I'll just come right out and say it. Windows 8 is Apple's fault. We can tie the creation of Microsoft's unique, hybrid platform to Apple's decision a decade ago to branch out beyond its PC products to find a market—any market—in which the company could be more successful. Apple first moved into music, of course, which seemed like a big deal at the time. But the firm's subsequent evolution, which included forays into e-commerce, digital media ecosystems, and devices such as the iPod, iPhone, and then iPad, was a much, much bigger deal.
Microsoft Windows 8 logo
Today, Apple's PC business—the Mac—is successful, yes, but still an also-ran in that market. The company's other efforts have eclipsed first the Mac, and then the rest of the technology world. Apple today isn't just the biggest technology company; it's one of the biggest publically traded companies anywhere. Apple, not Microsoft, is writing the future of computing, thanks to the staggering success of the iPhone and iPad product lines. This, folks, is what's called a crisis.
What Not to Do
Author Michael Crichton noted more than 40 years ago that a crisis is "a situation in which a previously tolerable set of circumstances is suddenly, by the addition of another factor, rendered wholly intolerable." From Microsoft's perspective, the almost casual way in which the company dominated the PC industry from the early 1990s onward, creating a business that was (for a time) the largest and most profitable on earth, was a tolerable set of circumstances. Microsoft was, and still is (through sheer inertia), a money-making machine. But another factor has been introduced. In this case, it wasn't Apple per se: Remember, Mac computers never seriously threatened Microsoft. No, it was the rise of simpler and more mobile computing devices, products such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad as well as the "me-too" products that sprang up in their wake.
For Microsoft, this condition is indeed "wholly intolerable." What's amazing is that Microsoft has reacted to it so quickly. The intolerable situation—the rise of simple, mobile computing devices—is still unfolding. And Microsoft's core business of selling software that runs (and runs on) traditional PCs is still chugging along at a fairly acceptable rate. Sure, the growth is small. But for a mature market, PCs are still big business, with roughly 375 million units sold each year.
There are different ways in which one can react to a crisis. When Windows Vista arrived in 2006, it was a ramshackle mess, the result of Microsoft uncharacteristically overestimating what the company could deliver and then starting over from scratch late in the game. The result was a bizarre collection of vestigial half-features from the Longhorn project and a handful of new technologies, many of which were immediately abandoned.
Microsoft should have reacted to this disaster by acting quickly, fixing the problems, and aggressively fending off repeated attacks—by Apple, in particular, which sensed the problem immediately and escalated its "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads to poke incessant fun at Vista's problems. Instead, the company reacted like a hedgehog under attack. First, it remained still and hoped the problem would go away. Then it belatedly tried to protect itself with minor PR victories (e.g., the Mohave project, the "I'm a PC" campaign) that virtually no one noticed.
With Vista, the crisis was real and direct, an in-your-face problem that Microsoft simply didn't respond to properly because it had grown big, complacent, and slow. Microsoft couldn't react to that crisis because it had never experienced one before. The company's previous defense—just being Microsoft, the dominant PC firm—suddenly failed it, for the first time.
Looking to today's evolution toward simple mobile computing devices, the crisis is quite different. Microsoft could easily coast for years and do pretty well, continuing to dominate the ever less relevant PC market with its hundreds of millions of units per year. But the market for smartphones, tablets, and related devices is already bigger than that for PCs. And as people turn away from PCs and toward these devices, that market is going to continue getting much bigger each year.
A Paradigm Shift
Microsoft, amazingly, is confronting this issue head-on. And the company is doing so while its best-ever-selling version of Windows, Windows 7, continues to rack up license sales of more than 20 million units per month, a steady clip that has gone essentially unchanged for three years straight. No one would look at Windows 7 and declare it to be anything other than vastly superior to its loathed predecessor, Vista.
But rather than slowly evolve Windows into something different, or develop a new mobile platform side-by-side with Windows, Microsoft has instead taken a dramatic step in releasing Windows 8. This new platform isn't the next version of Windows 7, despite Microsoft's efforts to market it as such. No, Windows 8 is something completely new and different.
Windows 8 is no less than a major new mobile platform that accomplishes two things. First, it provides the software giant with a platform that's vastly superior, out of the gate, to the two platforms that currently dominate this market: Apple iOS (running on the iPad) and Google Android OS. Second, it brings with it the previous Windows desktop platform and (for the most part) all the compatibility that platform provides: desktop applications, utilities, hardware drivers, and so on.
Windows 8 also brings with it all the problems of the Windows desktop (or what we previously thought of simply as Windows). The complexity. The insecurity. The unreliability. The legacy deadwood—software that's still stuck in there because Microsoft has always cared more about backward compatibility than anything else. (No customer left behind!)
But this is the genius of Windows 8, really. Because there's a second version of Windows 8, Windows RT (formerly called Windows on ARM), that doesn't include any of the issues associated with legacy software. You can't install third-party desktop software on Windows RT because this platform runs on ARM rather than on the x86 or x64 underpinnings that we've used since the original IBM PC in 1981. This restriction is bad in some ways—your copy of Adobe Photoshop is never going to work on Windows RT, sorry—but good in many others. Those viruses, blue screens, and other issues are going to be non-existent—or nearly so—in Windows RT.
The new OS we should be talking about here is Windows RT, not Windows 8. Although Microsoft positions Windows RT as simply the ARM-based variant of Windows 8, the situation is in fact reversed: Windows RT is Microsoft's new mobile platform. And Windows 8 is the PC-based variant of that system, providing all the new stuff from RT along with backward compatibility so that the existing customer base can make the transition more easily. Put another way, Windows RT is a fresh start. Windows 8 simply bridges the old and the new.
And make no mistake, this transition is happening. If Microsoft is successful with this plan, we'll leave behind the traditional PC in the years ahead. At the very least, the Intels and AMDs of the world will evolve their own hardware platforms to be more like ARM, and Microsoft will start chopping legacy deadwood off Windows 8 and its successors. The world we're heading toward belongs to Windows RT.
Back to the Future
The thing is, we've already done this. Back in the early 1990s, just as Windows took off in the market, the software giant started a skunkworks project called NT, using disgruntled former Digital Equipment engineers and their anything-but-UNIX philosophy to create the next major OS. It took a while, but the Microsoft customer base transitioned from what we used to think of as Windows to NT; by the time Windows XP shipped in 2001, NT was Windows.
If Microsoft is successful in the transition from today's Windows to Windows RT, it will achieve the same result. We'll continue to use this thing that we call Windows. But that system, underneath, will be new, designed from scratch, and it will carry with it just enough backward compatibility to make the change easy for users—just like NT did.
Old-timers will recall that the thought of typical consumers running NT back in 1993 to 1995 or so was ludicrous. NT had heady hardware requirements and precious little compatibility with existing software and hardware. But that changed over the years, and through subsequent NT-based releases—Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, and Windows XP—NT went from burden to benefit. So it will be with Windows RT, although I don't think it will take as long, or as many interim versions.
These comparisons are never exact, but I'd say that Windows RT is most like NT 4.0, in that it looks and works a lot like the current mainstream Windows version and is largely compatible with current software applications and hardware. (Remember that Windows RT and Windows 8 can run the same Windows 8 apps, previously known as Metro-style apps.) So Microsoft has conceptually skipped the corresponding NT 3.1, 3.5, and 3.51 stages with this first release of Windows RT. I bet the company can get to a Windows XP–comparable release with its next version.
Speculation aside, Windows 8 represents a transition: a bridge between what was and what will be, and a way for current PC users to become accustomed to and proficient in what Microsoft calls a "touch first" user experience. The underlying platform will grow and evolve, of course, and I suspect many of the real complaints that people have about Windows 8—and yes, there are a ton of them—will be addressed in future updates that will likely occur well before any Windows 9 release. (My sources tell me that Windows 8 won't sit still for three years, and that Microsoft is planning for yearly updates to ensure that this platform matures quickly.)
On the hardware front, Windows 8 is like previous versions of Windows in many ways. That is, yes, you can install and run Windows 8 on your existing PCs and it will work well—a lot better than the clueless tech pundits are now claiming. (In fact, looking at just the desktop, Windows 8 is an even bigger improvement over Windows 7 than that OS was over Windows Vista.) But you'll get the best results with a new PC, one that includes a touch screen or perhaps a hybrid design in which a laptop-type PC can be transformed into a tablet (or vice versa). Windows 8, like Windows RT, comes alive on these devices.
And that, really, is the point. As the world transitions to simpler, more mobile devices, Windows 8 and (to a greater extent) Windows RT give Microsoft an instant solution that in many ways is superior to what's offered by its rivals. The fact that both offer some degree of compatibility and familiarity with the Windows desktop is a bonus. You'll be able to buy iPad-class devices that transform into real PCs and can run real Photoshop, not the sad version that iPad users put up with. When you consider the amount of time, money, and effort that iPad users expend trying to make their expensive toys act more like PCs, you realize that Microsoft's strategy makes sense. It's a winner.
Windows 8 is the start of a revolution. It's exciting and forward leaning. Yes, it's different, but get over it: We made the transition from keyboard and command line to mouse and GUI. We can make this transition, too. In fact, rather than dread it, we should be embracing it wholeheartedly. With Windows 8—and Windows RT—Microsoft is giving us the best of both worlds.