Windows 9: Can Microsoft pull off another miracle?

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener: Computer makers have already started looking past Windows 8, as witnessed at CES 2014. Microsoft has a lot to do to put Windows 9 back in the win column.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

The executive frantically tapped several different keys on the svelte new laptop he was demonstrating, but nothing happened. The screen didn't change. He paused, started tapping furiously again. Still nothing.

"Wait just a second, let me go grab another machine," he said.

He sped into the other room and came back with an identical looker of the new laptop. With an exhale and a smile he launched back into his demo--the same spiel he'd given to countless journalists in his company's hospitality suite throughout the week at CES 2014.

He was back in the zone. And then, suddenly, it happened again. The screen totally froze. He was in a different part of the software but the same thing happened. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Nada.

The color drained from his face as he went into damage-control mode, speaking calmly and apologizing.

"It's Windows 8. What can you do?" I said and shrugged.

He said nothing. What could he say? His company had worked for over a year on product development on this, its next-generation flagship laptop. It was an extremely well-crafted device. Every edge was tapered beautifully. The new material on the cover looked and felt great. It was slimmer, faster, and ran longer on a single charge than any machine they'd ever made.

Unfortunately, it had an anchor weighing it down: Windows 8.

To be fair, I'm sure that machine made it through lots of demos at CES without Window 8 freezing up, so the fact that two machines froze up during a single demo was horribly unlucky. However, this machine's Windows 8 problems were a fitting symbol of the status of Windows 8 at CES 2014.

Windows 8 was everywhere and nowhere.

It powered lots of the latest PCs that were showcased across Central Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Intel had one of the largest, splashiest booths at the show and it sported gorgeous exhibits of the best PC hardware in the world in all kinds of different configurations, almost running Windows 8.

But, hardly any vendors were actually talking about Windows 8. Microsoft pulled out of CES a couple years ago, so it wasn't there to splash Windows 8 across the show. Intel focused totally on the hardware. HP's biggest news of the show was a line of Android-powered PCs. Lenovo also announced an Android-powered PC and with its Windows machines it put the emphasis on its own software add-ons such as camera gestures and voice control. Toshiba made a big deal about announcing its first Google Chromebook and LG got a lot of attention for its new line of Google Chromebase all-in-one PCs.

Tech Pro Research on this topic: The desktop diehard's guide to making Windows 8 work like Windows 7Microsoft's latest mobile platforms bring back more business-friendly featuresMicrosoft enterprise primer on Office 365: Past, present, and future | Microsoft enterprise primer on Windows Azure networking | Intel's Haswell architecture: A tech guide | BYOD Business Strategies - Adoption Plans, Deployment Options, IT Concerns, and Cost Savings |

The bottom line is that computer makers were already looking past Windows 8 at CES. Of course, Microsoft now being in the hardware business with the Surface likely played into the Windows malaise. Whatever the case, it puts a lot of pressure on Microsoft to right the ship with Windows 9. They need to give computer makers something to rally around and give computer buyers a reason to replace that four year old laptop that's running Windows 7. Users and businesses need something that offers tangible benefits.

Windows 8 isn't it. And, while Windows 8.1 is better, it's not the answer either. The combination of the two have just barely cracked 10% market share in 18 months since Windows 8 launched. By comparison, Windows 7 had about 30% market share at this point in its history and has continued to grow to the point that it now has almost 50% market share in the Windows ecosystem.

Long-time Windows enthusiasts will argue that this isn't much of a surprise because the last six versions of Windows have alternated between a successful version accepted by the public and an unsuccessful version rejected by it. The argument goes...

Windows 98 was a success.
Windows Millenium Edition (Me) was a failure.
Windows XP was a success.
Windows Vista was a failure.
Windows 7 was a success.
Windows 8 was a failure.
Windows 9 ... ?

So, this line of thinking goes that Microsoft will naturally gets things back on track with Windows 9. However, that's far from a sure thing. To get there, Microsoft will likely have to backtrack on forcing the tiled Modern UI on users in such a draconian way--in much the same way that Microsoft had to backtrack on Trusted Computing in Vista because it popped up security warnings so often that users eventually just tuned them out and clicked "Okay" every time.

In both cases, Microsoft overcompensated for major challenges that Windows was facing. For Vista, it was dealing with the massive security problems that had led earlier versions of Windows to become a repeated target for high-profile viruses and malware during the early 2000s. For Windows 8, it was dealing with the threat that tablets like the iPad were eating the bottom out of the PC market.

Microsoft failed the average user in both cases by not coming up with a solution that was easy enough to navigate. Both Vista and Windows 8 confused and frustrated too many users. IT departments recognized it right away, and as a result, small businesses and enterprises opted out.

While Windows 8 has a small legion of fans, the adoption numbers show that mainstream Windows users as well as businesses have rejected it. We regularly hear stories from ZDNet and TechRepublic readers that add context to that story.

We hear from consultants who tell us they have been extremely busy for the past 18 months because so many small businesses have bought Windows 8 machines and asked them to come in and install Windows 7 over the top. We hear from enterprise IT leaders who say they have no plans to put any of their employee machines on Windows 8 because there's no added value for the average desktop or laptop user. We hear from long-time Windows fans who eagerly bought a hybrid machine like the Microsoft Surface or the Dell XPS 11 or the Lenovo Yoga and have been more frustrated than empowered by the experience of going back and forth between the tablet and computer modes.

In fact, one of the executives we met at CES worked for a partner of one of the computer giants. He repeated a similar story. Recently bought a new hybrid machine. Was really excited about it. However, he admitted that switching back and forth between the tablet and laptop modes was a lot less intuitive than he expected. He was disappointed. And now, he's stuck with the machine.

These are the converted. These are people already pre-disposed to sticking around the Windows ecosystem, and too many of them are having a hard time buying in. These are the people Microsoft has to satisfy with Windows 9.

In streamlining, simplifying, and cleaning up Windows Vista and turning it into Windows 7, Microsoft did a remarkable job. We shouldn't underestimate that. But, we should also recognize it as a brilliantly-executed strategic retreat.

In Windows 9, Microsoft will likely need to make another retreat. It will need to renew some of its focus on the standard desktop and laptop users that remain its core user base. It will need to focus on the things it can do to make their work easier, faster, and more productive. Yes, that will likely mean integrating multi-touch, camera gestures, and voice recognition in smart ways. But, Microsoft has to do it without forcing new interface concepts on users in places where it doesn't necessarily add anything, and sometimes even forces extra complexity.

That's a big task. It's a bigger task than what the company had to do between Vista and Windows 7, and that was a miraculous turnaround. Don't underestimate Microsoft in this, but don't underestimate the size of the task, either.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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