The Windows 8 doomsday scenario

Two and a half decades is a long time to lead any segment of the enterprise technology business. Is the clock running out for Microsoft?

Unless you've been sitting in a windowless data center for the past year, staring at the blinking lights and shunning a Web browser, you've probably noticed that not very many people are holding out hope for Windows 8's success. In fact, many quite knowledgeable people are fairly shocked that the Redmond giant is not wavering in the face of nearly universal disdain for the upcoming release of its flagship product. I mean, when even your friends point out your potentially gargantuan mistake, it's a good time to listen.

Then again, everyone laughed at the iPhone and the iPad, and look what happened there. Of course, it could be that the iPhone and iPad were actually compelling products with extremely well-designed interfaces and an amazingly well-thought-out ecosystem behind them. But this is Microsoft we're talking about.

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We might see any of a number of different scenarios play out in the next six to 12 months. One is that Windows 8 will be a roaring success, smashing all kinds of sales records and vanquishing XP, Vista, and Windows 7 to the scrap heap. No, I don't think so either.

A second is that Windows 8 does as well as Windows 7, not burning down the house, but quickly becoming a generally accepted and lauded OS that provides Microsoft with a nice win and its first back-to-back OS successes. This, sadly, is equally unlikely.

A third scenario is that Windows 8 follows the path of Vista, which is to say it's fairly horrible, leading organizations that quickly jump on it to regret the decision later -- just as Vista's early adopters soon realized that they had to do it all over again because Windows 7 showed up and actually worked. Microsoft's inertia being what it is, this is the most likely scenario. Believe me, those who hopped on Vista won't be doing the same for Windows 8. They'll be waiting for the next release. Once bitten, after all.

A fourth scenario: Windows 8 ultimately costs Microsoft the farm. I can imagine the meetings that were held in Redmond where executives, designers, and engineers discussed how the next version of Windows should look. I suppose that someone was fervently pushing the idea of bringing a common UI to all devices: tablets, smartphones, and the PC. By getting this common UI philosophy into the brains of consumer and corporation alike, it would be a huge win, and not just along the lines of what Apple has done, but actually a step further in some respects. However, they missed a key element that Apple did not: Make the UI equally usable and elegant for all of those hardware platforms.

I expect plenty of people in those meetings argued that the traditional Start button should remain available, and there should be a "classic" mode to allow longtime Windows users to feel at home. Those reasonable people were outvoted, presumably due to the misguided thinking that if Microsoft offered a way back, then too many users would stick with the old and the whole Metro push would fail. Frankly, it's probably true that most people would cling to a classic desktop, but they'd have Metro available to them as well.

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