How Microsoft will change forever and thrive again

As PC prospects decline, the tech giant moves toward a hybrid, cross-platform future with opportunities in the server closet and the cloud

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Granted, it's still early, but all signs point to Windows 8 not having the kind of momentum needed. The larger question: Does Microsoft need Windows 7-level momentum to justify the changes to Windows 8? Especially given that what's under the hood in Windows 8 is what stands to make the most difference.

It's a mistake to assume any one Microsoft product constitutes a long-term strategy. Together they are incarnations of the bigger picture, one in which Microsoft gradually -- if painfully -- shrugs off its legacy Win32 shackles.

It's the platform(s), stupid

Put into context, Windows 8 matters most in relation to Microsoft's new software foundation strategy: WinRT. At least that's the take of Forrester analysts John R. Rymer and Jeffrey S. Hammond in their report, "The Future Of Microsoft .Net: New Options, New Choices, New Risks."

Windows 8 users know WinRT as the foundation that powers the Modern UI side of Windows 8. It was designed to create software that runs efficiently across all the platforms Microsoft knows it needs to make a showing on now: desktops, notebooks, tablets, smartphones, even the server back end.

Microsoft knows that ditching its existing investment in Win32 is unwise, but it would be no less unwise to ignore a market that is only getting bigger. To that end, WinRT flanks the old-school Win32 APIs without replacing them -- at first anyway.

Moving Windows to ARM by itself hasn't been the big obstacle; the grandfather of the current version of Windows, Windows NT, has a history of running on non-Intel hardware (MIPS, PowerPC). The hard part is creating a software ecosystem to run in that environment. Modern UI apps found in the Windows 8 app store are the first wave of this tide.

In other words, Windows 8 has been less about making a smash hit and more about introducing users and developers to the first iteration of a software platform designed to span multiple domains.

Microsoft on mobile: Phoning it in

If this long-term strategy is to succeed, Microsoft must improve its presence in the mobile phone market, via Windows Phone 8 and its attendant devices.

Microsoft's hurdles in mobile go beyond competition from Google (and its hardware partners), Apple, and even BlackBerry. They also include the stigma of having failed to capture any major mind share with any previous attempt at mobile. Most of Microsoft's success in the mobile realm has come from providing the back ends -- Exchange Server, for instance -- accessed by devices that have run anything but a Microsoft OS. Few and far between are the corporations that view Microsoft as a major force in mobile, Forrester's Rymer and Hammond contend.

Some of that is certainly the bad taste left by Microsoft's previous forays into mobile. Windows Phone 7 debuted to poor reviews and minimal sales in 2010, and those who committed to it were given short shrift by Microsoft's delaying upgrades for the platform until 2013. Worse, Microsoft has more to lose now than ever, with other mobile players capitalizing on the rising BYOD trend. (When IDC surveyed information workers for a 2011 Unisys-sponsored survey about the mobile devices they brought into the workplace as part of their company's BYOD practices, Windows Phone wasn't even on the list.)

The company's hardware strategy for Windows Phone 8 has fallen somewhere between the exclusivity of Apple and the broad inclusivity of Android: Microsoft picked an exclusive list of vendors willing to follow exacting specifications for Windows 8, then worked closely with them.

The result? A rocky road for everyone involved. Nokia is seen as a troubled company that still plans to cut 10,000 jobs by the end of 2013, and HTC, though ranked as the fourth-largest smartphone vendor globally, has yet to achieve major name recognition. Samsung only just now released its Windows Phone 8-powered Ativ S and is far more aggressive in promoting its existing and future Android phones with memorable (if not always practical) form factors, such as the Galaxy Note.

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