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Microsoft's big (unmentioned) problem with Windows 8

If past is prologue, shipping the new operating system on time will be a herculean challenge.

The new Windows 8 start screen
The new Windows 8 Start Screen Microsoft

Give Microsoft's spinmeisters credit for a job well done. They got the desired headlines out of this week's big developer conference where the company offered a long, detailed look at Windows 8. But the most important headline for application makers--and ultimately consumers--still remains unwritten: When will the product really ship?

If Microsoft holds to its traditional update schedule, Windows 8 should get penciled in for delivery sometime around the fall of next year. The idea being that operating system upgrades take place about every three years and this is just another entry in the corporate timeline. Um, not so fast, given Microsoft's history of failing to meet internal schedules. What's more, even if Microsoft does manage to ship by fall 2012, the calendar still gives the Apple and Android development projects a huge lead time to out-innovate Windows 8.

The Windows 8 preview isn't the first time that Microsoft has given developers an early look at a major upcoming product. Long-time Microsoft watcher Harry McCracken correctly recalled that Microsoft's management has a seemingly congenital propensity to blab about upcoming products. It's almost a defining tic that has developed over the decades to become part of Microsoft's corporate personality.

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That's in stark contrast to Apple, which guards its future technology plans with a jealous intensity. The PR payoff is that Apple doesn't get caught pre-announcing products that fail to ship on time. But that's a risk Microsoft has taken over its history, starting with the first version of Windows. Microsoft began chatting up journalists about Windows 1.0 in 1983, but the product only began shipping the operating system in 1985. Late 1985.

Turns out that the fiasco surrounding Win 1.0 was a harbinger. Slipped deadlines subsequently became a regular sideshow to the kabuki-like scenarios accompanying subsequent Windows upgrades. Tech writers would seize gleefully upon the earlier failed promises while Microsoft flacks would split hairs about what its execs really meant to say.

A good time was had by all, but it meant little in a PC-centric world where Windows remained the big kahuna. That's no longer the case. In this increasingly-iPhone/iPad/Google/Android/Twitter/tablet/Web computing universe, the old, slow-moving ways of doing things are as relevant as Marshal Zhukov's battle tactics in World War II.

That's a question all big tech companies have to grapple with these days, Microsoft more than any of them.

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