The preview version of Microsoft’s new Windows 8 operating system became available for
downloading on Wednesday, and it’s already exciting some tech critics.
But it’s only an ingredient of the products that will determine whether Microsoft has finally
figured out how to get its act together against the iPad.
Most people will meet Microsoft’s new software on the tablets and other hardware products
that will ship later this year. At an event at a mobile conference in Barcelona on Wednesday,
Microsoft gave hints of what actual Windows 8 devices will look like, especially tablets.
Among the array of devices Microsoft executives showed on Wednesday running the software were a
lot of prototypes of Windows 8 hardware, along with computers designed originally for Windows 7,
an older version of Microsoft’s operating system (the IdeaPad Yoga, a Windows 8 laptop announced by
Lenovo earlier this year that can convert into a tablet, is one exception).
However exciting Windows 8 software may be, the world will still have to wait to see whether
Microsoft’s hardware partners will be able to produce devices as alluring in their styling as the iPad,
with touch-screens that are lightning fast in their responsiveness and everlasting batteries —
all of it packaged together at a price affordable to more than just one-percenters.
There is a cautionary tale for Windows 8 in Microsoft’s recent history.
When Microsoft released Windows Phone, a completely overhauled version of its operating system
for smartphones, in early 2010, many tech critics raved about the software. It had a strikingly
different look and feel from Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android (that same interface has heavily
influenced the look of Windows 8). But when the actual smartphones running the software went on
sale late that year, there was nothing special about them or the Windows Phone gadgets that followed.
Sales were a big disappointment to Microsoft.
It wasn’t until January of this year that a nearly finished Windows Phone device was shown that seemed
to live up to the promise of the software, Nokia’s Lumia 900. Even now, it’s not clear whether that
product will justify the enthusiasm some have shown for it since it still has not gone on sale.
Apple does things differently. It tends to announce new devices and then shuffle them onto store
shelves within weeks, if not hours, to maximize sales after the huge exposure it receives at
product announcements. This is a lot easier, of course, because Apple makes its own software,
hardware and has hundreds of its own stores.
In the computer business that Microsoft comes from, there’s a long tradition of talking about
operating systems long before they ship, sometimes way too long, because of the need to get
independent software developers and hardware makers excited about the new software.
Even Apple, in a deviation from the way it announces its new devices, begins talking about
new versions of its computer operating systems months ahead of their release,
including the recently announced Mountain Lion.
Michael Mace, a former marketing executive at Apple and Palm, says one big reason for not showing
hardware products until they are done or nearly finished is that doing so tends to freeze the sales
of current products. Although announcing an operating system early can have the same effect,
hardware bought before the new software is released can often be upgraded later with the new code.
“When you preview hardware, you have to be as close as possible to shipment,” Mr. Mace said.
“That’s why Apple gets so twitchy about secrecy.”
One new twist for Microsoft and its hardware partners is that Apple is expected to unveil a
new iPad next week in San Francisco. That device, not the current iPad, will set the new bar for
Windows 8 tablets when they come out.