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Microsoft’s last Window of hope

Deepa Kurup
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A lot at stake:While techies at Microsoft are visibly excited about Windows 8, the hard truth is that the company needs this product to succeed not only to remain relevant, but also to resuscitate its market value.— Photo: Reuters
A lot at stake:While techies at Microsoft are visibly excited about Windows 8, the hard truth is that the company needs this product to succeed not only to remain relevant, but also to resuscitate its market value.— Photo: Reuters

The past decade saw Microsoft Corporation, the company that two decades ago gave us the proprietary Windows operating system, take a nose dive — from being the market leader to losing out in one tech area after the other (search, social networking, email, music and mobility).

A late entrant into the mobility game, where globally tablets have been replacing the good old personal computer, Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 8, is its last-ditch attempt at reclaiming the space it has yielded over the years to its tech rivals, Apple Inc. and Google Inc.

This release, slated for October 26, represents a major rethink for the software major, one that acknowledges the tectonic shift in technological choice: from desktops, then laptops to tablets and smartphones.

First impressions look good. At the Windows AppFest that Microsoft organised in Bangalore in an attempt to build traction around the upcoming release, Microsoft gave journalists a detailed demo of Windows 8. We tried out Windows on tablets as well as desktops, but the news is that there’s no difference — it’s one OS that fits both (unlike Apple that has iOS and OS X, and Google that’s building Chrome for netbooks and has Android for mobile).

There’s no doubt that the interfaces are slick, smooth and offer a lot of scope to organise. It’s quite intuitive, and going by what they show of the user experience, it’s an attempt to blur the line between the traditional desktop and tablet experience. It is packed with new features and, understandably, there’s a learning curve, but it is all quite interesting.

The main feature of the new look is that the entire user interface is arranged into neat tiles. These tiles, that are grouped together (you can change the grouping to suit your usage style) represent different services and applications. This interface resembles Metro, its Windows Phone interface where it is called ‘Live Tiles’. Under the tiles you can view live updates for each of your services.

The other big-ticket technological offering is integration with the cloud and social media. The Microsoft executive giving the demo spent a lot of time on photo-sharing features, and on how the new feature set makes updating or connecting with friends on multiple social networks or email clients easy. At the media interactions, top India leaders described the product as a “radical game-changer”.

One of them even compared it to Windows 95, which introduced 32-bit computing to home PCs and represented a “generation shift” in computing.

While techies at Microsoft are visibly excited, the hard truth is that Microsoft needs this product to succeed not only in order to remain relevant but also to resuscitate its market value. In July this year, Microsoft reported its first quarterly loss, a net loss of $492 million. This is the first time the corporation saw net profits dip after it went public in 1986.

While some of this had to do with the grim market environment, a lot of this is expected given that personal computer sales have been stagnant for a few years now, and registered a decline in recent quarters. Analysts have also been harping on that unless Microsoft comes up with a product that’s a real game-changer, it can barely hope to catch up with its adversaries. Microsoft also hopes that the new touch-friendly product will make some impact among enterprise clients, where its major revenues lie.

Slip-on keyboard?

It’s also being widely reported that tablets being shipped with Windows 8 are planning on offering snap-on keyboards. This will mark a shift from the ‘touch-only’ approach to computing, and several hardware biggies including Samsung, HP and Acer are set to do this.

Tablet makers perhaps hope that this add-on could wean consumers away from Apple’s iPad, which remains a market leader in this segment. This detachable keyboard, which was part of the demo equipment shown here, is sleek and goes well with the device design.

Samsung’s already demoed a new version of Slate, which runs on Windows 8 and will hit the market on the same date as Windows 8. This keyboard costs a little less than $ 100, which seems to be a good bargain for those who still struggle with typing on touch, or feel they’d like it if their tablets could double as more traditional computing devices.

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