Windows enthusiasts are understandably spooked by news that Windows 8 hasn’t met Microsoft’s internal sales projections, but the situation is far more nuanced on the shelves of retailers both electronic and brick and mortar. Sure, Windows 8 will barrel its way to millions in unit sales through sheer inertia, but what’s really holding back the OS is an issue that plagues every Windows release: uninspiring new PC designs. (See also, "PC Sales Flat as Market Waits for Windows 8").
Not surprisingly, this is what Microsoft credits internally for the slow start of Windows 8: PC makers’ “inability to deliver,” as first reported in "Windows 8 Sales Well Below Projections, Plenty of Blame to Go Around." But this is nothing new: For over a decade now, every single Windows release has been marred by the slow and uninspiring reactions of the firm’s PC maker partners.
I’ve watched from the sidelines as Microsoft has basically begged PC makers to innovate throughout the years. I recall the firm’s call for innovative, home theater-like hardware that could accompany the first release of Windows XP Media Center in 2002, for example. Most PC makers responded by ignoring the release, and the only one that did show up at launch, HP, shipped a blocky and humongous tower PC that was decidedly ill-equipped for the American living room.
And so it has gone ever since.
But with Windows 8, Microsoft is selling revolution, not evolution, and it has been warning PC makers for years to step up their game. Windows 8 is most at home on mobile computing devices, not traditional PCs, and it features a multi-touch system integrated into the core of the OS, not as a tacked-on layer. To drive home this point, Microsoft has begun shipping its own line of touch-enabled devices, the Surface, and has ported Windows to the ARM architecture, a low-power chipset type that powers smartphones and tablets, not PCs.
PC makers haven’t risen to the challenge. Again. They’ve shipped derivations of previous PCs—Ultrabooks with touch screens—and bizarre multi-mode PCs that get points for silliness of design but don’t seem practical in actual use.
In basketball, there’s a term called “fake hustle.” As an example, imagine the ball is about to go out of bounds, and a player feints or moves as if we were going to actually try and save it. Fake hustle shouldn’t be confused with real hustle—a player crashing into the audience to actually save the ball—just as PC maker’s new PC designs shouldn’t be confused for actual innovation.
Granted, there are only so many forms a tablet can take. But most new PCs fall into a familiar category—like that Ultrabook, but with multi-touch—or fan out into an increasingly bizarre world of gymnastic, Transformer-like contortions: Devices that bend, fold, and spindle and try to be both excellent laptops and tablets and failing at both. Do you want a sometimes-tablet that is really heavy? Or a tablet with a lousy keyboard that clips on?
I’ve described the PC ecosystem in the past as Windows' greatest strength and, paradoxically, its greatest weakness. The launch lineup of new PCs for Windows 8 exemplifies both traits, providing as it does a bewildering range of choice, with virtually none of it being interesting at all. Innovation? If pre-loading crapware and destroying the Windows experience in the process was considered innovation, this launch lineup would be the best one yet.
And while Microsoft’s own Surface tablet comes the closest to the pure Windows experience, even it bobbles and drops the ball in too many key areas to be taken seriously … yet. For starters, it runs the woefully inadequate Windows RT on the woefully inadequate ARM platform, eschewing the more compatible Intel platforms that power real PCs. As I discovered testing a rival tablet running Intel’s new Atom “Clover Trail” platform in "Windows 8 Architecture Wars, Part 1: Clover Trail vs. ARM," Windows 8 and Intel’s latest chipset run rings around the Windows RT/ARM combination. It’s not even close.
But the Surface is marred by other poor decisions: a power cable that doesn’t latch securely onto the device, the lack of a docking solution or optional cellular broadband, and too-high pricing. Microsoft has shown the world how to design an elegant tablet, but it also handed its PC maker partners a gift, an opening through which they could field competitive designs of their own.
So far, the response has been pretty uninspiring.
But then, this is nothing new. I do expect PC makers to recover, trim down their lineups to the models that people actually want, and begin to truly innovate with all-new models in 2013. But given history, Microsoft’s first-ever entry into the PC/device market, and the revolution that is Windows 8, I can’t believe that none of them could do better right up front.