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"
Tom 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 CNET's FAQ on Windows RT, 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 complex than that. Sure, the Surface is a nice piece of hardware, but besides its utility as a tablet-and-skateboard combo it's a hard sell.
I have a semi-baked 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
While some Microsoft defenders point out that Google took years to get Android to reach its current 500,000-strong app catalog, Redmond doesn't have that luxury with 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 that 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.
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!"
They 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.
Wherefor 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 to non-experts, it's going to have to de-mystify this stuff.
Windows 8 has opens some settings from the Charm bar in the new Metro-styled interface, but others open in Desktop mode.
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 their 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 in the beginning of next year, but there's little doubt that Windows 8 has a hard path to trek in 2013.
If you liked this article, subscribe to the feed by clicking the image below to keep informed about new contents of the blog: