Windows 8, the latest version in the long line of Windows products, is the most ambitious project that Microsoft has ever undertaken. The changes in Windows 8 -- among them a completely new user interface and separate versions that run on either Intel x86 or ARM processors -- are as dramatic and important as those that were introduced when Microsoft moved the world from DOS to Windows. It's an operating system reconceived for a world driven by ecosystems and personal cloud services, where the PC is only one device among many. By tackling that current reality, Microsoft may well be undertaking its most important product launch ever.
But while this might well be the best version of Windows that Microsoft has ever created, it's also the version that will need the best story ever told for an operating system.
At launch, Microsoft will have to tell that story well. I hope it does so. Because I have been trying out Windows 8 ahead of launch, I have had to uncover the story myself, and I'm someone who pays far more attention to this sort of thing than the average consumer, and probably a good deal more than the typical CIO.
Windows 8 has been out in final form for a few weeks now (although consumers won't have access to it until the end of October, and even as I write this, Microsoft continues to update both Windows 8 applications and the core system). But I hadn't written anything about it until now because every time I tried to encapsulate the experience, something seemed to be missing. The user experience seemed a bit schizophrenic.
Using Windows 8 on a Samsung tablet provided by Microsoft was great; the touchscreen meshed perfectly with the icon-dependent interface that had been known as Metro before Microsoft banned the name. On an older tablet that had both a keyboard and a touchscreen (and pen), the touchscreen input seemed much more appropriate than the keyboard. Using a MacBook Pro laptop, with Windows 8 running via the Parallels virtual machine, the experience was mixed (and what was best about it was that Windows 8 has proper Retina display support).
The bottom line was that the new interface worked rather well on the touchscreen but was much harder to negotiate with mouse and keyboard. But Windows 8 offers the option of using the traditional Windows desktop (minus the Start menu), and as you might expect, it worked very well with keyboard and mouse inputs. On the other hand, it is a pitiful interface for touchscreens.
Then it finally dawned on me: Windows 8 is really two products in one. One is a new user experience that has been optimized for a new generation of devices by effectively shedding the old Windows desktop. The other not only offers something very close to the user experience that stretches back in a long line through Windows 7 all the way to Windows 95; it is also capable of running legacy Windows applications. (Note, however, that the ARM version, branded as Windows RT, lacks legacy app support, though it does include a version of Microsoft Office and therefore has what looks like a Windows desktop for file management.)
While that new interface does address current reality regarding the growing use of touch-enabled devices, it also makes some assumptions about the future. It works great if you have the right hardware, meaning a touchscreen or a PC with a trackpad that fully supports Windows gestures. I'm told such trackpads will be available, but none of the devices I used had one. But Microsoft has hedged its bet by letting you use the classic Windows desktop if your input devices are a mouse and keyboard. How easy the transition is for you will depend on how much you need to use legacy applications and how often you have to go back and forth between the two interfaces.
To a large degree, Windows 8's success will be dependent on how well Microsoft can explain the benefits that it brings as a bridge between two worlds: the old Windows that millions of people are comfortable using every day, and a bold new version designed to compete against the likes of iOS and Android. So how can Microsoft get the message out and keep users from thinking Windows 8 is schizophrenic? It won't be easy. The kind of manic enthusiasm that greeted the launch of Windows 95 is unlikely to be seen again for any operating system. No one is going to stand on line all night to be the first to get a copy of Windows 8 at Egghead Software -- and not just because we no longer have brick-and-mortar specialty stores selling software as packaged goods. But Microsoft needs to recapture some of that consumer enthusiasm for Windows 8.
Doing that will be difficult, because Windows 8 is a complicated story, with two distinctly different versions running on devices that often look similar but work differently. Microsoft must tell this story -- perhaps by stressing flexibility as opposed to schizophrenia -- to everyone from CIOs of Fortune 500 companies to my mother (who currently lacks a PC of any kind). No doubt all eyes will be on Microsoft on Oct. 25 to see how the tale is told and how users react.
Michael Gartenberg is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.
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