Microsoft 'bets the company' with Windows 8

Thursday, 15 November 2012 - 10:18am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

The software giant is risking all with its new Windows, says Matt Warman

Apple and Samsung might trade blows about whose phones have sold the most in an opening weekend, but their figures pale by comparison with the number of people who use the Windows operating system. Indeed, Windows 8 will roar past half a billion installations well within its first year.

Such trivia might make you think Windows 8 has been polished to within an inch of its life, but this is perhaps the most controversial release of Microsoft's most important product since the operating system first saw the light of day back in 1985.

That, however, is down to Apple. The ubiquitous touchscreens that are a consequence of the iPad and iPhone have proved a profound challenge to the keyboards and mice usually associated with computer operating systems, and with Windows 8, Microsoft has faced up to the challenge that some argued threatened its very existence.

So launching Windows 8 could not be more important: that's why Microsoft has accompanied it by the

first computer that it has made itself and also by a comprehensively integrated new version of its mobile phone software, called Windows Phone 8.

Chief executive Steve Ballmer admits that he is "betting the company" on a new approach.

That new tablet computer, the Surface, is genuinely innovative: where Apple made a clever folding cover for the iPad that also doubles as a stand, Microsoft went a step further and made the cover also act as a fully fledged keyboard.

Early next year, Microsoft will follow up the consumer-friendly Surface with a Pro version, which will feature Intel processors (the current lower-price RT Surface is built around the Arm processor, which uses a different architecture to the Intel chips and is optimised for mobile use). The Pro version will do everything a standard computer can do, including run all the software you need - the RT tablet's chip means that traditional programs won't run and need to be recompiled, hence the current slight dearth of applications for the Surface.

Despite sales initially being "modest", as Ballmer recently told a French newspaper, Surface is a fine tablet, beautifully made and looks likely to have a bright future. It is also, as Microsoft intends, likely to encourage drive innovation from other manufacturers such as Samsung, Asus, Sony and Acer.

At the heart of both the Surface and other Windows 8 devices is a new relationship with touchscreens. Where Microsoft has previously tweaked existing versions of Windows to accommodate, say, a stylus or a touch interface, with Windows 8, the interface has been reinvented.

Analysts at Gartner estimate that by 2015 there will still be 320 million Apple tablets to Google's 160 million and Microsoft's 100 million. It would be easy to claim that Microsoft is still lagging behind. But factor in the total figures for each OS, including tablets, phones and other platforms, and the figures look rather different:2.3?billion for Microsoft, the same for Google and just 1?billion for Apple. Microsoft is not going after the tablet market or the phone market - it's aiming to dominate the touchscreen world invented by Apple just as it dominates the desktop market at present.

Microsoft has therefore created an interface for both tablet and mobile phones that focuses on being both touch-friendly and providing the information you need without having to open any apps. This is based on live tiles: big, square, easy-to-read and to touch icons that display information such as your next appointment, friends' latest Facebook updates or tweets, the weather, how many new emails have landed, or the latest news headlines. Those tiles are used across all Microsoft's platforms, whether it's on a mobile made by Nokia, HTC or Samsung; a tablet or a laptop.

Although many are complaining that the new interface is confusing, the old familiar Windows 7-style desktop is just a click away. That's because many programs still live there, and it will fade in time as more software is written with the latest computers in mind.

This means that your phone or tablet will feel uniquely personalised: a Windows device is now useful at a glance, and thanks to Skydrive, its cloud service, the user can access their documents, pictures and music on the go. And if that sounds a bit like Apple's iCloud - it is like iCloud. But here, too, Microsoft is the underdog, and that's making the battle far more interesting than it has been for years. For once, Windows is the impressive David to Apple's Goliath.

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