The company is upending Windows to get back in the game, which is now centered on mobile devices. It won't overtake Apple or Google, but it will apply its money, developers, and persistence to winning.
Steve Ballmer and his lieutenants have been planning for this day for years. On October 26, Windows 8 officially goes on sale, and Microsoft is back in the game. For several years, Microsoft has been a wallflower, watching as Apple, Google, and others executed on the shift from desktop to mobile and the cloud. That's not to say business was bad for Microsoft. The company has held a 95 percent share of the desktop market, and its enterprise and Xbox businesses are strong. But that's not where the puck, and future massive growth, is headed.
The future is in platforms, apps, and cloud services that seamlessly span devices, especially tablets and smartphones. With Windows 8, a product that has been in gestation since 2009, Microsoft may be making the biggest bet in its 37-year history. And as the debut of the new Windows nears, the company's top echelon is raising expectations of something big.
In praising Windows 8, none other than Bill Gates said that the new platform was "absolutely critical" to Microsoft and "key to where personal computing is going." Windows 8 provides a mostly unified platform that works across PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
In writing about the creation of Windows 8, Steven Sinofsky, who leads the Windows team, wrote, "Our vision for Windows 8 was to create a modern, fast and fluid user experience that defines the platform for the next decade of computing. One which upends the way conventional people think about tablets and laptops and the role of the devices they carry."
Indeed, Microsoft is upending Windows for the future. In past eras, Microsoft followed Apple's Macintosh user interface lead as it evolved Windows, which was first introduced in 1985. Over the next 25 years, Microsoft mostly built on the familiar user interaction habits of the past. But Windows 8 breaks from that past, implementing an innovative user interface that brings a relatively steep learning curve to more than a billion Windows users.
A recent Forrester Research forecast projected that Microsoft won't have anything near the kind of monopoly it had on the desktop in previous years. By 2016, Forrester expects that Microsoft will have about 27 percent of tablet sales and perhaps as much as 14 percent of smartphone sales. Windows will continue as the leading PC platform, while Apple's iOS and Google's Android will lead in the more fast-growing tablet and smartphone markets, respectively.
Forrester's forecast points to some good momentum for Microsoft over the next few years in its quest to address the lack of a mobile Windows platform. But Ballmer won't be satisfied being No. 2 or 3 in the critical tablet and smartphone categories, and needs the developer community to build apps that will ultimately make Windows 8 a more successful platform.
Gates and Ballmer have always used the number of developers and the quality of the apps supporting its platforms as measures of success. The company claims that it has 8 million developers and more than 640,000 partners worldwide. Without high-volume sales and adoption of Windows 8, those developers won't be as motivated to go to bat for Microsoft.
"We are going to get software developers behind this like we have with every new, big version of Windows," Gates said. "This is a big time for us."
At this juncture, Windows 8 will have more than 5,000 apps available in its online store. By comparison, both Apple's iOS and Google's Android have more than 700,000.
With Windows 8 just making its debut, it's uncertain how the market will respond to such a substantial departure from the past. It's clear that Microsoft is attempting to leapfrog, or at least, achieve more parity with, its tablet and smartphone competition.
With more than a billion Windows adherents, a marketing spend of around $1.5 billion, and dozens of new Windows 8 devices including its own highly touted Surface tablet/PC, Microsoft is just beginning to scale its latest mountain. And one cannot discount Microsoft's famous persistence in the face of Sisyphean tasks.
As Ballmer remarked in 2006 about the search business, "The bone doesn't fall out of our mouth easily. We may not be first, but we'll keep working and working and working and working and working...and it's the same with search. We'll keeping coming and coming and coming and coming and coming. We are irrepressible on this."
If Microsoft's investment in search over the last six years is any indication, the company will make slow but steady progress with Windows 8, unless Apple and Google stumble profoundly, which is not a likely scenario.
Watch this: Windows 8 leads with tiles, apps, sync -- and a learning curve, too