft can't push that message aggressively.  (Hey, Microsoft -- you say you want to be a device company?  Lesson No. 1 is that you have to ship your high-end flagship product before Christmas, not right after it.)

The Windows 8 muddle was in full play for the Bloomberg segment, which started with video of Bloomberg's Sara Silverstein and Gizmodo's Sam Biddle trying to use Excel on Surface.  Sara tries and fails to copy a formula using the touchscreen.  Sam tells her Microsoft claims you can use all of Excel in the touch version.  Sara replies sarcastically, "I believe that you would...if you're making a spreadsheet about, you know, lemonade stands" (link).

Then the segment jumps to the iPad Mini, with a discussion of how it stacks up against Amazon's subsidized tablet hardware.  That's a great topic, and deserves a lot of thought.  In fact, it goes on so long that Bloomberg runs out of time and never comes back to Windows 8 (link).  So Apple and Amazon steal most of the oxygen, and the only impression you get about Windows 8 is that it's not ready for serious business use.

Not all the Windows 8 coverage is negative.  For example, Walt Mossberg did a nicely balanced piece on All Things D (link), and Wired was pretty positive about Surface (link).  But the story of Windows 8 is complicated.  In a world of quick sound bites, it's very easy for the press to caricature Windows 8 as "that touch screen thing that doesn't run your stuff properly."  Clever marketing by Apple is giving Microsoft less time in the press to explain the nuances of Windows 8, and the failure to ship Surface Pro on time makes Microsoft's job even tougher.  Microsoft has enough money to wait out the bad coverage, but I think it's less and less likely that Windows 8 will deliver the massive initial sales that Microsoft promised for it.


Walt French said...

This all sounds right, but I wonder if the trouble isn't more strategic than you imply.

Windows 8 is a Big Deal in part because it's a near-simultaneous rollout of phones, tablets, and a common design language that is meant to be right for them and desktops. They complexified things a bit more by deciding to roll out full ARM support as a tablet option.

I go to some tech boards: developers are confused. Microsoft is surely working closely with big developers but many don't know what they will/won't have to do to make apps work on the range of hardware that supports Win8.

Tech enthusiasts are confused about the ARM/X86 bifurcation: ARM chips are here and now, while Intel's power-reduction exercise still hasn't inspired many OEMs to design them in. Previously, Microsoft could count on knowledgeable writers to help promote their message. Today, they don't get it.

Likewise, Microsoft has weakened its ties with traditional partners Intel, Dell and others, by cutting out exclusivity, de-emphasizing or outright competing with them. The figures on-stage with Ballmer are AT&T's de Vega and Nokia's Elop, representatives of firms that lack tech cred.

I look at Enterprise customers and consultants. They see incremental benefit to WIn8, but are having a hard time projecting how work patterns will shift away from the current desktop/laptop paradigm, which currently ties up most of their budgets and demands.

And consumers have apparently gotten very little in the way of info about how Microsoft's products — chiefly, their phones — will help them stay in touch or have fun, better than the established competition.

Transitions in technology, business model, partners, customer sets … and Microsoft is trying to tie them all together and somehow leverage their desktop reputation for solid, get-it-done tools, into vibrant, fun and quick-to-change devices.

Frankly, I don't know how you could tell such a story; far too many moving parts and too many non-sequiturs. Toss in a couple of schedule hiccups, management dividing its attention three or four different ways and competitors competing, and you have a formula for a morass at best.

TDC123 said...

I find it funny that microsoft haven't clearly defined the difference between Windows Pro and Windows RT they should have been named distinctly, maybe RT as Windows Mobile or something to clearly distinguish between mobility and professional version hope consumers don't buy the available surface and find some of their apps don't work!!!

Elia said...

A Microsoft developer evangelist came down to Mobile Portland Monday night to talk developer tools. I was very impressed with what MS has done technically. I did write in my notes, about half way through though, that Microsoft needs an SVP of Simplicity who can veto any project that can't be easily explained to consumers.

I've been thinking about this all week and think that the big opportunity Microsoft is missing is not hardware at all. I think the problem is Word, Excel and PowerPoint. With all device sales there is a chicken and egg problem: devices want sell without apps, apps won't be created without device sales. But Microsoft has an advantage as their killer apps are all controlled in-house. I can't help but wonder what the reaction would be if RT-enabled versions of Office was available out of the gate. Instead f thinking as WinRT as an iPad competitor, I think we would be thinking about it as the next generation laptop, one a heck of a lot sexier than current Windows machines. And for all those people who spend their days in Excel, Word, browsers, PowerPoint and Outlook, WinRT would have looked just fine at an incredibly aggressive price.

Opportunity lost.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments, gang. Walt, I think you're exactly right about complexification. If it's hard for us techies to understand everything happening with Windows 8, how can anyone else?

TDC, I agree with you that the naming is confusing. I think Microsoft felt it had to apply the Windows brand to everything because it's such a powerful brand. But a Windows that doesn't run Windows apps is inherently confusing to customers (if not downright misleading).

And Elia, actually there is an RT version of Office, and it's bundled on Surface. That's the thing the Bloomberg folks were struggling with at the start of the video segment. The problem, in my opinion, is that the Office apps would have to be completely rethought in order to make them fully intuitive in Metro. Instead Microsoft kind of adapted them. The changes aren't all bad, but as the Bloomberg segment showed, they can be confusing.

Elia said...

That's not WinRT versions of Office; that's Win 8 versions crammed into RT. And of course they need to rethink Office. After all, they just spent a fortune rethinking Windows. Why stop there? You don't order a sundae and leave off the cherry. :-)

RobDK said...

Great article, Michael.

It is interesting that MS is not able to bring all these products to the market at the same time, as you describe; mobile/desktop, hardware/software. Apparently the software for W8 phone is still not finished, and the developer kit has not been released. So how they expect software in their mobile app store, or OEMs to del devices, is beyond me!

A few months ago Gruber at Daring Fireball wrote about Apple now being able to 'walk and chew gum at the same time'. He contrasted almost Apple's simultaneous coordinated release of iOS6 and OSX Mountain Lion in 2012 with the problems they had in 2007.

Well, here we are 5 years later, and the worlds largest software house is not able to complete mobile and desktop OS launches on time, or in a coordinated fashion. That really shows how the balance of fortune and power has changed!

Foonly said...

Michael, the Office apps are included with RT, not "bundled with Surface".

The Windows 8 Modern (previously "Metro") UI will not be compelling for use on the installed base of Windows 7 PCs. Optimizing for touch de-optimizes for the mouse and keyboard.

However it is not difficult to arrange things so that a user spends almost no time in the Windows 8 Modern UI. Most folks use only a few apps, and will put shortcuts to them on the desktop. Corporate sysadmins will do this using Group Policy.

Why would the sysadmins want to deploy Windows 8 then? In order to take advantage of improved enterprise features such as TPM-based virtual smart cards and numerous Kerberos improvements.

Meanwhile, consumers are lined up five-deep at Microsoft stores, wanting to get their hands on Surface. They are already touch-savvy from using phones. They will quickly learn the Modern UI and spend most of their time there. They don't expect to drive the Office apps using touch; that's what the Surface TouchCover is for. To them, Windows 8 is "tablet plus Office", and it sounds good to them.

Since enterprise employees are consumers, they will soon demand their IT departments get Windows 8 x86 laptops (including x86 Surface) for them. The IT departments will be happy to oblige, since they'll be able to manage those machines as they can only dream of managing iOS or Android devices.

Will this happen overnight? Of course not. Will it happen? You bet.

tatilsever said...

"Meanwhile, consumers are lined up five-deep at Microsoft stores, wanting to get their hands on Surface. "

In the meantime, back on planet Earth, not one of my coworkers brought up Windows 8 or Surface, yet. The only person who brought up Windows Phone wants to get a WP7 version of a Lumia, as it should be free with a contract. Contrast that to iPad. When the first version was announced, everybody asked each other whether they were getting one. Very few did. When iPad2 came out, quite a few bought one for family members and some started bringing them to their cubicles for personal uses. Same story after iPad3, people asking around to see who is going to pre-order, not to mention what happens right after iPhone announcements. Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire gets brought up occasionally. I have not seen anybody using one at work, but I know some who have purchased one.

Win8 needs to overcome customer apathy, although I suppose apathy is better than the vitriol people had against Vista. Minimal TV advertising makes it look like MS is releasing Win8 now to meet some contractual obligations, but its heart is not really in it.

(By the way, captchas here are getting impossible to decipher. I suppose that is indication of progress for computers being more capable, but I am unable to prove that I am not a robot unless I try numerous times.)

Chan said...

The secrecy, control and execution did it for Apple.

So may be "chaos theory" may work well for Microsoft after-all. Given that even competitors also may be confused to target the Microsoft's all-out-roll-out preciously. May be that give MS the oxygen they needed to where it want to be...

Wouln't happen overnight but will happen eventually, I think people keep buying either Android or mostly Apple iPads until the MS wagon is ready, cos MS has money to keep pumping gas until it catches up with the rivals....

But still history suggest MS's like these roll outs mostly failed due to their lack of focus and will (Zune). There is a chance they get blew up their Windows reputation.

May be that will be their driving force as they expected it to be. Still I would have named Windows RT differently, what's wrong with (Windows 8 for) Tablet PC, they never really killed it ? I have occasionally seen that people do name modern tablets as Tablet PCs (for Android, iPad) without been too technical and ask whether it runs Windows XP or install Office.

Seems interesting times ahead...

Roly said...

Complexificated? That's a complexified version of complicated.

Barry said...

A friend once comment that he didn't like windows 8 it reminded of him of a hospital chart and few other things. He also stated that he won't switch to a mac.

When I watched windows 8 demo videos on YouTube. It felt like that someone poke me in the eyes with two fingers. Or had given me the middle finger. It looks slick and cool, but I am doubtful. We will see what the verdict would be from other users. Who knows what future may bring.

I think that I may have to migrate to apple OS. In my opinion, apple is less annoying. The last time, I handled a macbook, is when I set up my sister's laptop. It look slick. A slight difference in where things are.

Considering that we're commenting about windows 8. Not to offend windows 8 fans. Personally, I prefer not to be encumbered by my machine (laptop or PC). And be able to use any app, word processor and office suite without any hiccups. Besides not everyone has money to throw around. People stick with windows, because some of them are frugal and certain segment of the population in Canada and the US are on dial up.

I think that makers behind windows 8 had severely limit the choices of a user. I am not planning to migrate to a recently minted windows anytime soon.

From an average user standpoint. Windows 7 works, because everything is in place. No need to jump through hoops to get from point A to point B. Besides with my windows 7 laptop. I don't need to link up with Microsoft account.

Anonymous said...


I think you have hit the nail on the head.

A few months ago, I picked up a new laptop which came with Windows 7. After having used Windows XP for so many years, I found Windows 7 very awkward and cumbersome to use - despite the obvious similarities between the two.

It took me a while to get used to Windows 7 - only after I managed to switch off as many as possible of the fancy icons, animated transitions and transparent overlays.

(For goodness sake, if I had wanted nonsense like that, I would have bought an Apple.)

I shudder to think what it's going to be like to adjust to Windows 8!

Unfortunately, it's a fact of life that, after a certain point, software tends to become worse due to useless frills which are piled on in the name of 'innovation'.


Chan said...

Hi Mike,

It's over now, Facebook has won. So finally I got in to it and obviously it is the fastest growing platform right now.

And it has it's own good.

So wonder are you on FB, can I add you, or would you rather add me?

It will be interesting...

Andreu Castellet said...

This is one particularly for Michael,
Why "complexification" and not "fragmentation" instead?
Windows ME, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, Windows RT, Windows 8...
Who is going to develop for that mess? The ones who did for Windows 7? Is Windows 8 Microsoft's last word on OSs for the next years or they will still keep looking for the perfect mobile OS and in the meantime leaving its environments commercially unsupported?
I understand that Intel/ARM different architectures pose a big challenge to OS developers, but if you say Windows you necessarily mean things like Office, and a large degree of compatibility with most of, naturally, past Windows software.
So where are we?