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When the first reports started to trickle in, that 10-year-old web cams and quite a few Windows 3.11 programs somehow didn't appreciate Windows Vista, the blogosphere verdict quickly swung back to the other extreme. Claiming that Vista is a mess was the best way to show the world that you are really a geek. Even PC blog stars like Chris Pirillo suddenly claimed that Macs are much cooler anyway and drew big applause from the nerd community. I also met quite a few people who didn't have the slightest idea about IT, Windows, or computers in general but who told me stone-faced and in geek parlance that Microsoft really messed up this time. I mean, everyone knew that, right?
With Windows 95, things were quite different. Blogs were still called homepages, and most people didn't even know this word yet. The computer manufacturers decided that there was no real alternative to Windows and the masses just bought the computers that they found on the shelves. Of course, the daily computer experience consisted of even more broken Windows 3.11 applications and blues creens. Nevertheless, history tells us that this was the time when Microsoft created a desktop monopoly.
I think, Windows 8 has much in common with Windows 95. Actually, the concepts behind Windows 8 and Windows 95 are quite similar. Windows 95 was essentially a DOS program and the Metro UI is also just a user interface extension for Windows. With Windows NT, however, Microsoft got rid of MS DOS altogether as the underlying OS. I think, we will likely see the same thing happening in Windows 9 when the Windows NT era comes to an end. Who knows, maybe there won't be a Windows 9—just Metro 2.0?
But this is not my topic today. The interesting question is whether Windows 8 will be a complete mess or the biggest success. I think, the blogosphere only gives those two grades. As for the 10-year-old web cam, I believe, it will work with Windows 8. So Pirillo and company probably won't be able to show off too many error messages.
I think, the biggest danger for Windows is that two different kinds of user interfaces will have to live in harmony on the same machine. With Windows 95, this wasn't really the case. DOS programs worked well on Windows 95, but they had no access to the Windows environment. For instance, copy-and-paste only worked for Windows applications. However, these incompatibilities didn't prevent Windows 95 from becoming the most successful OS in history. The future will tell if Windows 8 can achieve the same in the tablet market.
We will see similar incompatibilities between Windows and Metro in Windows 8 as we saw with Windows 95. For instance, if you want to run an old-fashioned Windows desktop application on a tablet, you will suddenly realize a design breach and the user experience will be significantly reduced. In the pre-blog era, this wouldn't have been a big deal. But the situation is completely different this time. Myriad bloggers need stuff to complain about. Of course, bloggers also like to praise. But as in the whole media world, bad news sells much better than good news.
A huge community of Apple fanboys are out there now who will look under every Windows 8 icon to find the slightest ugly pixel and then start bashing on it like wild. I am not talking about the old school, the Mac fanboys. The iPad enthusiast won't hesitate to point out that this combination of Windows and Metro is impure. Steve Jobs would have said that it is tasteless to combine the old-fashioned PC model with the new and pretty post-PC world.
However, Windows bloggers will focus more on productivity. The fact that I can have a full-blown Windows with MS Office and all these extremely powerful Windows applications on a tablet, plus the new world of those tiny, nifty, and finger-friendly apps, is indeed enticing. Windows always won against its competitors because it was the most productive OS, not because it was the prettiest. The interesting question is whether this is still the case. When Steve Jobs fantasized about a post-PC world, it was mostly because people appeared to finally follow his way, and they bought devices mostly because of their prettiness without bothering much about their functional shortcomings.
Just think about it. PC sales are going down because of these technically and functionally very simple tablets. I often see people in coffee shops, bowing down to the table to their super-flat iPads, trying to type text on a device that was made to consume, rather than to be "creative" and produce content. Why didn't all those email writers and Facebook commenters buy a much cheaper netbook? Why do they consider the lack of a physical keyboard a great feature instead of a serious limitation? Easy answer: A netbook isn't pretty, and its user experience is, therefore, limited. Or as Steve Jobs would have put it, an iPad makes your heart sing when you swipe your finger tenderly over the Gorilla Glass. You can't really say that about a netbook when you are preparing your PowerPoint presentation at the last minute at the airport.
So will Windows 8 make our hearts sing? Hard to believe. It depends mostly on Samsung and company and whether they can build devices that will support both worlds—the Windows world and the Metro world—harmoniously and productively. For instance, I am thinking of ultrabooks that can be converted into tablets by removing the keyboard. That way, you can be productive with old-style Office applications; if you want to make your heart sing and get a great "user experience," you just remove the keyboard and start fondling your beloved post-PC device tenderly.
The success of Windows 8 won't depend solely on the productiveness and prettiness of these devices. As Amazon proved with the Kindle Fire, price is another important factor. Bill Gates predicted in 2001 that tablets will soon dominate the PC market. It simply didn't come true as soon as he thought because Windows tablets were much too expensive. As strange as it may sound now, one of the main reasons why the iPad became so successful was because of its very low price compared to Windows tablets. Having said that, if the majority of Windows 8 tablets will cost the same or more than the iPad, the Windows market share will continue to fall.
This brings me back to Vista. Vista didn't flop because Microsoft's engineers did a bad job but because the whole Windows ecosystem totally failed. Vista was one of Microsoft's greatest technical achievements, no doubt. Believe me, without Vista the botnets would now dominate the Internet. Vista was mostly a management failure. Microsoft management didn't recognize how much Windows depends on its ecosystem. They thought they just have to release a great new OS and the ecosystem will follow. Those times are definitely over. The ecosystem now follows the verdict of the blogosphere.
If Microsoft makes the same mistake again and doesn't take that into account, then Windows 8 is doomed no matter how good the OS is. If hardware and software vendors don't embrace Windows 8 very quickly, we will soon have two major PC operating systems. No, not iOS and Windows—Apple is still not a serious Microsoft competitor because they still follow the old Jobs doctrine that hardware and software belong in one hand. This worked well in the early days of the Macintosh and will also work for a while for the iPad, but, in the long run, lawsuits against Samsung and company won't save Apple. There are just too many hardware competitors.
The big Windows competitor is Android. If Google finally acknowledges that the future doesn't belong to web apps and ditches what is probably the most unsuccessful OS in history (you have heard of Chrome OS, haven't you?) and aggressively pushes Android to the desktop/laptop/ultrabook/netbook as the best cloud client, then Windows has a serious problem. The things we hear about Android 5 already indicate that Google plans to go in this direction.
And the fact that Windows Phone 8 will have the same kernel as Windows 8 shows that Microsoft tries to reach the same destination while coming from the opposite direction. There is no more doubt that the mobile and desktop worlds have to be united.
The only question now is which ecosystem will be faster. I am pretty sure that Ballmer is fully aware of these developments. However, I have my doubts about Brin and Page. I think, they are still blinded by the success of their search engine and might see too late that the web is not everything. History will then repeat itself. Microsoft won because IBM understood too late that hardware isn't everything. (And because Steve Jobs preferred pretty products over productive products.)
I believe Microsoft is technically on a good path with Windows 8. And the ecosystem? I am not so sure about that. What do you think? Mess or success?