I've not been shy about how over the past year of so I've distanced myself a great deal from Microsoft and the Windows ecosystem, despite having devoted almost 20 years to the platform. With Windows 8, Microsoft took its flagship platform in a direction that wasn't compatible with what I wanted from an operating system. But with Windows 9 now in the pipeline, can Microsoft save Windows and tempt me back into the ecosystem?
The hole that Microsoft has to somehow dig itself out of is indeed a deep one. Don't believe me? Take a look at what Windows SuperSite's Paul Thurrott wrote over the weekend:
"Windows 8 is tanking harder than Microsoft is comfortable discussing in public, and the latest release, Windows 8.1, which is a substantial and free upgrade with major improvements over the original release, is in use on less than 25 million PCs at the moment."
It gets worse:
"Windows 8 has set back Microsoft, and Windows, by years, and possibly for good."
Those words should send a shudder through anyone reading who thinks that Windows is too big to fail. Microsoft can't keep stumbling out of the gate with Windows releases and that not have a huge knock-on effect on the entire PC ecosystem.
So, if the word on the street is that Microsoft is currently aiming for a Windows 9 release date of April 2015, this gives the company a little over a year to fix Windows. In fact, a year is far too optimistic, taking betas and bug fixing into account, Microsoft has maybe at tops 9 months to figure out what people want from Windows 9.
So what does Microsoft need to do to fix Windows?
Well, bottom line, I think it needs to do what I and many other pundits said it needed to do before Windows 8 was released, and that's make Windows more suited to desktop and notebook PCs – you know, the platforms used by almost a billion PC users – and focus less on niche touch-enabled systems.
Put another way, this means making Windows 9 more like Windows 7 than Windows 8. That's a promising start, because Microsoft already has a basis for this – it's called Windows 7.
Another thing I'd like to see Microsoft do is take the focus off apps and put it back on onto rich, fully-featured applications that Windows users know and love. While I'm not ready to say that Microsoft's foray into Windows 8 apps has been a failure, it's hardly been a success either. While apps make sense on smartphones and tablets, both of which have limited screen size and system resources, they made far less sense on a PC.
Why choose to run cut-down, low information density apps when you have all those gigahertz and terabytes at your disposal? Clearly given the tepid interest in Windows apps, I'm not the only person wondering this.
I'd also like to feel that Microsoft has a vision for Windows, and not a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" attitude. Making changes in Windows 8, and then later backpedaling on them in Windows 8.1, causes a great deal of stress for users, consumers and enterprise alike. It's a needless productivity hit, and in an enterprise environment that translates into lost dollars.
If the current crop of rumors are on the ball – and so far I haven't seen any leaked code to be able to confirm or deny them – then Microsoft is planning to make changes to Windows so that Metro apps will run on the Windows desktop. This allows Microsoft to do what I believed it should have done from the beginning – combine the traditional Windows Desktop with the Start Screen into a single user feature; the Windows Desktop. The Windows Desktop was familiar to all Windows users, and tinkering with it for the sake of a small number of people running Windows system with touch capability was foolhardy, playing fast and loose with one of the company's biggest assets.
Finally, what about the calls for Microsoft to follow in Apple's footsteps and give Windows away for free? This "free Windows" could take on two forms. The first would be free upgrades for all Windows users, along the lines of what Apple offers. This would not only help encourage more users onto the new platform, but it would also help OEMs sell new PCs to those who can't upgrade.
The second form of free would be for Microsoft to make Windows free to OEMs, eliminating license fees and following a path laid down by Android and ChromeOS. This would force Microsoft to abandon the upfront revenue it receives from sales of Windows licenses and instead make its money back from service such as Bing, Skype, and Office 365, while giving OEMs a little more wriggle room on pricing.
While it seems like a huge revenue stream to give up, Microsoft could also continue to pull in revenue from the lucrative server market, not to mention enterprise support. And this doesn't touch the Office cash cow.
A free Windows would certainly change the tech landscape, but Microsoft would need to have all its ducks in a row with a change like that, because it's the sort of move that the company wouldn't be able to backpedal out of.
It's also worth considering that talk of "free Windows" – even if it is nothing more than rumors and speculation – could have a dampening effect on sales of Windows 8.1 as people sit on their wallets and see what the future brings.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called Windows 8 the company's "riskiest product bet." Looks like the bet didn't pay off. But the future seems like it might be full of risky bets for whoever takes over the reigns from Ballmer.
As I've said before, if Windows works for you, then that's great. Stick with what works for you. I for one certainly won't sneer or look down on you or go all fanboy. After all, I remember – with fondness, and more than a hint of sadness – a time when it worked for me.
Personal preferences are, after all, personal.
However, whether you're a fan of Windows or not, and whether you think Windows 8/8.1 is the right way to do Windows or not, you need to get ready for more changes to the way you work.