Yesterday morning Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, apparently said more than he knew as he announced a forthcoming update to the company’s flagship operating system, Windows 8. The reaction from analysts and reporters alike was nothing short of drastic, with critics chiming in from every side with claims that the update was a “prominent admission of failure,” or that the company was “preparing a u-turn on Windows 8.”
Maybe it’s just me, but since when did a software update aimed as addressing user concerns over performance and ease of use equate to the failure of an entire platform? If that’s the case then Apple should have similar trepidations over iOS 6.1.4 (which was released yesterday for iPhone 5 only) and Google should have an anxiety disorder over the way Android needs patches and updates.
The problems with Microsoft’s reforged operating system have little to do with its functionality and everything to do with the market perception of Microsoft’s foray into Apple’s and Google’s turf. However, Microsoft has distinct areas of opportunity to gain traction over both its competitors, and the best course for Windows to follow is to run the gamut of progressive updating and retooling to address user concerns.
Same Download, Different Day
Above all, the announcement of the update (codenamed “Blue”) is not at all akin to the likes of the disastrous “New Coke” and it’s not at all a signal of Microsoft reversing course on Windows. If anything it shows that Microsoft plans to see Windows 8 unto the breach, breaking from its tradition of wasting years developing new platforms to address the concerns of the previous iteration. Furthermore, this news should be mundane because updates to operating systems occur frequently enough to be a routine part of owning a modern computing device. Microsoft’s announcement for Windows 8 isn’t any different, and yet meets a cynicism that overshadows the platform’s real success and is, frankly, intellectually lazy.
As an example, take a look at Apple’s four latest operating system releases:
- OSX Leopard (version 10.5) saw eight updates over its two-year life cycle, with five of those eight coming in 2008 alone.
- OSX Snow Leopard (v 10.6) also had eight different releases, not to mention sub-iterations in versions 10.6.7 and 10.6.8
- OSX Lion, (v 10.7) had five updates during its short stay in the lineup.
- The latest stable release, OSX Mountain Lion, already has three updates to its name, with several smaller update packages in the 10.8.2 edition.
The picture gets clearer if you consider that each cat-themed release is actually an update to MacOS v 10, hence the 10.x.x format. So if you account only for the above four, that’s a total of 24 major updates to the platform since 2007.
Apple-Colored Google Glass
The real story is one of optics, not of performance. Market analysts are focusing on Microsoft’s previous track record and discounting the real challenge the Windows 8/Windows Phone pair poses to Apple’s restrictive “ecosystem” and Android’s open border design. Keep in mind that the user confusion over Windows 8 makes sense given that it’s the first serious step Microsoft has taken to bring a mobile UI to a desktop platform, and Metro looks nothing like the desktop most Windows users are accustomed to. Reinforcing this are the overwhelming number of “vintage” versions of Windows still in use, particularly WIndows XP, so it’s natural that the learning curve is steep for some and that more widespread adoption will be slow.
But the real power of Windows 8 is that it’s the only OS that could realistically allow a tablet computer to replace a laptop or desktop system. Android has been fraught with memory management issues since its inception, and Google’s ChromeOS has received less attention than BlackBerry. Apple’s entire mobile lineup works best when serving as a companion device to an existing desktop/notebook system, and only recently has Apple given OSX mobile features to close the gap.
Windows 8 provides a full desktop OS to a mobile system, allowing users to take advantage of apps and traditional software on a single platform, something neither iOS nor Android accomplishes innately. Data transfer ports actually matter on Windows 8 devices because the software can make use of external mass storage media without need of a “jailbreak” or a “root.” Microsoft has a real gem, and should press on with Windows’ evolution regardless of what shortsighted analysts on the Street have to say about it.
Microsoft did not develop Windows 8 to save desktop computers. It’s trying to move a brand from being the default option to being the user’s choice. The move toward a more mobile-friendly platform shows that Microsoft is moving with the trend towards tablets and smartphones that are filling the roles desktops and laptops leave behind. This update is nothing but a routine step in development that we all should have been expecting, not a grand about-face.