This week, as Microsoft launches Windows 8, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The whole company has been driving for years toward this radical overhaul of its flagship operating system.
It’s an urgently needed move as computing moves increasingly away from traditional PCs — on which Microsoft built its dominance — to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, areas where its competitors dominate.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has described Windows 8 as one of the most significant debuts in the company’s history, and characterized as epic the year of product releases and updates that Windows 8’s arrival heralds.
In addition to Windows 8, Microsoft has, or will soon, introduce a slew of products and services designed to work with its new operating system, from the Xbox Music service to a new version of Office.
“This is the single, largest product launch that Microsoft has ever done,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with research firm Gartner. “And the single most important set of products that Microsoft has ever introduced.”
Windows is still the world’s most dominant PC operating system, on some 94 percent of PCs, according to Gartner information. But the dominance of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms in the mobile realm threatens the future of Windows — unless Windows 8 can start making up some of that ground.
For Microsoft, “that’s a huge headache because the value of the Windows franchise is that it’s the dominant personal-computing operating system, and it’s not anymore,” said Frank Gillett, an analyst with research firm Forrester. (Gillett includes operating systems for smartphones and tablets when he talks about personal-computing operating systems.)
Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to bridge the gap between tablets and traditional PCs. It is designed to be both touch- and mouse-and-keyboard-friendly, with two modes of interaction: a tile-based design unfamiliar to most Windows users, and the familiar, traditional desktop interface.
Explaining those differences — along with the differences among the various versions of Windows 8 and the many changes from previous versions of the operating system — is likely to be one of Microsoft’s biggest challenges.
“If you look at the complexities involved in choosing a Windows 8 device, particularly the tablets, it’s nutty,” Gillett said. “It’s a two-headed operating system for which you’ll have at least four processor-type choices, each of which will give you different characteristics and experiences.”
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[Image of Windows 8 Start screen from Microsoft]