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.

"Social" as a Business Tool, and Richard Windsor Unchained

I'd like to call your attention to two new information resources on the web.

"Social" as a business tool.  First, my friend and former colleague Nilofer Merchant has written an ebook on the role of "social" tools in business strategy and operations.  It's called "11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era," and is published through Harvard Business Review.  In the book, Nilofer addresses a flaw in thinking that we saw in many businesses while we were consulting at Rubicon: when you say "social," most established companies think of a new medium for marketing their products, like a new form of advertising.  So they assign social responsibility to their marketing team, and treat it as a method to shove one-way messages into the eyes and ears of customers.

But some companies, especially startups, are learning to integrate the full range of what we call "social" tools deeply into all of their business processes and decision-making.  It requires a fundamental rethinking of everything you expect a business to do.  To give you one very minor example from the startup I'm involved in, when you have a small team and Skype, do you really need to pay for office space and the time involved in commuting every day?  Do you even need all your team members to live in the same country?

It sounds simple to folks who live online, but you'd be amazed by how hard it is for an established company, even a tech company, to rethink its business processes.

Nilofer's book is, as she says, a "quick read" designed to help you rethink business from a social perspective.  You can learn more here.

Richard Windsor Unchained.  In this age of tweets and shared videos, I'm delighted to see a new old-fashioned blog on the mobile industry.  Richard Windsor has been for a long time one of my favorite financial analysts covering mobile.  His short bullet-point e-mails analyzing earnings reports were always pungent and on-point, and since he's based in London he's outside the Silicon Valley groupthink.  Richard recently left Nomura and is now free to share his opinions online, in a new blog here

An excerpt from his recent comments on RIM:

"•  RIMM also managed to grow the subscriber base by 2m to 80m but the mix and quality of these subscribers is falling fast despite this quarter’s blip.
•  Out go the high spending corporate executives spending $100+ per month and in come the teenage texters in Indonesia spending more like $5 a month."


The Unanswered Question About Apple Maps

I agree with almost everyone else that Tim Cook was right to quickly apologize for the problems with Apple Maps.  If you're in the US, you can contrast his handling of the situation to the National Football League's handling of its referee lockout.  The lesson: Deny a problem and the public will feed on you like wolves on a crippled buffalo.  Acknowledge the problem and people will give you a second chance.  The apology is especially effective if it comes from a person (not a corporate statement) and sounds sincere.  Most of us want to be nice to one another, and a personal apology taps into that reflex.

So fine, I'm sure Apple will fix the app eventually, and in six months this whole thing will probably be a distant memory.

What I'm wondering about is a much more serious problem that may not be solved in six months, and that (unlike the Maps app itself) threatens Apple's long-term prosperity.  The question:

How in the world did Apple make a mistake like this in the first place?

I'm not talking about shipping an unsatisfying app; that happens to any company.  I'm talking about making an obviously underwhelming and unfinished app a centerpiece in a critically important new product announcement.  If you have an app that isn't perfect yet, position it that way.  Tell people that it's just getting started and needs more work.  Instead, Apple execs gushed about Maps on stage.  Scott Forstall made it the first feature in his iOS 6 demo, and spent more than two and a half minutes talking about it (link).  This sort of mismatch between message and delivery is a sign that Apple's product management and review process failed utterly somewhere along the line.

It's a little bit like NASA launching the space shuttle Challenger when people in the organization knew it might blow up.  The issue is not that there were flaws, it's that they went ahead with the launch despite the flaws.

Of course nobody has been killed by Apple Maps, so it's a very different sort of problem.  But both are related to organizational culture and business practices.  Like NASA's culture of safety, Apple is supposed to have a culture of great product functionality.  It's the center of what makes the company special.  That process failed spectacularly in the case of Apple Maps, and speaking as somebody who spent years reporting into the product management organization at Apple, there is absolutely no excuse for what happened.

Apple's marketing machine is so powerful that any major failure in a marquee feature gets magnified enormously.  Even Google can probably get away with a big feature failure or two; you expect Android to be a bit loose around the edges, and lord knows Google backtracks on initiatives all the time.  But Apple claims that it will amaze and delight us with its new products, and so people naturally expect greatness.  It's what justifies the intense coverage of Apple's announcements.

There are several possible explanations for what went wrong, all of them bad.  Maybe:

--The product managers on Apple Maps knew it had problems but didn't think users would care.  Or

--The managers of Apple Maps knew there were problems, and reported the problems, but were ignored by middle management.  Or

--The middle managers reported the problems, but senior management ignored them.  Or

--Maybe Apple has become so insular and self-satisfied that no one there realized the difference between a good looking maps app and a usable one.

It comes down to this: are you incompetent, bureaucratic, or out of touch?

Screw-ups like this happened occasionally at Apple under Steve Jobs.  Someone once described to me the experience of being in a group that was pulled into a meeting with Steve where he said, "you let me down, and you let the company down."  My friend said it was one of the worst feelings ever, and it also resulted in job changes for the people responsible.  That may be something Tim Cook will need to do.  But he also needs to ask some deeper questions.  Is this just a failure of a particular manager or team, or is there a cultural or process problem that needs to be fixed?  That's a very tough question to answer.  You don't want to mess up the culture and practices that Steve left behind, but at the same time you can't permit this sort of mistake to become a routine event.

When I was at Apple back in the 1990s, before Steve returned, we had a joke we told on ourselves:

Q:  What's the difference between an Apple salesman and a used-car salesman?
A: The used car salesman knows when he's lying.

Apple needs to be sure it doesn't slip back into that old habit.

Judging Apple: It's Really (Still) About Steve

It's been interesting to watch the passionate reactions flow back and forth about Apple's iPhone 5 announcement.  Most of them fall into two camps:

-Apple is failing.  The announcement was a boring disappointment, Apple is falling behind on features, and its execution is deteriorating.  Just look at the mapping app in iOS 6.


-The Apple haters don't get it.  Look at the huge sales, Apple has always focused on functionality over feature list, and you have no idea how impressive it is that they packed that much circuitry into something so thin and elegant (link).  Oh, and that map thing is a tactical retreat to get a better long-term future.

Both sides have some valid points, but I think what's driving the peculiar energy in the debate is a question that almost no one's putting on the table, and that no one can answer yet: Can Apple without Steve Jobs still put lightning in a bottle?  Can it come up with that new category-busting product, like the iPhone and iPad, that overturns whole industries and makes us all nod our heads and say, "yes, of course, that's how the future should be"?

I think the Apple defenders generally believe that Apple can do it, and judge the current announcements as the normal incremental steps Apple takes between product revolutions.  The Apple critics don't take it for granted, and are studying each announcement for signs of bottled lightning.  When they don't get it, they feel uneasy, and that colors their comments.

The reality is that we don't know what the new Apple is capable of.  It's unfair (and unrealistic) to expect magic in every announcement.  The market can't absorb that much change, and no single company can produce it.  But until Apple rolls out a new category-changing product, we can't know if it is truly the same power it was before Steve died. 

Apple today is huge, rich company run by a bunch of middle-aged white guys who drive very expensive cars (link).  Like any company run by a homogenous team with low turnover, it makes them potentially vulnerable to getting out of touch with the real world.  That was also pretty much true before Steve died, but most people trusted that he had the mystical power of product design that enabled him to discern new product categories and make brilliant decisions about feature trade-offs.  We don't know if his acolytes can do that.  Is there a process for brilliance, or did that pass away with the founder?

When Apple made mistakes in the past, people trusted that it was an aberration that Steve would soon fix.  Now when there's a mistake, I think there's fear in many minds that this isn't an aberration, it's the new normal for Apple; that the company is turning into a big successful outfit that often does good incremental work but also makes big glaring errors because of inertia or internal politics, and is too self-absorbed to see them before they go splat in public -- like the abortive decision to withdraw from Epeat green certification (link), like the rescinded staffing changes in the Apple stores (link), and like the mapping situation.

Apple's success makes it a target for huge, powerful competitors: Samsung, Google, Microsoft, and others. Its ultimate defense has always been its ability to change the rules, to alter the competitive landscape in ways that put the other guys at a lasting disadvantage.  If Apple has lost its ability to change the world, the fear is that it'll become the business equivalent of the battleship Bismarck: a stationary target as more and more business firepower is concentrated against it.

We don't yet know what the new Apple can really do, and it'll take another two years or so to find out for sure.  Until then, we should expect the passionate debate between the faithful and the skeptics to be renewed every time Apple announces anything.  Just keep in mind that the debate won't really be about the products.  It'll really be about Steve.

The Seductive Foolishness of a Facebook Phone

The rumors about Facebook making a smartphone have died down -- for the moment.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last month that it wouldn't make sense for Facebook to create its own smartphone.  I'd like to believe that finally put an end to the rumor forever, but you know it's going to be back.  Even when Zuckerberg issued his denial some people claimed he was lying (link). 

People react emotionally to hardware.  The idea of the leading online community making a phone is sexy, and seems intuitively obvious in an age when software giants like Google and Microsoft are making their own hardware.  Of course Facebook is making a phone.  Isn't everybody?

It reminds me of elementary school:

Mom:  Honey, why did you jump your bike off the roof?
Child: (in traction) Everyone else was doing it.
Mom:  If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do that too?
Child:  Yes, Mom, as a matter of fact I would.  Jeez, haven't you heard of peer pressure?

Mark Zuckerberg is young for a CEO, but I hope he's not that young.  I think making a smartphone is one of the most spectacularly stupid things Facebook could do.  Even if the product succeeded (which is very iffy), the distraction and business problems it would create could do severe damage to the whole company.  There are other, much easier ways for Facebook to make itself a power in mobile and to extend its dominance in new areas.  I think Zuckerberg and his troops should be concentrating on those enormous opportunities rather than messing around with hardware.

Knowing my luck with predictions, this means Facebook will probably create a phone and make it a huge commercial success.  In that case, you're welcome to come back here in a couple of years and tease me.  But in the meantime, here's why I think the "Facephone" would be a terrible idea, and what the company should focus on instead.

Making a smartphone: The Red Queen's Race

Most people outside the phone industry don't understand how hard it is to make a competitive smartphone.  Mobile hardware is moving at amazing speed, with companies like Samsung packing in new and updated features as quickly as they can.  Many customers are very sensitive to these features.  If you fall even a little bit behind -- say, with a camera that has too low a resolution, or a slow processor -- many people won't buy your phone, unless you discount it to the point where you aren't making any money.

You might be thinking to yourself, "okay, so just make sure you're using the leading components."  That sounds easy, but Samsung in particular specializes in sourcing those new components immediately (or making them itself) and building them into new hardware quickly, all at an aggressive price.  Unless you move extremely fast, you'll find yourself releasing new features at the same time as Samsung is moving on to the next generation.

So you need a hardware organization with close ties to the component suppliers, and with enough money to make advance orders for components that haven't shipped yet.  And you need to hire several complete engineering teams, so a couple of them can be working on future products in parallel while one team brings the latest flagship to market.

All of this is a huge investment.  It's also high risk, because sometimes you'll guess wrong on a component and have to eat its cost.  And at best, if you're wildly successful, all you can do is keep pace with Samsung.  It won't give you differentiation.

And oh by the way, rising competition from Huawei and ZTE in China is probably going to accelerate the process even further.

Then there's software.  A similar situation applies in software, even more so.  Apple and Google are competing to see who can cram more new software features into a smartphone.  For example, Apple adds voice recognition, and Google immediately counters.  If you're not prepared to quickly match all of those features, your phone will end up in the discount bin, the same as if you were behind in hardware.

So to enter the smartphone business today, you need a large software engineering organization creating a huge suite of applications, and updating them frequently.  Plus you'll need to do a large amount of hidden software customization to integrate with the specific features and applications of each major mobile operator.

You can save some of this investment by licensing a third-party operating system.  The choices are Android and...well, Android.  Which is made by your most bitter rival, Google, a company that has shown itself to be willing to manipulate Android to hurt competitors.  So maybe you do like Amazon and build on top of an open source version of Android, one that Google doesn't control.  But in that case you're using software that's a generation out of date, you have to write many of your own applications, and there's still that software integration work with the operators.  You save some time and investment, but not nearly as much as you'd like.

So now you've created a huge hardware and software engineering organization.  You next need to pay for all the parts and manufacturing.  You must create marketing deals with the operators and tech stores (which means hiring a dedicated salesforce).  You need to hire a support staff that responds directly to phone calls and e-mails (something that you, like other Internet companies, don't do).  You have to arrange for repairs and returns.  You need to license a huge range of patents, so Apple won't sue you.  And probably some other details I forgot about.

None of this is impossible for Facebook, but it takes a huge amount of time and investment.  It's not the sort of thing that you can do with a skunkworks team of a few dozen engineers from Apple.  Google, faced with this same situation, decided to buy Motorola.  If you really think Facebook is serious about the smartphone business, then the rumor you need to start is which smartphone company it's going to buy.

I'll kick off the rumors by nominating HTC.

But the real killer problem is that even after you do all of the above, all you've done is make a smartphone that matches the competition.  You still need to figure out what makes your phone so compellingly different that people would buy it instead of an iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, or the latest Google Nexus thing.

Differentiation cures all

Reading all of the above, you might respond, "hey, all of the same conditions applied before Apple entered the smartphone business, but it managed to succeed without making many of the investments you talked about."  And you'd be right.  The iPhone's success shocked the major smartphone players because they assumed the iPhone's relatively poor hardware specs (no 3G!) and missing software features (no MMS!) would make it an afterthought.  Apple succeeded because the first iPhone's differentiation -- real PC-style web browsing -- was so compelling that for many users it outweighed all the other drawbacks of the phone.  RIM did something similar with mobile e-mail years before, so there is a precedent for shaking up the phone industry with breakthrough devices and relatively low up-front investment.  Maybe Facebook can be the next company to redefine the smartphone.

There are two problems with this for Facebook:

1. You're not Apple.  Although Apple was not a phone company, it was a world-class consumer hardware manufacturer with a fanatical focus on user experience and quality.  RIM had many years of pager experience before it made the first BlackBerry.  Neither company made a tweaked phone; they brought a different set of system design practices to the phone industry.  The iPhone alone didn't defeat Nokia and Motorola, they were beaten decisively by Apple's business processes.  Facebook lacks that sort of process differentiation, especially relative to Google.

2.  What possible differentiation in a Facebook phone would be so compelling that it would make the iPhone and Android obsolete?  Almost by definition, an innovation that great is something that I can't imagine today.  Maybe Mark Zuckerberg can, and if so I salute his vision and welcome our new Facebook overlords.

Which future do you want to live in?

The other issue Facebook needs to consider is what industry structure is best suited to its future. 

There's a future scenario in which the usage of the web becomes more and more dominated by smartphones, and in which smartphone users are limited to a selection of apps and websites manipulated by the smartphone manufacturers.  In other words, the web becomes a series of walled gardens rather than than the open environment it is today.  If you believe that scenario is destined to happen, and if you believe the only way to have a role in smartphones is to make your own hardware, then of course Facebook has to make a smartphone.  It's dead otherwise.

But I don't think that's how the future works.  It's not a fixed destiny, it's a set of possibilities.  Our own actions shape the future and call it into being.  The more powerful and persuasive an organization or individual is, the more it can do to shape the future.  And Facebook is a very powerful, persuasive company.

I think the best future for Facebook is one in which the web, including the mobile web, stays open to software-only innovation.  In this world, customers choose which websites and web apps they want to use, without being forced into a particular choice by a hardware manufacturer.  This would enable Facebook to run on all smartphones, keeping the company focused on expanding its network and adding new features and services to it.  In other words, Facebook could keep doing what it does best, rather than pouring money into a new set of skills and gambling that it can out-compete Samsung and Apple on their home turf.
If Facebook creates its own smartphone, I think it makes that open future less likely.  A Facebook phone would encourage other software companies to make proprietary phones, further closing off software openness.  And it would make the other phone companies much less likely to cooperate with Facebook.  Today, smartphone companies will fall all over themselves to work with Facebook.  Even Apple is actively integrating Facebook with the iPhone.  How long will that last once Facebook starts selling a phone?  Instead of Facebook everywhere in mobile, we could end up with Facebook noplace except on the Facebook phone.

Beware the Ides of Flash

Right now, Facebook is so popular that Google can't prevent it from working with Android.  The more that Apple integrates with Facebook, the more pressure Android licensees will feel to match that integration, even if Google discourages it.  But if Facebook were kicked off iPhone, Google would have a much freer hand to disadvantage and exclude Facebook from Android. 

This is my biggest concern about the Facebook phone idea.  The company could easily produce a phone that is just good enough to scare away its other phone partners, without being good enough to dominate the smartphone market.  The Facebook phone could call into being the exact industry structure that Facebook wants to avoid.  That's why I see it as hideously high risk, a bet-the-company move that should be taken only when there's no other chance to survive.
And Facebook has other choices.

What Facebook should do

In ecology, the most successful species are not the ones that adapt best to the environment, they're the ones that reshape the environment to match their needs.  That's what I think Facebook should be doing.  Instead of competing with smartphone manufacturers, it should run a series of integration experiments with them.  Facebook's early efforts in that direction were not very successful (link), but that's why I'd put more resources into them -- there's a learning curve.

Facebook's goal should be to get the handset companies competing with each other to build Facebook more and more deeply into the phone.  How about creating a set of Facebook integration requirements, and a "Facebook Ready" logo for complying phones?

In addition to integrating the core Facebook functions, Facebook needs to bring along the Facebook economy.  The challenge for Facebook is not just to transfer its content to mobile, it's to make available the full ecosystem of third party apps and services that make Facebook so powerful on the desktop.  I know some of the smartphone manufacturers don't want anything that looks like a third party platform on their phones, but Facebook is one of the few web companies popular enough to force it.  Provide the full ecosystem to some phone manufacturers, and the others will be forced to follow suit.

This would give Facebook not just an application on smartphones, but a mobile platform that it can grow rapidly and in new directions, as it did on the desktop.  Instead of competing at the commoditized hardware layer, Facebook can compete at the platform and UI layer where most of the profitability is.  It's the right place for Facebook to fight, but it's all put at risk if Facebook makes its own phone.

Quick Takes: RIM's Marketing, Microsoft Takes Even More Risks, and A Lesson from Digg

Short thoughts on recent tech news...

How not to turn around a company, part 1

Some day, my friend, you might become the CEO of a major technology company.  (Heck, maybe you're one right now.)  When you are a CEO, you sometimes have to deliver bad news to the public.  Maybe it'll be a poor quarter, or a product that doesn't work as advertised.  Or maybe you'll be in charge of a major corporate turnaround, in which case you'll have to deliver a lot of bad news.

There are some very specific rules for how you deliver that news.  You can't sound like you're in denial, but at the same time you can't surrender to the gloom that will flow like a river from the press and analysts you talk to.  It's their job to make the case for what's wrong; it's your job to make the case for how you will fix it. 

One of the rules of this process is that you can't adopt the language of the people criticizing your company.  If you do, they'll play back that language at you. 

For example, say someone asks "did your company deliberately steal millions of dollars from your customers?"  There are several good ways to respond.  You can go for incredulity:  "Anyone who says that is completely out of touch with reality."  You can accuse the reporter of naivete:  "You've been spending too much time on the bulletin boards.  I talk with our customers every day, and they are very happy with their relationship with us."   Or you can just change the subject:  "Let me explain what we're doing."

What you must not do is repeat the hostile wording in the question ("no, we did not steal millions of dollars").  That's a trap, because you legitimize the accusation by repeating it.  The headline the next day will be "CEO denies stealing millions of dollars," something so inflammatory that a reporter on his or her own could never get it into a headline.

RIM CEO Thorsten Heins fell into this trap in an interview he did with CBC in early July.  It's a good interview; I encourage you to listen to it here.

The interviewer, Matt Galloway, is politely professional but relentless.  The interview reminds me of what can happen sometimes with British journalists when they see themselves as proxies for the audience, exposing the misdeeds of the rich and powerful.

Galloway uses death imagery throughout the interview:  "seems to be if not at death's door, it's in the vicinity"..."another nail in the coffin"..."the company may not be around by the time this thing comes out."  So it's a tough interview.

Heins handles most of it fairly well.  He sounds beleaguered at times, and he allows the interviewer to drive the subjects, instead of taking over the flow of the interview.  But he generally sticks to his message.  Until the last question.  Galloway asks:

"The public perception now is that it's a company in a death spiral, on death's door, and about to become irrelevant.  How do you turn that public perception around and make people believe that you can create devices that people will want?"

This is actually the only creampuff question in the interview.  Heins is being invited to talk about the new RIM handsets coming out now, and what's to come next year.  Or he could brag about sales in markets where RIM is doing well.  Journalists, especially on TV and radio, will often give you an easy question at the end so the segment will have an upbeat ending (and so they won't look like total attack dogs).  Unfortunately, Heins chooses this moment to go defensive and start playing back the interviewer's language:

"This company is not ignoring the world out there, nor is it in a death spiral."

So the interview ends on a sour note, and guess what the headlines say the next day:

The only words all of the headlines share are "RIM" and "death spiral."  What do you think people are going to remember?

The problem with doing a turnaround like RIM's is not that the task is impossible, but that it requires incredibly good execution.  You have to get a long list of things just right.  That's hard in any firm, but in a company that's laying off people and shuffling its management, it becomes even more difficult.  So far I don't see the necessary attention to detail from RIM.

How not to turn around a company, part 2

As long as we're picking on RIM, one of the other principles of a turnaround is to underpromise and overdeliver.  Make the situation seem as bleak as possible at the start, so you can surprise people with good news later.  If you think a product will be done in June of this year, promise it by December.  If you expect that the next couple of quarters may be bad, declare that the entire year will be a disaster.  Especially when you're a new CEO, no one's going to fire you for being gloomy in your first couple of weeks, and you will buy time for the turnaround to start working.

And don't worry about the stock price.  Trash it now so you'll look like a hero when it rises later (and so there will be no basis for a shareholder lawsuit).

Thorsten Heins did the exact opposite when he took over RIM.  He reinforced his predecessors' promise that the BlackBerry 10 OS would be out this year, and he made some very upbeat statements when he took over the job.  Galloway even played back a recording of one of them in the CBC interview.  Heins said in January:  "I don't think that times are that's an exciting time to take over.  RIM is not a turnaround company.  RIM is a financially healthy and sound company."

Six months later, the OS schedule has slipped, and obviously RIM is in a turnaround.  Instead of looking like the solution, Heins comes across like he's part of the problem.

The consistent theme here is self-inflicted wounds caused by bad marketing and PR.

Surface: Another Microsoft gamble

I continue to be fascinated by the moves Microsoft is making around Windows 8.  The OS has a radically new UI, and violates some of the most basic rules on how to do a platform transition.  I don't know whether to admire Microsoft's courage, or to be appalled at the unnecessary risks the company is taking.

I got the same feeling when I saw the previews of Microsoft's new tablet/PC devices, called Surface.  The pictures of them look swoopy, and I really like the idea of the flexible keyboard/cover that lets you use the tablet (sort of) like a notebook computer.  I'm also extremely intrigued by the model with a stylus (could this, at last, be the foundation for an info pad?)  Surface is giving me a serious case of technolust.

Unfortunately, we don't yet know many of the most important facts about Surface, such as what it'll cost, where it will be sold, and what it's like in long-term use.  If the answers are bad, Surface could become a curiosity on the order of the Palm Foleo (or maybe Microsoft's own Zune).  On the other hand, if everything is right, Surface could be a milestone product that helps reshape personal computing.

The one thing that's certain is that Surface is a high-risk business move for Microsoft.  For its entire history, Microsoft has avoided competing directly with its hardware licensees.  It certainly manipulated and sometimes exploited them, but it did not sell PCs against them.  Surface breaks that taboo.  It has to be putting a chill through Microsoft's licensees.  You want to share your hardware road map with your OS company, to make sure your products are coordinated with the OS.  But who's ever going to share their hardware plans with Microsoft when you know those ideas could sneak into a Microsoft device?  The licensees won't dump Windows, but they could easily reduce their investment in it.  And they might be scared away from the market for Windows tablets, the place where Microsoft is most anxious to grow.

Depending on Microsoft's manufacturing and sales plans, there's a danger that Surface could be just successful enough to damage the market for Windows 8 products without having enough impact to change the competitive situation versus iPad, Android, and Mac.  We don't know how many Surface devices Microsoft is making, or how they will be distributed.  The hints I've seen so far are that Surface will be available in Microsoft stores and online, but no place else.  If Surface is a hit, what happens to the rest of the PC retail channel?  Do Best Buy and its peers around the world just step aside?  And will they invest in promoting Windows 8 computers if the most popular Windows 8 device is not available to them?

Has Microsoft ordered enough Surface devices to fill the demand if it's popular?  If Microsoft has ordered a lot, maybe it'll have extra units for the Best Buys of the world.  But the more Microsoft invests in inventory, the greater the financial risk if Surface doesn't sell well.  Microsoft could be stuck with a huge inventory writedown, or might be forced to sell Surface at a very low price, spoiling the market for other Windows licensees.

I guess (and it's just a guess) that Microsoft will put the price of Surface a bit on the high side, with a fairly low sales forecast.  That would reduce the impact on licensees, and make it easier to manage inventory.  In that case, Surface becomes something like a concept car, not affordable to the average customer but encouraging licensees to do something similar (see here and here). 

Ashlee Vance at BusinessWeek pointed out that it's Microsoft's own fault that it needs a concept car (link):

"Microsoft, in many ways, helped create this mess... Along with Intel, it sucked all the profits out of the PC industry, leaving HP and Dell to rely on manufacturing companies in Taiwan for their innovative twists. The result has been the Great Stagnation."

The rumor mill says the low-end Surface device will be in the $600 range, and the high-end one around $800 (link).  That's concept car territory, in my opinion.

But even the concept car approach has risks.  If Surface doesn't sell well, will the licensees bother to copy it?  They usually want to copy best-sellers.  On the other hand, if Surface is viewed as a lustworthy product, will PC buyers delay purchases of other Windows 8 devices to wait for Surface clones?

The usual rule is never to give hardware customers a reason to wait, and Surface could do just that.

If I were a PC licensee, I'd be thinking very seriously about investing more in Android tablets.  Except that Google, to compete with its rogue licensee Amazon, just announced its own Google-branded tablet at $200.  That pricing isn't a concept car; it's more like a knife to the heart of other Android tablet makers.

Maybe that's why Microsoft feels it can get away with doing Surface; the licensees really have no place else to go.

So I end up back where I started, admiring Microsoft's courage but wondering about its strategy.  From a tech industry standpoint, it's nice to see a big company like Microsoft stirring the pot.  We need more of that.  And I admire Microsoft's willingness to change radically rather than waiting for something bad to happen to it, a la RIM.  But Microsoft is taking a huge number of risks all at once, and some of its plans feel like they were not deeply thought through.  If Microsoft screws up, it could severely wound itself in short order.

It all reminds me of something an Apple exec once told me.  He was a former Sun manager, and liked to quote the often profane strategy pronouncements of Sun executives.  One of his favorites (and forgive me if I offend) was "no brass balls, no blue chips."  In other words, if you don't have the courage to take big risks, you won't win the big payoffs.

I get the feeling that Microsoft these days is operating on the same principle.  It sounds like great advice, until you think where Sun ended up.


There's been a lot written online about the fate of Digg, one of the original "Web 2.0" poster children.  I don't have much to add regarding its current situation, but I think back to a conference I attended in 2006 called "The Future of Web Apps."  It included many of the most prominent Web 2.0 CEOs, including Kevin Rose of Digg.  Michael Arrington spoke there as well.

Rose talked about evolving Digg into a social network in which people would be connected by shared interests rather than whether they have hot photos (this was back when Facebook was just a college socialization site).  Rose's idea for Digg sounds interesting; you wonder what happened to it.

Rose also said Digg was on the road to profitability based on advertising and traffic growth.  Oh well.

But the most interesting tidbit I remember from the conference was Michael Arrington saying that Web 2.0 companies don't need a perfect revenue model.  The general attitude of everyone at the conference (not just Arrington, and I am not trying to single him out) was that if you attract an audience, you will find some way to monetize it.

In the tech industry, one of the most common mistakes is to look at a trend today and assume that it'll continue in the future.  The reality is that basic economics usually reasserts itself at some point.  For businesses, that means you need to provide real value to real customers, with a realistic way to monetize it.  And you need to figure that out pretty early in the process, or you're taking a huge risk that you'll never get the answer.

It's something to keep in mind for the hundreds of thousands of companies creating mobile apps today because it's the hot thing to do.

The Coming Age of the Context Engine

People talk a lot about information overload, but I think the worst problem we have in information management today is memory overload -- the inability of the human brain to retain all the important information we run into in our careers.  There's more stuff we need to remember than you can possibly hold in your head.  The more successful you are, the more information you need to remember -- and the worse the problem becomes.

I think what we need is a context engine, an app that helps you recall the context around any bit of information in your life.  Unlike a search engine, a context engine indexes just the information in your life, and supplements your own memory.  "How do I know this person?"  "What's the agenda for my next meeting?"  "Who sent me that article last year, and where the heck is the article?"  A context engine will help you answer these questions quickly, anytime and anywhere you need the information. 

The product that I'm working on, Zekira, is a first generation context engine.  In this post I'll discuss the need for a context engine, how it would work, and our status with Zekira.  I'll also give some information on how you can help, if you're interested.

The trouble with information overload

Information overload is a hot topic with a long history.  The term was coined in the 1960s, and popularized in 1970 by Alvin Toffler's book Future Shock, according to an excellent article in Wikipedia (link).  But the idea goes back further.  Xerox implies that it invented information sharing through the development of the photocopier in the mid-1900s (link), And there have apparently been complaints about too much information for as long as we've had writing.  The Bible complains about the proliferation of books, the Romans worried about it, and so did the ancient Chinese.  Once Gutenberg got going with movable type, the complaints increased (link).

Information overload is a popular subject online.  The Wall Street Journal said Google returned 2.92 million hits for it in 2009; the same search today returns 3.76 million, an increase of about 770 references per day.

Prominent authorities opinig on the hazards of information overload include the New York Times (link), Wired (link), and none other than the big consultancy McKinsey, which says it is "killing productivity...and making us unhappy" (link).

The critics of information overload complain that it bombards people with so much data that they are stunned into stupidity.  They become low-grade data zombies, incapable of making intelligent decisions.

The answer, we're told, is to take in less information.  The experts tell us to delete e-mails and limit our exposure to information online so that we can reserve time for thinking deep thoughts and forming long-term memories.

Okay.  It makes sense that we should set aside time to think.  But I believe distraction isn't a function of how much information you bring in, it's a function of how much self-discipline you lack.  There's always something you can distract yourself with; if it's not e-mail it'll be Angry Birds.  You could have the same problem if you had five e-mails a day or five hundred.

I think blaming "information overload" for the problem of distracted people is like blaming "water overload" for the problem of drowning.  The fact is, modern society runs on the flow of information.  The more information you can handle, the more productive you'll be, and the further you'll go in your career.  Given the way the economy works, telling people to limit their information flow is a little like telling them to make themselves stupid.  Instead, I think, we should be increasing our ability to manage that information, so we can be more productive.

The real problem is memory overload

Once you step back from demonizing information itself, it's easier to identify the problems that we have in dealing with so much information.  I think the biggest problem in information management today is the limitation of human memory. 

Think about how you remember things.  It's usually through associations -- I saw it in the newspaper when I was at that cafe, I read it in that article on The Register while I was riding the bus, etc.  When people have more information to remember than their brains can hold onto, those chains of association start to break down.  You remember the fact that you once knew something, but can't recall the information itself.

As I talk with busy knowledge workers -- the type of people who manage the most information -- I hear stories about half-remembered information all the time.  You'll see a person and know that you've met them, but can't recall the details about how you know them or what you discussed with them.  Or a topic will come up and you'll remember that you read something important about it, but you won't recall where you saw it or how you could find that information again. 

Often you know the information is stored somewhere on a computer or smartphone or website, but you have no way to look for it in the moment you need it.  Even if you remember to look up the information later, it's usually extremely hard to find, and you can't take the time to do it. 

The more successful you become in your career, the more information you have, and the more overloaded your memory gets.  Of course it eventually overflows.  The problem is so ubiquitous that most of us don't even think of it as a problem; it's just a feature of life.  We shrug it off as a "senior moment" and uneasily move on.

But it has nothing to do with age; it's a function of experience.  Take all the information held by a mid-career professional and stuff it into a 20-year-old's head and he or she will have the same problems. 

When you add up all those "senior moments" across all the people they happen to, they constitute a huge loss in productivity among the busiest and most pivotal people in the economy.  The only reason we tolerate this situation is because we assume there's nothing we can do about it. 

But I think we can.  The combination of mobile technology, low-cost computer storage, and web services makes it possible to build what I call a context engine -- an app designed specifically to help you recall the information in your life, and all the context around it.

You'll use a context engine to quickly recall:
    -All the details of your relationship with someone -- how you met them, messages and documents you've exchanged, and meetings you've been in together.
    -The backstory to a meeting, including the messages that led up to it, attendees, notes and pictures you took during the meeting, and followup messages afterward.
    -A tweet or Facebook post or e-mail you saw months ago mentioning a great new restaurant that you want to try.
    -That report sent to you five years ago by some guy you met at a half-remembered conference in Boston.

How the context engine will work

A context engine needs to do three things with your information:  Collect, connect, and communicate.

1. Collect.  To build a map of all your information, the context engine needs to gather it from all the places where your information is stored.  That means, first, scanning the hard drives and other storage devices connected to your personal computer.  E-mails, contacts, and meeting records all need to be extracted from whatever messaging and calendar system you use.  For most mid-career professionals, that means digging into old Microsoft Outlook archives, called PST files.  Other documents -- especially presentations and word processing files -- need to be sucked in as well, along with the most ubiquitous file format in business and academics, the PDF.

But you can't stop with the PC.  The context engine needs to reach out to your web apps, to extract things like gMail messages, tweets, and Facebook posts and contacts.  And the information on your smartphone needs to be included, everything from contacts to text messages to pictures.

This process should be automatic and comprehensive.  Everything should be indexed.  You shouldn't be asked to choose which files you want to remember, because you can't know in advance what you'll need.

2.  Connect.  Once all that information has been collected, it must be organized.  That means indexing it not just by keywords, the way we would for a traditional web search, but by all of its attributes, including date, time, location, type of content, and so on.

This is a key difference between a web search engine and a context engine.  In web searches, we look almost exclusively for keywords, and we use the wisdom of crowds to determine which matches are most important.  That works great for searches of publicly-available content, but it breaks down when searching your personal archive.  You may not remember the right keyword for a document or message, and the wisdom of crowds is much less useful for ranking results, because everyone's context is unique.  Instead, a context engine needs to offer many search paths through the archive, so people can search using whatever bits of information they do remember about a topic.

The context engine should also present information to you in a way that lets you jump between bits of related data.  Say you're looking for the record of a lunch meeting.  You might be looking for it because you want to find the name of the person you met with, or some messages you exchanged with that person.  Or maybe you just want the name of the restaurant so you can eat there again.  All of that information needs to be cued up so you can jump to it easily.  Again, the goal is to help you re-create those half-remembered chains of association. 

Many of the products that in the past have tried to organize personal information (such as Google Desktop) have mimicked the keyword-centric searching we do on the web.  Web search is so ubiquitous that we're all a bit like the man with the proverbial hammer -- every problem looks like a nail.  But I think personal context requires a radically different structure to the database and UI.  It's not about searching for things, it's about navigating through your context.

3.  Communicate.  You don't know when you'll need to remember something, so the context engine needs to be available on your mobile devices.  In particular, I think a context engine is a killer app for tablets in business.  Imagine always having your entire information history at your fingertips in every meeting and every conversation.  How much more productive could you be if you had a perfect memory all day long?

I can't tell you how many people in Silicon Valley have told me sheepishly that they don't know what to do with their iPads at work.  They generally love them at home, where they access entertainment and informational content.  But at the office, particularly in meetings, they tend to turn into tools for covertly checking messages and browsing when the meeting gets slow.  Please don't misunderstand, I know there are many things you can do with an iPad.  But I'm reporting what I hear from a lot of iPad users.

Far be it from me to judge the way others fill their time, but I think the context engine would give you a good business reason to carry your tablet all day.

That means the database needs to be hosted in the cloud, which creates all sorts of important security challenges.  Having your extended memory hacked is utterly unacceptable.

Building the context engine

As you know if you've been following my earlier updates, the startup that I'm working on, Zekira, is building a context engine.  The company consists of four engineers plus myself, and we've been working on it for more than a year.  Zekira is the fulfillment of a dream for us.  One of us, Rudi Diezmann, has been working on personal search products since the 1980s.  Others of us first thought about this problem when we were working at Palm almost ten years ago.  We were looking at user problems a PDA or smartphone could solve, beyond helping you manage your calendar and contacts.  There was a group of customers who responded very strongly to any product that could help them recall information and the context around it.

But only recently have mobile computers and wireless networks become powerful enough to let you build a full-function context engine. 

The first version of Zekira is in early beta.  It runs on Macs and PCs, and right now it indexes information found on your computer and any storage attached to it.  Our goal is to take Zekira mobile, and to add web data sources, as soon as possible.  But we did the first version on personal computers so we could get started testing the database and search capability.  Besides, there are a lot of people with old Outlook and Office archives who would be happy to turn a context engine loose on them.

Zekira gives you a little search window that you can leave up on the screen, or minimize: 

After you do a search, your results appear in this window:

 The four stacks in the center show you all the items that matched your current search.  In this case, we're seeing things related to Tom Shannon, including documents that he wrote or that mention his name, messages you've exchanged with him, and his contact record.  Click on any of those items and you'll see information related to them.

The tabs on the left are filters that let you narrow the search.  Currently they let you search by time/date (the filter shown), name, word, document type, and folder: 

 You can combine multiple filters to do complex layered searches.  The filters are extensible, and we plan to add additional search tools in the future.

We're doing a crowdfunding campaign for Zekira on the funding website Indiegogo.  If you don't know how crowdfunding works, people can make small financial contributions to a project and receive benefits in return, such as a discounted copy of the program when it's finished.  Supporters of Zekira can also get access to the beta version of the program, and listing as a sponsor in the about box of the finished app. 

Corporate sponsors of Zekira can get advertising here on Mobile Opportunity, a unique offer since I don't generally accept ads (except for one tiny Google ad that gets me access to Google's excellent traffic monitoring tools).  The advertising sponsorship offer is a great way for a company that has a little bit of advertising budget left at the end of the quarter to help itself, and also help support a great product.  The ad offer is limited to three companies, and is first-come, first served.

If you'd like to learn more about Zekira, you can visit our crowdfunding site here, and our website here.  And here's a video of Zekira in action:

If you have feedback and suggestions for Zekira, I'd welcome your comments.  And if you like the idea, please help spread the word about our crowdfunding campaign.  The more support we get, the faster we can move on the project.

No matter what you think of Zekira, I hope you'll agree that the time is right for a context engine.  With that and an info pad, I'd be one very happy camper.

Fear and Loathing and Windows 8

(Or: Why Windows 8 Scares Me -- and Should Scare You Too)

I was very excited when I saw the first demos of Windows 8.  After years of settling for mediocre incremental improvements in its core products, Microsoft finally was ready to make bold changes to Windows, something I thought it had to do to stay relevant in computing.  What's more, the changes looked really nice!  Once I'd seen the clean, modern-looking videos of Windows 8, the old Windows looked cramped and a little embarrassing, kind of like finding a picture of the way you dressed when you were a senior in high school (link).

So when Microsoft announced that it was releasing a "consumer preview" of Windows 8, I couldn't wait to play with it.  So far I've installed Windows 8 on two computers, a middle of the road HP laptop and a mini tablet PC from Japan.  I've browsed the web and used Office and even tested our new app, Zekira, on it.  My conclusion is that Windows 8 in its current form is very different; attractive in some ways, and disturbing in others.  It combines an interesting new interface with baffling changes to Windows compatibility, and amateur mistakes in customer messaging.  Add up all the changes, and I am very worried that Microsoft may be about to shoot itself in the foot spectacularly.  Even the plain colorful graphics in Windows 8 that looked so cool when I first saw them are starting to look ominous to me, like the hotel decor in The Shining.

Why you should care.  The rollout of Windows 8 has very important implications for not just Microsoft but everyone in the tech industry.  In normal times, most people are unwilling to reconsider the basic decisions they have made about operating system and applications.  They've spent a huge amount of time learning how to use the system, and the last thing they want to do is start learning all over again.  That's why the market share of a standard like Windows is so stable over time.  But when a platform makes a major transition, people are forced to stop and reconsider their purchase.  They're going to have to learn something new anyway, so for a brief moment they are open to possibly switching to something else.  The more relearning people have to do, the more willing they are to switch.  Rapid changes in OS and app market share usually happen during transitions like this.

Windows 8 is a revolutionary transition in Windows, easily the biggest change since the move from DOS to Windows in the early 1990s.  Consider the wreckage that was created by that transition:
    --Apple's effort to retake the lead in personal computing was stopped dead
    --The leading app companies of the time were destroyed (Lotus, WordPerfect, Ashton Tate, etc)
    --IBM was eventually forced out of the PC business
    --Microsoft, formerly an also-ran in apps, became the leading applications company, and a power in server software as well

Will the Windows 8 transition be as disruptive?  It's impossible to say at this point.  But huge changes are possible.  If the transition is successful, Microsoft could emerge as a much stronger, more dynamic company, leveraging its sales leadership in PCs to get a powerful position in tablets, mobile devices, and online services.  On the other hand, if Windows 8 fails, Microsoft could break the loyalty of its customer base and turn its genteel decline into a catastrophic collapse.  The most likely outcome, of course, is a muddled middle.  But based on what I've seen of Windows 8 so far, I am a lot closer to the rout scenario than I expected to be. 

Whatever the outcome for Microsoft, what's certain is that because so many people use Windows as the foundation of their computing, the transition to Windows 8 will produce threats and opportunities for everyone else in the tech industry.  Play your cards right and your company could grow rapidly.  Mess up and you could be the next Lotus.  You may love Windows 8 or you may hate it, but if you work in tech you'd be a fool to ignore it.

And yet, most of my friends in Silicon Valley are paying very little attention to Windows 8.  Most of them haven't tried it, and don't know a lot about what it does.  There are a lot of Mac users in the Valley; they don't think about Windows at all.  But even among the Windows users I talk to, the OS isn't a trendy topic; there is a lot more excitement about Android, Facebook, and whatever product Apple just announced.

If you're one of those Windows-fatigued people, it's time to wake up.  Here's a summary of my experiences with Windows 8, followed by some thoughts on what it means for the industry...

Listening to Windows 8

The most important message I want you to understand is this: Windows 8 is not Windows.  Although Microsoft calls it Windows, and a lot of Windows code may still be present under the hood, Windows 8 is a completely new operating system in every way that matters to users.  It looks different, it works differently, and it forces you to re-learn much of what you know today about computers.  From a user perspective, Microsoft Windows is being killed this fall and replaced by an entirely new OS that has a Windows 7 emulator tacked onto it.

The main Windows 8 interface is based on Microsoft's Metro design language, which was supposedly inspired in part by the directional signs used in public transportation (link).  Metro emphasizes typography (big words in clean fonts) and simple monochrome images, like the signs you'd see on a subway platform. 

About Metro.  Instead of application icons, Metro features large rectangles (or tiles) in primary colors which are clicked to launch apps, and which can also display live content (like the time or a message).  The Metro look is also used in several other Microsoft products, including Windows Phone 7. 

I think Metro looks incredibly nice.  The graphics are clean and bold, the animations are smooth, and overall it's one of the most visually literate things I've ever seen from Microsoft.  I'm still kind of amazed that Metro is a Microsoft product.

The simplicity of Metro is very appealing in many ways, especially when viewed against Apple's interface, which is becoming more and more encrusted with strange textures and bits of faux 3D gewgaw.  TK commented on this blog a year ago that Apple is falling into skeuomorphism, a situation in which digital designs retain bits of their physical counterparts even though they're no longer necessary (link).  That theme recently cropped up in an interview with Apple designer Jonathan Ive, in which he ducked a question about Apple's software look by saying he's only responsible for hardware (link).

Metro is one of the most anti-skeuomorphic interface designs I've seen, which makes it a worthy counterpoint to Apple.

I worry about whether Metro's clean look will last once third parties start adding apps to it.  The first few independent Metro apps I've seen use the tile as an advertisement rather than making it blend into the Metro look.  Check out the effect:

Just a little bit of this makes Metro look like a scenic highway lined with billboards.  That's not much of a step up from today's Windows.

A Microsoft services buffet.  The second striking thing about Metro in Windows 8 is that it's a serving platter of Microsoft online services.  Most of the tiles you see when you start Windows 8 are Microsoft services, ready to launch with a simple log-in through your Microsoft ID. 

Apple has a habit of featuring its own services on its devices, and we all know how Google manipulates Android to feature its tools, but I don't think I've ever seen a platform vendor push so many of its own services so aggressively.

More than a visual change.  In addition to its signature look, Metro also dramatically changes how you use the computer.  There is no menu bar in the main Metro view, and no file icons.  In fact, almost all computer controls are hidden, other than the tiles for launching apps.

To control the computer you have to hover your mouse or your finger in the corner of the screen to bring up a popup set of tools.  Lower left is the popup to take you back from an application to the Start screen; lower right brings up an icon bar called Charms for common functions like the control panel.

The Charms bar is the black strip on the right side of the screen.

The main screen is only for launching applications. File management is now separate from app control, and it's not clear to me if you're even expected to manage files in Metro.  Like the iPhone and iPad, files are more or less hidden, or managed within individual applications.  If you want to deal with them directly, you're apparently expected to use Windows 7 compatibility mode (see below).

Separating app and file management is an interesting move, and I kind of like it in theory. It was never completely intuitive that in the Mac/Windows desktop metaphor, some icons represented tools while other icons represented your documents.  The desktop metaphor implied that you were dealing with pieces of paper that you could move around and store in various places, so why could you drag around an application the same way you could drag around a document?  In terms of the metaphor, this was like storing your stapler and telephone in a file cabinet.  Early versions of Mac and especially Windows created all sorts of strange workarounds to ease management of files and apps, and prevent confusion between them.  Microsoft created the Start menu, Apple added the icon dock at the bottom of the screen.  Both were basically kludges that papered over holes in the metaphor.

But they were kludges that we've all become accustomed to.  Every Windows user is now trained that you use the Start menu to launch apps and manage the computer.  There is no Start menu in Metro, so you're going to have a lot of deeply confused people fumbling around trying to find critical computer functions.

This might be easier to manage if there were a new metaphor to Metro that would make it intuitive to guess where the functions are now located.  That was part of the strength of the desktop metaphor.  You had files, and folders that contained files, and applications that acted on the files.  Apple even called some of its early applications desk accessories.  This let people guess fairly reliably at how to use the computer, and where to find the things they were looking for.

But Metro doesn't have a central metaphor.  Or maybe I should say that its central metaphor is very limited.  Subway signs are effective for displaying small amounts of information, but nobody uses a subway sign to carry out a task.  Metro biases Windows 8 toward information consumption rather than creation, a recurring theme that I'll discuss more below.  That may be great for a media tablet, but what does it do for someone who uses Windows for business productivity?

I'm drawn to a quote from the Jonathan Ive profile that I referenced above.  He said:

"Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that's a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That's not simple."

There are times when I feel like Windows 8 is focused too much on being clutter-free, at the expense of complicating the things that most people do with PCs.

There is a second user interface in Windows 8, and it looks like traditional Windows.  You get to it by clicking a Metro tile called Windows Explorer.  Windows Explorer (not to be confused with Internet Explorer) takes over the screen, and makes the the PC look a lot like Windows 7, with a few minor cosmetic tweaks and a couple of very important deletions.
It's the deletions that worry me about Windows 8.  The most successful OS transitions in history allowed users to keep using their old habits and applications while they gradually got used to the new stuff.  For example, Windows coexisted with MS-DOS for many years before it took over the PC (as Microsoft lovingly detailed in a long post here). I can tell you from personal experience that Apple found it almost impossible to convert PC users to Mac during the Windows transition, because there was no point at which the DOS installed base felt abandoned.  They could continue using the old DOS commands for as long as they wanted, until they felt ready to move to Windows.

To Microsoft's credit, it is enabling old Windows applications to continue to work in Windows 8.  But some other key features of Windows are being removed, forcing users to switch to the Metro equivalents now, whether they feel ready or not.

The paragraphs below describe some of my concerns about Windows 8.  (If you'd like to see a demo of the problems, watch the video).

The Start menu is gone.  As I mentioned earlier, there is no Start menu in Metro.  That's not such a big deal -- you expect changes like that in a new interface.  But the Start menu has also been removed from Windows Explorer.  It's no longer present anywhere.  If you're not familiar with Windows, you won't understand how central the Start menu is to a Windows user.  It's the thing you generally use to turn the computer on and off, launch applications, open file folders, search, and access the control panel.  Recent changes have also made it a preferred place for directly opening documents.

In Windows 8, the functions formerly done by Start have been spread across several locations, some in the Metro interface and some in Windows Explorer.  So Windows users moving to Windows 8 will have to learn parts of Metro before they can get anything done.  In some cases, common functions formerly available through a single click in Start have been buried several clicks deep within Metro.

If you're not a Windows user, it is hard to describe how disorienting this is.  It's roughly equivalent to giving someone a car in which the steering wheel has been replaced by a joystick.  Not only do you need to learn how to steer with a joystick, but all of the controls formerly attached to the steering column are now scattered in various spots on the dashboard.  The wiper control is a lever above the radio, the high beam lights are a switch on the rearview mirror, the turn signal is a set of buttons under the speedometer, and the cruise control is a dial hidden inside the ashtray.  Oh, and you honk the horn by bouncing up and down in your seat.

The car's designer will give you logical explanations for every change they made in the car, just as Microsoft can explain the reasons for removing Start.  For a new user they may all make sense.  But for an existing user, the removal of Start forces a huge amount of re-learning.  An existing Windows user can't just sit down with Windows 8 and start using it.  They'll need some sort of tutorial and reference system to show them how to use it, and to answer questions when they get confused.

Microsoft has not forced discontinuities like this in past transitions.  The best example is the preservation of the DOS command line interface, the equivalent of the Start menu for people who used DOS.  The command line function has been available in every version of Windows to date, and in fact it's still supported in Windows 8.

The dreaded DOS-style command line in Windows 8.

Control panels are missing.  Many of the old control panel functions from Windows are accessible through the Settings Charm in Metro.  But some of them aren't.  I don't know if that means Microsoft hasn't finished adding them to Metro, or if they have decided to eliminate some controls.  Based on what Microsoft has said online, I think it's the latter -- one recurring theme in Metro is that Microsoft is trying to hide some complexity in order to make the OS more approachable.  I understand the motivation, but for an existing user this actually makes the OS more complex.

Case in point: in Metro I can't find a power management function allowing me to control when my laptop sleeps and how much power it uses when running on batteries.  I looked through every tab in the Metro settings, and finally realized the function just wasn't there.  After searching online, I found a way to access the old Control Panels through Windows Explorer.  But it's not in an intuitive place.

For a user, there's no easy way to tell if a particular control panel feature has been relocated to a new spot in Charms, eliminated, or hidden within Windows Explorer.  You just have to fumble around and cuss for a while until you figure it out.

How do I turn this thing off?  The concept of a power button is pretty central to any electronic device.  You turn it on in order to use it, and you turn it off when you're done.  It's easy to turn on a Windows 8 computer; you just press the power button on the computer.  But pressing the button again does not turn off the computer.  Instead, it puts the computer to sleep.

Sleep is a good thing in a computer.  It lets a computer restart quickly, and keeps your apps active.  But it does consume power, which is an issue for ecologically-conscious desktop users, and a primary concern for laptop users.  Also, I find that it's helpful to turn off Windows from time to time because the OS gradually becomes confused and slow as you launch and quit large numbers of apps. So I expect to be able to easily turn off my computer, and I think most Windows users will feel the same way.

It is absurdly difficult to turn off Windows 8.  So difficult that there are entire web pages devoted to tutorials on how to do it.  CNET wrote an unintentionally hilarious article detailing four different ways to turn off Windows 8, each more baroque than the last (link).  Here's what CNET called the "most basic" way:

"In the Metro interface, hover your mouse over the Zoom icon that appears in the lower right corner of the screen. The Charms bar should then pop up displaying several icons. Moving your mouse up the screen will reveal the names of each icon, including Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Click the Settings icon and then the Power Icon. You should see three options: Sleep, Restart, and Shut down. Clicking Shut down will close Windows 8 and turn off your PC."

So shutdown requires five actions: a hover, a sweep, and three clicks.  Plus the command is hidden in a very non-intuitive place.  People used to joke that only Microsoft could think it was intuitive to have the Shut Down command hidden under the Start button.  I think it's sooooo much more intuitive to have it hidden under Settings.

I don't know why Microsoft chose to make it so hard to turn off Windows 8.  Some of the online reviews have suggested that Microsoft believes people should only put their computers to sleep instead of turning them off.  Maybe, but that's a pretty controlling assumption, especially for laptop users.  Or perhaps Microsoft optimized Windows 8 only for tablets and views the entire PC thing as an afterthought.

Whatever the intent, I am concerned that it's so hard to perform such a common function.  But what's much more alarming is that there are several redundant, complex ways to perform that common function.  When that happens, it's usually a sign of confusion in the development team.

Windows 8 is not designed for PCs.  I know that's a very sweeping statement, but in a couple of areas Windows 8 is clearly designed to work better for media tablets than for traditional personal computers.  The first is the general architecture of the interface.  Despite Microsoft's protestations to the contrary, Metro is clearly optimized for use on a touchscreen device rather than a keyboard and mouse PC.  You can force it to work with a mouse, but many of the things you have to do feel awkward, and are more complex than their old Windows equivalents.  One good example is the finger swipe, which works very well with a touch screen but is unpleasant on a notebook computer because you can't easily click and drag on a trackpad for long distances.  Parts of Windows 8 (for example, logging in to the computer) require finger swipes.

I long to see what Metro could do on a PC equipped with a gesture recognition system like Kinect.  That might be a revolutionary change worth migrating to.  Microsoft says that is coming, but Kinect, Metro, and Windows 8 are not yet fully integrated (link).  That's unfortunate, since developers are working on Metro apps now.

Windows 8 is also designed with tablet-like tasks in mind.  Productivity and information creation tasks are compromised to make the OS more attractive for content consumption.  Microsoft was very explicit about this in some of its online commentary (link):

"People, not files, are the center of activity.  There has been a marked change in the kinds of activities people spend time doing on the PC. In balance to “traditional” PC activities such as writing and creating, people are increasingly reading and socializing, keeping up with people and their pictures and their thoughts, and communicating with them in short, frequent bursts. Life online is moving faster and faster, and people are progressively using their PCs to keep up with and participate in that. And much of this activity and excitement is happening inside the web browser, in experiences built using HTML and other web technologies."

Let me translate that for you: "We're optimizing Windows for using Facebook and YouTube at the expense of performing productivity tasks."  Which is fine; it's a design choice Microsoft is free to make.  But it's going to have an impact on the large base of people trying to get work done with a PC.

Incomplete support of existing hardware.  In the first announcements of Windows 8, Microsoft bragged about how efficient it is.  The company said explicitly that it would put less burden on hardware than Windows 7, and demonstrated Windows 8 running on old low-featured computers (link).  In several places I've seen Windows 8 described as a great way to revive an old laptop.  Unfortunately, although Windows 8 may have a light hardware footprint, it has compatibility problems with some existing hardware, including some Windows 7 computers.  Computers designed for Vista can have much more serious problems.  This became very clear to me when I installed Windows 8 on my Vista-based mini tablet PC.  Windows 8 is not compatible with the wireless network chips in my tablet PC, so it can no longer connect to the Internet.

More importantly, the touch screen isn't fully compatible with Windows 8.  I can't get the system to recognize taps in the outer half-inch of the screen, meaning that I can't activate the Metro Start function or the Charms panel.  Fortunately, my tablet PC has a keyboard, so I can use the trackpad to control it.  But who wants a tablet PC that doesn't have a working touch interface?

The severity of this problem varies from computer to computer, but it's apparently fairly common.  For example, here's video of an Acer user with some of the same troubles, although not as severe as mine (he can activate the controls some of the time; link). 

There is no workaround for this problem other than buying a new computer.  So its promise of running well on existing hardware turned out to be an exaggeration. 

Microsoft recently discussed the problem in an elaborate blog post describing touch screen compatibility under Windows 8 (link).  The tests documented by Microsoft show a lot of Windows 7 devices interpreting gestures properly only 70% to 80% of the time (the ratio is even worse for some features).  A success rate of 95% is required for Windows 8 certification, so a lot of Windows 7 touchscreen computers (Microsoft doesn't say how many) would fail to pass certification.  The article concludes:

"The vast majority of Windows 7 touchscreens can be used with Windows 8...with a reasonable degree of success."

I applaud Microsoft for coming clean about the problem, but I hate to see them use those qualifiers in their statements.  Lawyers love words like "vast majority" and "reasonable degree" because they sound good but don't quantify anything, so you can't be sued.  The reality is that if you want to be sure Windows 8 will work at its best, you should buy a new computer bundled with it.  This is especially true of touchscreen PCs, the devices that stand to benefit the most from Metro's touch oriented features. 

I don't actually have a problem with that.  Providing backward compatibility is always difficult when you upgrade an OS, and considering the complexity of the Windows hardware base, it would be surprising if everything worked right.  However, what I do have a problem with is that other parts of Microsoft are ignoring the subtle compatibility story and continuing to claim that all Windows 7 hardware is fully compatible. 

For example, Antoine Leblond, the VP of Windows Web Services, implies that Windows 8 will run on every Windows 7 device (link):

"We’ve just passed the 500 million licenses sold mark for Windows 7, which represents half a billion PCs that could be upgraded to Windows 8 on the day it ships. That represents the single biggest platform opportunity available to developers."

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer continues to quote that half billion number in public (link).

This isn't just misleading to customers and developers, it may also hurt Microsoft by setting unrealistic expectations.  If twenty percent of the Windows 7 installed base upgrades to Windows 8 in the first three months, is that a raging success or a humiliating failure?  I might view it as a very promising start, but Microsoft's own hype says it would be a disaster.

Failing to warn users of potential problems.  Speaking of miscommunication, Microsoft didn't clearly tell users that the Windows 8 preview is a one-way installation.  The word "preview" implies to many people an advanced sample that you can play with for a while and then toss aside.  But unless you have the original installation disks that came with your computer, the Windows 8 preview replaces your current OS and can't be removed.  Even if you do have those disks, on many PCs (including mine) the factory install disks wipe the hard drive and do a new install from scratch, deleting all your files and applications. 

Microsoft did disclose this information on the Windows 8 preview site, but the disclosure was written in bureaucratic language that didn't make clear the risk, and what's worse, that text was below the "Install" button, meaning a user could easily miss it.  (In the latest version of Microsoft's site, the automated installer for Windows 8 has been removed [gee, I wonder why] and you can only install by burning an installation disk on a DVD.  That makes it much harder for casual users to install the preview, and the warning is now above the download links.)

If you want a measure of how many people missed the warning, do a web search for "uninstall Windows 8."  Be prepared to read some angry commentary.

I think the next round in this cycle of frustration is going to come early next year, when the Windows 8 preview expires and preview users are required to purchase Windows 8 to keep their computers working.  The fact that there's an expiration date on the preview is something else that Microsoft didn't prominently disclose.

What it means.  I could go on, but I hope you get the idea.  Windows 8 is a very interesting, provocative, even courageous product.  But I'm not sure it's going to succeed.  My concerns are in two areas.  The first is that I'm not sure what burning problem Windows 8 solves for what group of users.  If you're a productivity worker, Windows 8 does very little for you, and in fact probably makes your life harder.  If you're most interested in entertainment and accessing online content, Metro is a big improvement over Windows -- but aren't you likely to already have a smartphone or tablet?
My second concern is the emotional feel I get from Windows 8.  I know that's a really vague comment, so let me try to tie it down a bit.  I think I'm a fairly sophisticated user.  I've used every version of Windows since 2.0.  When I worked in the competitive team at Apple, we tested every bizarre computer operating system we could find around the world, including stuff written in Japanese with no English-language documentation.  We made all of it work.  But there are still some parts of Windows 8 that I haven't been able to figure out, and other parts that I understand but that annoy me every time I touch them. 

Because of its problems, Windows 8 isn't fun to use, at least for me.  Whatever sense of joy I get from the cool new graphics is outweighed by a feeling that my productivity is being reduced.  Think of the best new app or website you've ever discovered; the feeling you got the first time you understood the power of Twitter or you created a presentation and it came out looking great.  That feeling of empowerment and excitement is critical to getting people started with a new technology.  But Windows 8 makes makes me feel limited and cramped.  It isn't a launch pad, it's a cage.

If Windows 8 is a problem for me, what's it going to do to a typical Windows user who just wants to get work done and doesn't have time to learn something new?  And what sort of support burden is it going to put on the IT managers of the world?

What works well.  Out of fairness to Microsoft, I should tell you that there are some things about Windows 8 that I love.  It looks beautiful.  On my computers it's pretty darned fast for a lot of functions (for example, booting and switching in and out of the Start screen).  Other people have reported some performance problems, but I expect those in what's essentially beta software.  An OS almost always gets faster right before it ships, because the last thing the engineers do is strip out all the diagnostic code they were using to track bugs.

For the control panel functions that Microsoft chose to implement in Metro, I think the interface is much cleaner and more intuitive than it was in the horribly overloaded Windows Control Panel.  This is where you'd expect Metro to shine, because it's optimized for giving directions, and a control panel gives directions to your computer.  I was also delighted to see a function in Windows 8 called "Refresh your PC without affecting your files."  Every Windows user knows that the performance of Windows goes south after a year or two as various bits of software gunk build up.  Unfortunately, the refresh function does erase your third party apps (unless you got them through the Windows 8 store).  If Windows 8 had a "refresh my PC without deleting my third party applications" function, I'd upgrade just for that.

Unfortunately, that's not the only feature of Windows 8.

Impact of Windows 8

For Microsoft: A huge roll of the dice. I've spent the last several weeks asking myself why Microsoft chose to remove some Windows 7 features and exaggerate the prospects for Windows 8. 

There are many possible explanations.  It could just be arrogance -- they believe they can force customers to do what they want.  It could be an excess of designer zeal -- designers always think people will fall in love with their creations once they try them.

But it could also be insecurity. To me, it feels like Microsoft is in a quiet panic.  When Apple says the era of the PC has ended, I think Microsoft may believe it even more than Apple does.  Smartphones eat away at messaging, tablets compete for browsing and game-playing, and who knows what will come next.  In the new device markets, Microsoft is an also-ran.  I think Microsoft feels it must find a way to leverage its waning strength in PCs to make itself relevant in mobile.

Step one is to deploy the same look and feel on all classes of devices, so people have an incentive to use only Microsoft products.  Microsoft tried first to take the Windows look and feel to mobile devices, but that failed because it was too ugly and hard to use.  So instead, Microsoft is now replacing the Windows look and feel with something designed for mobile.

The second step is to undercut the iPad (and Android tablets, if they ever start to sell) by selling PCs that also work great as tablets.  Microsoft's pitch is that instead of buying a separate PC and tablet, you should buy one thing that bridges both usages.  So we should expect a big push for convertible Windows 8 touch notebooks this fall.

Step three is to drive the transition to Metro as quickly as possible.  I think Microsoft is scared that it might be permanently closed out of the new markets, so it wants to force people onto Metro before that happens.  I believe that's really why it eliminated the Start menu.  If Start is still there, Windows users could live for years without learning much about Metro.  But with Start gone, Windows users will have to use bits of Metro now, and Microsoft believes they'll naturally embrace it once they've been forced to use it. 

Here's what Microsoft itself said in a blog post about the Windows 8 interface (link):

"Fundamentally, we believe in people and their ability to adapt and move forward. Throughout the history of computing, people have again and again adapted to new paradigms and interaction methods." 

I always get scared when a designer talks about the inevitability of people accepting a change.  It's like you're counting on some mystical law of nature to cause a migration, rather than enticing people to move by giving them something that works better than what they have today.  That's how the DOS to Windows transition worked -- people could (and did) continue to live in DOS for years until they learned how much more they could get done with Windows.  But Microsoft has decided to force the issue.  Then it rationalizes the decision with bromides like "we believe in people" and "the DOS users complained a lot too and look how that turned out." 

There can come a point where a company is so committed to a plan that it stops listening to complaints from its customers.  It feels like Microsoft may have reached that point.  If you complain about your inability to uninstall Windows 8, the problem is that you failed to read the fine print.  If you complain about the Start menu being missing, the problem is that you just don't have enough faith in humanity.

But the real lesson of history is not that you've got to have faith, it's that when people are forced to adopt a new computing paradigm they look around and reconsider their purchase.   
There's a range of possible outcomes from the Windows 8 launch: 

1. Windows users adopt Windows 8 enthusiastically.  I turn out to be a whiner.  Most Windows users don't miss the Start menu, and they fall all over Windows 8 in glee.  Microsoft gets a nice revenue bump from all the upgrade sales, and the Windows licensees, sensing big opportunities, jump in with great new convertible tablet designs that make the iPad look tired.  App developers create astounding new Metro programs that make things like Office and Photoshop obsolete.  Microsoft's online services become dominant because of their ties to Metro.  The aura of success around Windows 8 drives increasing sales of Windows Phone, rescuing Nokia from irrelevance.  Android tablet is obliterated, and sales of Android phones stall out as customers start to choose Windows Phone instead.  The big Asian phone companies recommit to Windows Phone and move their best engineering teams onto it.  Wall Street analysts short Apple's stock, declaring the era of iEverything over.

2. Windows users cling to Windows 7 tenaciously.  In this scenario, Windows 8 becomes the new Vista.  Microsoft's anticipated revenue from Windows 8 upgrades does not materialize, hurting the company's stock price and forcing layoffs to maintain earnings.  Microsoft's hardware partners are left with big stockpiles of unsalable Windows 8 PCs which they have to write down.  This accelerates the share growth of the Asian PC makers, who can best withstand a price war.  HP kills its PC division, and Dell is in deep trouble.  Developers who bet on Metro have to live on canned tuna and string cheese.  Nokia, stuck with a minority platform that European operators don't want to carry, wrestles with huge cash flow problems.

3. Windows collapses.  Millions of Windows users, disenchanted with the changes in Windows 8, decide to switch to some other computing platform.  Microsoft's revenues drop alarmingly, and Windows 8 is labeled a failure, causing even more customers to migrate away in a self-perpetuating collapse of the Windows installed base.  Windows Phone is swept aside, turning Nokia into the "Finnish RIM".  Microsoft survives as a fragment selling Office and some server software.

The interesting thing about these scenarios is that the Windows installed base will choose the winner.  If the Windows users are enthusiastic, Microsoft prospers.  If they're passive, Microsoft suffers.  If they turn negative. Microsoft dies a gruesome death.  So you'd think that Microsoft would do everything in its power to make current Windows users feel comfortable and excited about moving to Windows 8.  Instead, they're being confronted with deliberate incompatibilities, indifference toward their needs, and a preview campaign for Windows 8 that has already disenchanted some of the most enthusiastic Windows users. 

Do you think I'm exaggerating?  Do a web search for "I hate Windows 8" vs. "I love Windows 8."  Here's what you'll find:

The rule of thumb for online comments is that for every message someone posts, another ten to 100 people feel the same way.  That means there may be several million Windows users already disenchanted by Windows 8, before it even ships.

Does that look like a blockbuster launch to you?

Note: I deleted the chart and text above because, as Dana on Seeking Alpha pointed out, the search I quoted appears to be wrong (link).  I don't know how I messed that up, and I apologize for the incorrect information.  The search I quoted showed "hate" exceeding "love" by about 3:1.  The reality is that apparently there are many more "I love Windows 8" comments than "I hate Windows 8", so I may be overstating the negative reaction.

What Microsoft should do.
  I believe Microsoft is overestimating the immediate risk of a collapse in PC sales due to tablets and other new devices, and underestimating the potential backlash against Windows 8.  A tablet -- any tablet -- just isn't a good substitute to a PC for many tasks.  Huge numbers of people still need PCs for productivity work, and won't abandon them quickly, if at all.  And no matter how much Microsoft tells itself that people are adaptable, the average Windows user is intensely practical and focused on getting work done rather than exploring magical new experiences.

Ironically, the biggest danger of a sudden collapse in PC sales comes from Microsoft's own effort to force users onto Metro.

The answer is very simple: Put the $%*!# Start menu back in Windows Explorer.  Apologize for the confusion, and explain that you've learned from your customers.  Then focus your work on making Metro apps so exciting that people want to migrate to it.

What will happen?  I doubt Microsoft will be willing to back down on eliminating the Start menu.  The company has invested too much ego in the decision at this point.  As a result, the runaway success described in Scenario 1 is very unlikely to happen.  I think scenario 2 is the most likely, if only because Windows users have already refused past migrations, and it's easy to stick with a behavior you know.  I would have called scenario 3 impossible a year ago, and it's still not likely.  But the more problems I see with Windows 8, the more I begin to believe it could happen.

But a lot depends on the actions of Microsoft's competitors.  You can't have a mass migration away from Windows unless there's a strong alternative to it.  That brings us to a discussion of Apple.

What will Apple do?

Ahhh, Steve.  If only you were around to see this.

Twenty-five years ago Microsoft copied the Mac interface and confined Macintosh to a tiny sliver of the PC market.  Despite all the progress you've made since then, Macintosh continues to command under 10% of the worldwide PC market.  But now, at long last, Windows is vulnerable to a potential knockout.  If the Windows 8 transition is as uncomfortable as I expect, you might be able to peel away large numbers of PC users and trigger a collapse of Windows sales.

You'd have to make some compromises, creating special Mac bundles with Windows emulators and file migration tools.  And you'd have to jump back into doing Mac vs. PC advertising, this time welcoming the guy with the dorky jacket into your club.  It's risky, and in some ways it's backward-looking at a time when Apple is looking forward to conquering television and maybe the auto market.  But the PC market is worth about $300 billion in revenue a year, at a time when it's becoming harder to maintain Apple's sales growth.  Where else can you so easily tap into that big a pool of revenue?  Besides, how cool would it be to finally be the leading PC platform in the world again, after all those years?  Talk about changing the world...

If Steve were here, I think he'd be sorely tempted to attack.  I don't know what Apple's new management will do.  But somebody in Redmond ought to be really scared of the possibility.

What about Google?

I'm sure I'm going to get messages saying that Chromebooks are a great substitute to Windows.  Others will say this is the big opening for Android tablets.

I don't see it.  Apple has at least a theoretical shot at Windows users because it has a complete personal computing platform plus the ability to add Windows compatibility to it.  After Windows 8, Apple can claim to have a better PC than the PC.  At this point, Google can't make that claim credibly.  Moving from Windows to either Android or Chrome would be a step down in productivity for most Windows users; more of a step down than Windows 8.

What Google should be thinking about, very hard, is the scenario in which Windows 8 is at least a partial success.  Android has a lot of momentum in smartphones, and will be very difficult to displace quickly.  But in tablets, Android is a very weak alternative to iPad.  I could picture a situation in which Windows 8 tablets become the iPad alternative, giving Microsoft a beach-head it can pour resources into.  If Windows 8 gets a toehold in any category, that could have a big effect on the phone market over time. 

I think many Android phone licensees are quietly looking for alternatives.  One of the original attractions of Android for hardware licensees was that it's royalty-free.  But the seemingly endless series of IP lawsuits against Android licensees have convinced many of them that Android isn't any cheaper in reality -- what you save in up-front licensing costs you lose in attorney fees, patent licenses, and general jerkiness by the OS vendor.  It doesn't help that Google just bought a major hardware company and is strongly rumored to be planning its own line of tablets designed to lower the entry price point for tablet computing.  Goody, think the licensees, now my own OS vendor is going to commoditize me.

At this point I think the main thing still holding licensees to Android is its sales momentum.  And that's a huge inducement.  Sales momentum matters to licensees more than anything else.  But that also means that if Windows gains some momentum, the licensees will be all over it.  They won't abandon Android, but the big companies like Samsung will look to create a balance between Google and Microsoft, so they can play them off against one another.

What it means to web companies 

If you work at someplace like Facebook or Twitter, you probably think this article isn't relevant to you.  Who cares what happens to Windows?  Let the old dinosaurs fight it out in OS, your world is online and the desktop doesn't matter to you.

If that's your thinking, I invite you to look again at that Metro start screen:

Those tiles, the first thing a user sees when starting Windows 8, almost all launch Microsoft online services.  They include:
  --An app store
  --Four Xbox-related items
  --Reader, and
  --A browser (Internet Explorer)

In other words, Windows 8 showcases Microsoft's equivalents to many of the most popular online services from Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Apple.  Many of the apps are gorgeous, by the way.  Here's a sample of Bing Finance in Metro:

Imagine 90% of the world's computer-using population seeing those tiles every day.  How long before they click on one of them out of curiosity?  And if they like that one, how many more will they try?  Picture Microsoft pushing new tiles into Windows 8 whenever it wants to compete with another web service.  And remind yourself that platform transitions usually cause people to reconsider their app choices.

If you still think you can ignore Windows 8, go right ahead.  But if I were you, I'd be preparing a Metro version of my tablet app, very quickly.

What to do if you're an app developer

This is the hardest question to answer.  Platform transitions create a wonderful opportunity for developers because customers are most willing to look at new apps when they first try a platform.  If you get in there early with a great Windows 8 Metro app, your company might take off spectacularly.  If a competitor does Metro first, you'll be vulnerable.

On the other hand, if you bet big on Windows 8 and it fails, you'll be stuck.  Even if it just sells slowly at first, you could easily run out of money before Microsoft fixes the problem.  A poor quarter is a bump in the road for Microsoft; it could be an extinction event for you.

If I were creating a new application today...oh, wait, I am creating a new application today.  So here's how the situation looks to me:

If you have a PC app today, should you be sure it works on Windows 8?  Yes, of course.  At the minimum, make sure it runs in Windows 7 compatibility mode.

Should you we revise the app to take advantage of the Metro interface?  If you have a bunch of extra money, sure.  But if you're not awash in surplus funds, I would hold off for now.  It's a risk, but I think most Windows 8 users are going to linger in traditional Windows mode for a long time, and that's the market you need to serve first.

When should you do Metro?  When Microsoft demonstrates significant sales volume of genuine Metro users.  The best way to track this is probably sales of Windows 8 tablets, as opposed to PCs preloaded with Windows 8.  You don't know how many Windows 8 PCs are having Windows 7 backloaded onto them, but a tablet with Windows 8 is probably running Metro.

The next question at that point will be who's buying those Metro tablets and what are they being used for.  Are they being bought for entertainment?  If so, you probably don't want to port your business app to it.


Here's what I'd like you to take away from this article:

    --Windows 8 is not Windows, it's a new operating system with Windows 7 compatibility tacked onto it.
    --Although Windows 8 looks pretty and is great for tablet-style content consumption, I question its benefits for traditional PC productivity tasks.
    --Big OS transitions like this one traditionally cause users to reconsider their OS decision and potentially switch to something else.
    --Microsoft has worsened the risk that people will migrate away from Windows 8, by disabling some key features of Windows 7, and mishandling the consumer "preview" program.
    --However, people won't necessarily abandon Windows because it's not clear if they have a good alternative to it.
    --Apple could provide the best alternative if it chooses to.  This might be Apple's best chance ever to stick a fork in Windows.
    --If Windows 8 is even moderately successful, it could weaken Google and the big web services companies.  The trend toward bundling web services into the OS is potentially very disruptive to the web community, and they should be quite worried about it.
    --If you're a PC app developer, you should probably hold off on Metro because it's not clear how quickly its user base will grow.

What do you think? 

Thanks for sticking around through a very long article.  I'd like to hear what you think; please post a comment.  Do you believe Windows 8 will take off?  Should app developers support it now?  Would you change anything in it?  If so, what?

Corrected on May 29, 2012. Updated in October 2012 to point to revised video.