Microsoft, tablets, Windows 8 and the pull and push of history

Redmond's attitude towards tablets and its response to Windows 8 show the pressure that Microsoft is experiencing from two entirely different directions — the past and the future.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director on

The way Microsoft is responding to the competitive pressure created by the rise of tablets, and how it manages its customers' concerns around Windows 8, tells me an interesting story about how such a large organisation deals with a environment of rapid change. A company the size of Microsoft brings a lot of history to every decision, and this week that has played out in two different ways.

As part of an interview with CNBC at the weekend, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates talked a little about tablets.

"With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to gain market share in what has been dominated by the iPad-type device. But a lot of those users are frustrated. They can't type. They can't create documents, they don't have Office." Gates said

Now of course there's a danger in reading too much into a short comment, but mostly I don't think consumers are frustrated by their iPads or other tablets.

They don't want to type on a tablet, and they don't want to create documents. They want to watch movies, play games, Skype (or Facetime) with their friends and family.

Creating a spreadsheet is very low on their priorities, and if they need to use Office or some other productivity software, there's probably a dusty PC around in the background somewhere too (the tablet doesn't always replace the PC, but certainly de-emphasises it — which for Microsoft is almost as bad).

Gates went on to say: "So we're providing them something with the benefits they've seen that has made that a big category, but without giving up what they expect in a PC."

Consumer technology as embodied in the iPad is about consumption rather than creation. Now you may mourn the demise of the creative side of personal computing (in which case I'd suggest you buy a Raspberry Pi), but I don't sense that consumers feel they are "giving up" on anything when they use a tablet.

But if all you want to sell is PC software, everything looks like a PC. Historically that may have been true, but that's no longer the case.

Now, whereas with tablets I'd argue Microsoft's world view hasn't changed fast enough, the reception of Windows 8 reflects the other kind of pressure on Microsoft. When it comes to Windows 8, for some customers Microsoft can't move slowly enough. Take the Windows "Start" button.

Never have so many column inches been expended on the fate of such a tiny piece of real estate.

There has been lively discussion over the past few weeks around whether Microsoft can or should reinstate the start button or boot to desktop instead of the new tiled interface.

But if Microsoft were to do so, it would be creating an obstacle to its own ambitions. That's because it wants to become a services company, and Windows 8 is a transitional product — part legacy desktop, part cloud-facing "modern" interface. Turning back would be painful and would undermine the software giant's roadmap.

Microsoft is being buffeted by the pull and push of its own history — and its response to these pressures will define its future.

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