Microsoft's Windows 9: Much ado about little, given cloud shift

Windows 9 will be important---if only to put Windows 8 to bed---but could be the last of Microsoft's big bang OS releases if CEO Satya Nadella's cloud-centric plan works out well.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Microsoft will reportedly launch Windows 9 on September 30 and could ultimately be known as the last of the software giant's big bang operating system releases.

According to The Verge, Microsoft will feature "Threshold," or Windows 9 on Sept. 30. Mary Jo Foley reported last week that Microsoft would preview what will be Windows 9 later in September.

While the Windows 9 christening will kick off a march to a general public roll out in spring of 2015, it's worth outlining why the operating system is strategic today, but a mere transition product if you zoom out beyond two years.

Windows 9 is likely to be a mere bridge to Microsoft's big cloud and productivity strategy.

The Wall Street Journal asked whether Microsoft needed all the hubbub around Windows 9. The short answer is yes — for now.

In a short-term lens, Windows 9 is critical because:

  • Microsoft needs to put the Windows 8 launch to bed to get us talking about something other than Vista analogies;
  • The software giant needs to refine Windows to be both touch and non-touch friendly;
  • Windows needs to hook into Microsoft's platform and productivity mantra;
  • And Windows needs to lay the groundwork for a faster development cadence as well as a cloud approach.

In other words, Windows 9's codename Threshold is on target. Windows 9 is the bridge between Microsoft's past of big bang releases and a licensing model to one focused on the cloud, innovation that's easier to consume, and services.

Foley noted last week:

In a move that signals where Microsoft is heading on the "servicability" front, those who install the tech preview will need to agree to have subsequent monthly updates to it pushed to them automatically, sources added.

Should CEO Satya Nadella's master plan work out, a Windows 10 launch should be a quiet one. Why? We'll all simply pay Microsoft a $20-a-year subscription for updates, new features, and perhaps some online storage. Microsoft's Windows future could resemble a SaaS model with twice-a-year feature releases that serve as an onramp to other services.

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In the future, Microsoft will give us Windows (either free or at a nominal fee) and upsell us other services.

Let's get real: Microsoft's future is much more Office 365 and Azure than Windows. Subscriptions will trump paying Microsoft money for the privilege of installing the company's latest operating system. Windows needs to provide a good experience, but financially and strategically the OS will become less important over time.

Rest assured that Windows 9 will give us features that'll be enticing — assuming the hardware matches. The storyline will revolve around whether Windows 9 can be a Windows 7-like release that puts a previous clunker to bed. Yes, Windows 8.1 has cured a lot of ills, but a new release is needed for Microsoft to move on from what turned out to be a ballsy, but too bold user interface turn.

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I know what you're thinking: Who would subscribe to Windows? We all would. We're paying Dropbox, Box, Amazon and Google subscriptions as well as Microsoft. I'd pay Microsoft an annual fee if they could give me something fun like Cortana every six months. Meanwhile, incremental Windows would save me from the indigestion that comes with big bang releases.

As for the subscription model to Windows, consider the following:

  1. I subscribe to Windows releases annually. 
  2. The numbers---Windows 9, 10, 11---fade away because Windows is as easy as a browser update. 
  3. At some point where the hardware requirements change (perhaps every three years), Microsoft on its own stops charging me the subscription until I buy a new PC.

At $20 a year, Microsoft would net $60 over three years. For consumers who bought Windows XP and kept it for a decade that $60 in revenue over three years looks pretty good. That math is rough, but you get the idea. Microsoft's biggest issue going forward will be that big bang releases don't fly in a cloud-centric world. Incremental updates will trump kitchen sink applications and operating systems every time.

Windows 9 will hopefully be the last kitchen sink OS we get from Microsoft.


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