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Windows 8: Last of the big bang consumer releases?

Microsoft launched its Windows 8 consumer beta and started the countdown to the launch of its latest operating system. What's unclear is whether anyone will care.

Every Windows release is haunted by the same question: Is this the end of the big bang release?

  • Windows 95 was a huge marketing event.
  • Windows XP saw sustained adoption.
  • Vista was a disaster.
  • Windows 7 fixed the Vista debacle and sparked a PC upgrade cycle among consumers and corporations.
  • And now there's Windows 8, which aims to unify Microsoft's flagship OS on the desktop and tablet.

CNET Reviews' Seth Rosenblatt calls Windows 8 "the most integrated and most capable operating system Microsoft has ever put out." ZDNet's Ed Bott has been testing Windows 8 Consumer on a tablet. He calls Windows 8 Microsoft's "most important software release in nearly two decades." The tech press chatter is generally positive.

On the surface, Windows 8 will be another big release for Microsoft. However, a lot has changed. There are no guarantees that Windows 8 will be a hit on tablets. The PC has been minimized in developed markets by the iPad and a bevy of mobile devices that increasingly can take on more computing tasks.

In emerging markets, it possible that the PC won't be the primary computing device. That reality is why Microsoft's Windows 8 is about mobile as much as it is the PC.

Ultimately, the Windows 8 launch reception will be a total guessing game. Here's a look at the items that will determine whether Windows 8 marks the end of the big bang Microsoft release:

  • Windows 8 may be too jarring for consumers. Windows 8 has a lot of interesting features. The Metro interface is well received. The problem: That interface is also swell on the Windows Phone platform. However, Windows Phone has little traction in the marketplace. Windows 8 may be like a movie that gets critical acclaim but doesn't fare well at the box office. Keep that movie analogy in your mind as you peruse a bevy of reviews or play with Windows 8 yourself.
  • Consumers may get a lot more mileage from Windows 7. Windows 7 is a fine OS. In fact, Windows 7 could become just like Windows XP---an OS that just keeps going and going with consumers. Given the uptake of Windows 7 an upgrade to Windows 8 is no slam dunk.
  • The tablet promise may not be realized. Windows 8's big theme is unifying the tablet and desktop. But it's unclear whether Windows tablets will be a hit. If Windows 8 tablets don't become popular---at least No. 2 in market share to Apple's iPad---Microsoft will be tethered to the PC.
  • Wallet share isn't infinite. Windows 8 faces more computing competition than ever before. Ultrabook or MacBook Air? iPad vs. laptop? Do you buy a PC or tablet? There's only so much consumer expendable income to be had. Given this financial reality, a Windows 8 laptop may compete directly with the iPad 3 in the future.

Windows 8 may be Microsoft's most important operating system in years, but consumer success isn't guaranteed by any stretch.