Did we all just witness Windows start to die?

Surface RT's failure calls the whole "Windows 8 Project" into question. As a result, the "death of the PC" may end up taking Windows with it...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
Windows RIP
Hey, I added a question mark at least...

The idea of "the death of the PC" is just that -- it's an idea. It's a hook that, if you believe in it (and I do), it can be quite informative about what seems to be happening to the PC industry, and the wider computer industry in which it sits.

I don't think the PC is dying in a literal sense. The PC is stonkingly good at the things that it does well. But I'm a technologist -- I've been using PCs since I was twelve years old and I like the power and flexibility. Like most technologists, the PC bends to my will like I have a superpower.

But most people do not like the complexity that comes with power and flexibility. Some people just want to give their parents a box that lets them have a video call with the grandkids from time-to-time, and don't want to have to futz around configuring anti-virus software.

The reason why people buy smartphones and tablets isn't because they are necessary better or more worthy than PCs. People buy them because they now have the option to -- i.e. they can.

Go back five years and there was no choice. That last example of grandparents Skyping the grandkids -- that would have needed a PC. Now it can be done with a free-on-contract smartphone. Or an iPad, a Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, etc.

However, people on aggregate buy a lot of smartphones and tablets because over that addressable market, for many non-technologist people who want stuff to "just work" -- a simpler, post-PC device is a better choice. Hence why the PC is "dying".


The issue for Microsoft is whether the PC can be disconnected from the idea of Windows, and by extension whether the death of one leads to the death of the other.

Microsoft's challenge is obvious -- divorce the connection between the PC and Windows such that Windows can survive as the PC wanes.

That's what the "Windows 8 Project" was all about. Reimagine Windows in such a way that the PC is just one place where it runs. If the PC dies off -- so be it, Windows still exists on other devices. If it doesn't, great, Microsoft now has Windows on anything.

The Windows 8 Project encompassed a refined desktop environment, the Metro-style/Modern, (what I call "New Windows") UI paradigm, and new form factors including the lead-from-the-front Surface devices. To a lesser degree, the project also bleeds into Windows Phone and Xbox.

Microsoft's objective is to position this greater Windows 8 Project against smartphones and tablets that run iOS and Android. These latter operating systems are true post-PC operating systems. The are optimized towards the "grandparents Skyping the grandkids" end of the usage continuum, rather than the "commercial efficiency/proper work" end.

Surface RT was, by design, a good enough post-PC device implementation to compete with iPad and Android in that post-PC market. It ticked enough boxes to make a good showing -- certainly more boxes than Old Windows did.

But we know that Surface RT, and Windows RT has failed in terms of numbers.

More importantly, Surface RT also failed in terms of philosophy, taking the whole of the Windows 8 Project with it. The principle of the project -- namely that the post-PC was getting it wrong and that people were desperately after a "PC Plus" -- has now been shown to be flawed.


You may think that Surface RT and Windows RT are just a tiny sliver of the Windows 8 Project.

To an extent that's correct if you look at the numbers, but what it has done is allow the market nine months to test whether the "bait" that Microsoft had been showing them was tasty and delicious enough to be worth jumping out of the water to get. And the market said that it was not.

What this means -- which is highly serious and highly worrying -- is that Microsoft does not have a product to compete with iPad or Android Jelly Bean tablets in the market at this point in time.

Let me say that again: "Microsoft does not have a product to compete with iPad or Android Jelly Bean tablets in the market at this point in time."

The market wants a 7"-8" device, with battery life measured in days, with absolutely zero complexity and no requirement of the user to undertake any cognitive loading at all. They also want a rich ecosystem of apps, and they want developers to be targeting their device as either the first or second most relevant. They want great support. They want a polished experience where they're not always waiting for the "version 3.0 to be the good one".

None of that described Windows in how we see it today in Windows 8 and devices that run them, which regardless of how clever the hinge and how touchable the screen remain PCs. And we should all eschew "jam tomorrow" on this. We're nearly a year in -- how long is it going to take Microsoft to get this right.

Consumerland doesn't care about jam tomorrow. Consumers don't make tactical, rational decisions based on deep industry understanding. They fancy a device and they go out and buy it. That process necessitates them having something to buy.

What now?

There's only really one way out of this -- Microsoft needs to abandon Windows on Consumerland tablets and get Nokia to build a 8" Windows Phone based tablet running on Windows Phone 8.

This lines up with how Apple and Google build their post-PC operating systems. It would also technically be ridiculously easy to do. Good prototypes of such things I am willing to guarantee exist in a lab somewhere.

But for Microsoft to make this happen, they'll have to admit one thing. 

Namely that Windows as a post-PC operating system is dead. 

Of course, Windows Phone and Windows operate on a converged "Windows NT core", and to an extent there is no difference between the two operating systems. What I'm talking about here is a philosophical difference.

The technology can be based on whatever Microsoft wants it to be based on, but the actual implementation/functionality alongside the marketing and messaging has to be different.

Microsoft has to stop selling Windows as a competitor to the iPad, and start selling Windows Phone as a competition to iPhone and iPad, and also as competition to Android smartphones and tablets.

Or to put it another way, if you're looking to compete in a market of oranges, maybe go out there with oranges, rather than try and convince people that they actually want lemons.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

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