Microsoft's ambitious Windows 8 gamble may have launched this past October, but it's 2013 that will make or break the new operating system. I have five recommendations that Microsoft should implement sooner rather than later to keep Windows 8 from going the way of Vista.
Make the case for Windows RT
"That's right, it filets, it chops, it dices, slices, never stops, lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn, and it mows your lawn and it picks up the kids from school..." --Tom Waits, "Step Right Up"
Waits wasn't talking about Windows RT when he wrote and recorded "Step Right Up" in the mid-'80s, but he could've been. Microsoft wants the tablets that run the OS to be unifying devices that are portable like a tablet but powerful enough for the heavy lifting of Microsoft Office. Claiming that the OS can step up to that challenge, and actually proving that it can, are not the same thing.
Here's the problem with Windows RT: Even after writing, I still have problems clearly explaining what it is and why people should want it. It's "Windows 8 Lite," but it's so much more complex than that. Sure, the Surface is a nice piece of hardware, but besides its utility as a it's a hard sell.
I have a semibaked theory that Windows RT will become Windows 9, especially because of its ability to run on lower-powered, more secure ARM chips, but right now RT is closer to being the next Kin than the next Xbox.
Focus on apps
Though some Microsoft defenders point out that it took Google years to bulk up Android's app catalog to 500,000-plus titles, Redmond doesn't have that kind of time when it comes to Windows 8.
Windows is not some in-development mobile operating system; it's the mature senior statesman of the computing world. It's on more computers than any other OS, and that's not going to change anytime soon. We know Microsoft wants the world to move as quickly as possible to Windows 8 -- there's no other explanation for the soon-to-expire $39.99 upgrade and the push for new, interesting, touch-screen hardware.
While it's true that Windows 8 can run legacy software just fine in Desktop mode, Metro apps are what will sell people. Some good apps currently available demonstrate the possibilities of Metro, but they don't offer a compelling reason to change your entire work flow.
The strength of iOS is that Apple's operating system is the cleanest around. Android basks in the glow of Google's best apps and services, from Gmail to Goggles to Translate to search. The Windows 8 app experience has yet to be defined, which could benefit Microsoft in that it has an open canvas to paint on.
The bad? Don't expect competitors to look the other way as Microsoft refines its app pitch to developers.
Convertibles and hybrids need a Surface, too
The Surface hardware went a long way toward drumming up interest in Windows 8 and Windows RT, not to mention a lot of sturm und drang from Microsoft's hardware partners. While it could be interesting to see a Redmond-designed convertible or hybrid laptop, it's not strictly necessary. But what the burgeoning, occasionally confusing category does require is a hybrid or convertible that Microsoft can point to and exclaim to the public, "This!"
It may not want to, but right now all that we've seen are oversize tablet-tops with hinges. You can't easily tell people why they must have a new category of hardware without a signature device.
Wherefore art thou, settings and preferences?
Settings aren't sexy, but they shouldn't be confusing, either. Microsoft ought to make some decisions, and fast, about cleaning up the confusing mess of its under-the-hood options.
Sometimes they're behind the Settings charm in Metro. Other times they're buried in some Desktop mode window. Currently, I find it easiest to simply start typing for what I'm looking for, and let the powerful search tool do the hard work. But if Microsoft wants Windows 8 to have long-standing appeal for nonexperts, it's going to have to demystify this stuff.
Get people and businesses excited about Windows 8
Microsoft has done itself a great disservice by coming up with a fairly interesting, unique approach to the ecosystem problem, and then letting substandard marketing heighten people's questions and uncertainties.
Solving the above problems alone won't work without helping people realize what's so great about Windows 8. And without the massive license buys that businesses can provide, Windows 8 will struggle in a consumer marketplace that is increasingly turning to Macs to solve its problems.
How Microsoft can best do that I'll leave to greater marketing minds than myself. On some level, though, it would seem easiest to have compelling hardware that people want to use. The interest in the Surface is a step in the right direction, just as Samsung's Galaxy S3 and Google's Nexus 7 did wonders for Android. Maybe there's a killer "laptablet" coming at the beginning of next year, but there's little doubt that Windows 8 has a hard path to trek in 2013.