Like the rest of the world, I was perplexed at Steve Ballmer's response in a recent interview at the Gartner Symposium where he cited the "next version of Windows" as the riskiest product coming up. While talking about a product that's still 2 years away can feel a bit out of place (like seeing Christmas decorations on sale in October), I'd like to take a look at a few of the more supported rumors about Windows 8 and which, if any, of them could add up to the riskiest product in Microsoft's portfolio.
A purely hosted OS. With Google planning the Chrome OS release by the end of this year, some Internet commentators have suggested that Microsoft could release Windows 8 as a purely cloud-based where everything would be accessed through the Internet. While it's true that Microsoft is investing in the cloud, this rumor seems pretty unlikely. A cloud OS would have interesting advantages (speed, simplicity), but the market isn't anywhere close to being ready for this type of solution on a wider scale. Chrome OS will likely be the speedy OS people use for basic viewing (similar to Splashtop), but it can't fully replace a standard operating system. Why would Microsoft alienate its existing customers with this change?
Only available in 64-bit. The full conversion to 64-bit has been talked about for awhile, but Microsoft has hesitated to make the jump to 64-bit only because there are still a number of applications that run on x86. However, that gap continues to narrow, and with App-V (application virtualization) users could still access those x86-only applications. So, there is evidence to support the notion that Windows 8 might be 64-bit only, but it hardly seems like a revelation worthy of the "riskiest product" designation.
New App Store model. In the past few months, Microsoft has leaked that Windows 8 will have an App Store model similar to iTunes. The idea here is that you will be able to go to a dedicated place to search for applications for Windows, and you'll have the confidence that those solutions are vetted and compatible with your Windows system. A nice idea, but again, not really revolutionary.
Electronic distribution only. This one is kind of interesting—what if Microsoft released Windows 8 only as an electronic version? This would save them a bit on distribution costs, but overall shouldn't affect the system too much. I do wonder if it would make obtaining and using illegal copies of Windows 8 easier—perhaps someone with a stronger technology background than I could chime in on that point in the comments. In any event, this is a completely unconfirmed rumor.
Support for facial recognition for log in. This is a cool one to see, and it is a confirmed rumor. I've written about some of the misconceptions and benefits of biometric security, one of which involves moving to a more efficient, reliable, and secure method of log in than passwords and passphrases. While I don't know anything about how the facial recognition will work, it seems like a good step in the right direction. However, since it will be an optional technology, it's hardly risky.
After giving it some thought, I don't think Ballmer was referring to some particular Pandora's box that is awaiting Windows 8. When you watch the interview (video below), you can note two important points. One, the Gartner guys said "Besides the cloud, name the riskiest product," so Ballmer didn't have that rather obvious option. And Microsoft is already trying to avoid bad blood around Windows Phone 7, so why would he pick that? Given these factors, and the fact that he was pressed for a split-second answer, I think the Windows 8 buzz is probably much ado about nothing. (But, it keeps us journalists busy.)
Enjoy the video of the interview below, and feel free to chime in on the comments or on Twitter.