Windows 8 was released last October, and some of the early reviews were more memorable than fair. One critic called it "a Christmas gift for someone you hate." Microsoft's
(NASDAQ:MSFT) new product "is like this giant sadness," said gaming executive Gabe Newell, and Google
(NASDAQ:GOOG) search autocomplete suggestions compared it to "a bad blind date." The comment sections of tech blogs were similarly lacking in holiday spirit. People talk about Windows the way they talk about Congress, and for basically the same reason. No one likes a compromise.
Incidentally, not all of the reviews were negative. CNN called Windows 8 "big, beautiful, slightly shaky." PCWorld rated it 4 out of 5, and TechRadar said it "shines." Nearly 30% of Amazon
(NASDAQ:AMZN) users have given it one star, but 40% have given it five.
Windows 8 is, in a word, controversial. That's not surprising. Microsoft was bound to ruffle a few feathers by placing an emphasis on touchscreens when most of its customers still use keyboards and mice. By expanding the reach of its flagship operating system, and attempting to bridge the gap between PC and post-PC devices, the company is also defying Apple's
(NASDAQ:AAPL) more segregated model
-- not necessarily a popular move. Popularity has never been the key to Microsoft's success, though, and its future won't depend on incremental gains in a desktop/laptop market it already owns. Windows 8 had one real purpose: to get onto tablets. For years, PC manufacturers have been beating at the gates of mobile computing, experimenting with more portable designs like Netbooks and Ultrabooks and finding only limited success. This was to be the trojan horse
than got them in.
So far, it's a success. "The focus on touch-based computing in Windows 8 is huge," says the Verge. It's "easily among the best tablet user interfaces I've ever tried," says AnandTech. Windows 8 may be disliked by traditional users -- many of whom will, most likely, continue using Windows 7 -- but Microsoft has created a compelling alternative for a tablet market that's currently split between Google's Android and Apple's iOS.
PC manufacturers have yet to figure out what Windows 8 designs will sell, or at what price, but they understand the importance of getting this right. Large firms like IBM
(NYSE:IBM) and Dell
(NASDAQ:DELL) risk losing ground to smaller innovators like Lenovo
(PINK:LNVGY) and Asus
(PINK:AKCPF), and the entire ecosystem is threatened by the growth in ultra mobile devices like the iPad. If the PC dies
, they die with it. And so, collectively, they're trying something new.
That may be the most controversial thing about Windows 8. In the post-PC narrative, the personal computer isn't supposed to fight back
. It's supposed to become obsolete; to be absorbed into the Cloud, or replaced by the little gadgets we play Angry Birds
on. Wild applause greets each new permutation
of the iPad/iPhone, while every attempt to redesign the PC is met with head-scratching. The tech world has become as fixated today with mobility as it was a decade ago with megahertz.
There is a fundamental difference, though, between handheld devices that we all use for the same thing -- Twitter, YouTube, Google maps -- and machines that we customize and use differently. How many of the PCs sold each year are intended to run enterprise software, trade applications, or video games that most of us will never hear of? Versatility makes these computers useful, but it also makes that usefulness more specialized, le
ss visible -- and less sexy. With Windows 8, Microsoft is arguing that there are uses for a truly adaptable touchscreen machine, even if we can't envision what they are.
The company has produced a few tablets to try and prove it. The Surface RT is largely indistinguishable from the competition, but the Surface Pro is something different. Like Windows 8, it is a compromise -- a marriage between a tablet and a PC -- and it, too, evoked some negative reactions
when it was announced last year. The Pro doesn't compare favorably to other tablets on battery life, and its price/performance is not great for a PC. But these comparisons miss the point. Microsoft has never made the best products, just the ones that imposed the fewest restrictions. By combining performance with iPad-like portability, the company has produced what might be the most versatile digital device currently on the market. You can do practically anything with it -- that is, until its battery dies.
The real test will come once more products like the Surface Pro are available, and when metrics like battery life have improved to the point where they are competing on their merits rather than their shortcomings. We will also, over the next few months and years, find out what other doors have been opened with the introduction of Windows 8 as manufacturers experiment with new form factors like the table PC
(pictured above.) Whether you love what Microsoft is doing or hate it, there's no denying it's exciting.
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