Ballmer: Riskiest product bet by Microsoft is the 'next release of Windows'

At the Gartner Symposium on October 21, CEO Steve Ballmer was asked what he considered to be Microsoft's riskiest product bet. His answer? The next version of Windows. Huh?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

When you're in the on-stage interview hot seat, sometimes you may say things you regret. And sometimes you speak the truth.

My ZDNet colleague Larry Dignan covered Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer's hot-seat appearance this morning at the Gartner Symposium in Orlando. While Dignan keyed in on Ballmer's pronouncements and avoidances around slates and tablets, I noticed right off Ballmer's answer to Gartner's question about risky bets.

From Dignan's account, Gartner analyst John Pescatore was doing a free-word-association style interview at the end of his Ballmer Q&A. Pescatore asked Ballmer what he considered to be Microsoft's "riskiest product bet."

I'd have thought he might say Windows Phone 7. Or maybe Bing. Or even Office Web Apps. But Ballmer's answer? "The next version of Windows."

OK. This could be more of the hype we heard rumored earlier this year when the "Windows vNext" rumors began going around. There were reports that the next release of Windows -- which most of us out here call Windows 8 -- would be revolutionary, not evolutionary.

But when we saw the leaked Windows 8 slide deck which looked to be from Microsoft (dated April 2010), the supposed early feature set concepts for Windows 8 looked solid, but weren't anything I'd call "risky." Fast startup, facial recognition as a security option, better support for slates, a possible app store -- all good, but not amazing. The one feature on the list that might be considered remotely risky (mostly in terms of the ability of Microsoft to deliver it)? Push-button reset, which allegedly would reinstall Windows while maintaining all of your personal files, applications and settings.

I've heard from some tipsters that Windows 8 would include a very different kind of file system. I'm not sure what that would entail. I'm doubtful we're talking about anything like the old WinFS concept (as this was, for the most part, tabled before the launch of Windows Vista).

So why did Ballmer characterize Windows 8 as "risky"? I'm left scratching my head. Could he have meant risky because of the way it will or won't compete with other coming PC operating systems like ChromeOS, Mac OS X Lion? Or risky because of the adoption by more customers of the cloud? Could Windows 8 and Windows vNext actually be two different things? Or was Ballmer simply trying to deflect the question and provide an answer that would keep the scrutiny off the company's newly launched products in mobile and gaming?

Guesses? Ideas? Crazy (or not so crazy) theories?

Editorial standards