The big question Windows 8 will answer

Posted by Rob Enderle

I’ve been thinking a lot about Windows 8, as it’s a pretty complex product.

Indeed, this is the first OS in a long time that is actually capable of running on two different processor architectures - ARM and x86 - and the first I can recall that provides a very different user experience on each chip.   

The big question Windows 8 will answerWindows 8 will also be a grand experiment between two theories.   You see, analysts have been divided on how Windows should advance.  

Some argue that Redmond should maintain legacy support and full management capabilities to keep enterprises happy and minimize user disruptions.

Others believe you have to make a clean break every so often to bring the platform fully up to date.  Concerns over user disruption is likely why Apple has changed its operating systems very little over the last decade. 

However, this time around there will be two Windows versions, one (on X86) that will make the change more gradually (like Windows 95 did), with elements of the old and the new working somewhat uneasily together. The other? A clean break, not only in terms of software but for hardware as well - in an attempt to fully embrace and extend what the iPad brought to market. Which will you choose?

Big Deal

Clearly, this will be a big deal because whichever platform people choose will likely dictate how future OS strategies are executed. For example, if users flock to the x86 version of Windows 8 and avoid the ARM version (as Intel and AMD clearly hope), then advocates for gradual change may just have a point.
But if users rush to adopt Windows RT and stay with Windows 7 on x86, well, then the clean break side will have prevailed and we’ll likely see more dramatic changes in user experience arriving more quickly going forward.   

In short, the Windows 8 launch could have repercussions that extend to processes which encompass everything we do, as it will showcase whether a mass market has to be moved slowly or quickly from one user experience to another on a complex product like a PC.  

Legacy Crap

One of the things that has changed over the last decade is just how much legacy stuff we have to deal with. Increasingly, we are accessing applications off of the web, whether we call it SAAS (Software as a Service) or simply Cloud services, the fact is that much of what we used to do and more can be accessed through a current web browser.

This is slowly removing the legacy requirement, similar to what we saw with Windows Phone 7 when Microsoft stepped sharply away from Windows Mobile 6 and earlier roots. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Redmodn's mobile market share dropped catastrophically, illustrating that even if you can make a change, that change doesn’t come without risks. In this specific case, I would actually argue that the biggest issue for Windows Phone 7 was a lack of proper marketing.

Marketing

On that note, it is fairly clear humans don’t like change. Pretty much every time Facebook or Twitter undergoes a significant change folks appear to get upset and go on the digital warpath. However, the iPad and iPhone represented a paradigm shift in terms of mobile devices, illustrating once again that we can accept change as long as it is presented in a positive fashion. To be sure, both devices were seen as slick and marketed well, so new is not only OK, it can also be pretty spectacular.  

This suggests that for any major change there is a huge marketing requirement to get people to perceive the new product as compelling - not just something different they have to learn. In short, there are two aspects to change, one which is different and painful, and another which is exciting and compelling. Convincing potential buyers to see the latter and overlook the former is often why companies come up with new names. The iPad, for instance, wasn’t the iPod Mega Touch nor was it the Apple MacBook Tablet. It could have been either - but Apple (correctly) made a clean break which certainly paid off. 

Wrapping Up:  

Windows 8 is going to be an interesting test. Will consumers embrace change and flock to the virtually all new Windows RT or will they demand a more gradual path and reject the ARM version of Windows and remain with the x86 version? 

Clearly there will be people in both camps and maybe even folks who will buy both products because the Windows 8 tablets should work particularly well with Windows 8 desktops. So there are actually four potential scenarios: ARM massively outsells the x86 product; x86 outsells the ARM product; both sell well under a better "together package" (this would be the one that Microsoft likes the most); or folks flock to Google and Apple because they are confused (Microsoft clearly likes this potential outcome the least). 

How about you? Would you rather see a clean break from Windows and move aggressively to touch and a more appliance-like experience in exchange for not being able to use some of your old legacy apps? Think about it: are you really going to need those old apps so much that you’ll choose a more gradual path, or will you just stay with Windows 7 or XP and wait until Windows 9?