Windows Reimagined

by Peter Schay, President and CEO of TAC.

The first television ad for Microsoft Windows 8, ending with the tag line “Windows reimagined,” appeared this weekend. With its rapid video cuts, high-energy music, exploding laptop PC, children and teens playing games and videos, humorous photos, children creating artwork, etc., the ad says a lot about Microsoft’s strategy with Windows 8.

The term “reimagine” is one that Microsoft has been using since the first public demonstration of Windows 8 in June 2011. Windows 8 represents the most dramatic change in Windows since Windows NT in 1993 — but in a very different direction.

Windows NT was about bringing robust, enterprise-class operating system technology to what had previously been a fragile kludge-tower of inherently limited and insecure software. Ironically, key capabilities of NT, such as the Hardware Abstraction Layer to simplify porting to multiple processor architectures, and the ability to support multiple simultaneous API subsystems (including POSIX and OS/2 subsystems in early versions of NT), have been underutilized for years, but are the foundation for Windows 8 support of the ARM architecture and side-by-side WinRT and Win32 API subsystems.

In contrast to Windows NT, with its focus on moving upscale, Windows 8 is about moving real Windows (in contrast to Windows CE derivatives such as Windows Phone) downscale — to mobile, consumer-oriented devices. The disruptive “Metro” user experience is the most visible aspect of this strategy, but only part of the big picture.

Although the development of Windows 8 began almost a year before the appearance of the Apple iPad, one helpful way of thinking about Windows 8 is as an iPad competitor that also runs legacy Windows applications. The usage model of the iPad is as a mobile, consumer device used primary for entertainment and education (reading books, watching movies, playing games, video chats with friends, light editing and sharing of personal photos, web browsing, etc.), on which one can also read and reply to e-mail. The Metro/WinRT environment is designed for that usage model.

With PC sales essentially flat, success in the mobile device market is a strategic imperative for Microsoft. That does not, however, necessarily make adoption of Windows 8 a strategic imperative for enterprise or small/midsize business IT.

As I wrote in previous blog postings, the primary near-term opportunity for Windows 8 in business is as a platform for internal-use tablet applications — where a credible business case can be demonstrated for those applications. Unlike iPad and Google Android-based tablet devices, Windows 8 devices can be programmed and managed with tools already familiar to IT development and operations teams, significantly improving the practicality of enterprise tablet deployments.

Notwithstanding the various bells and whistles which have been added for the desktop environment in Windows 8 (faster boot, improved file explorer, improved task manager [my favorite], file history, etc.), none of them are compelling enough to put users through the disruption of introducing the Metro environment — which is unavoidable even for those whose intent is to “live in the desktop.”

The big open question about Windows 8 is the extent that it will succeed at making Microsoft a major player in the consumer tablet market. We will know that when end users start asking IT to add Windows 8 to the bring-your-own-device list.