[UPDATED 10:45a PT] Two and a half years ago, Microsoft began mauling its Windows brand, which had barely recovered from the disaster that was Windows Vista. Windows 8 is loathed at least as much as Vista was, and this year's long series of update fiascos made Microsoft look more incompetent. The already low user adoption of Windows 8 has stalled and even declined.
Microsoft debuted Windows 8 to the horror of even Windows fans, introducing a new interface that confused users and made Windows harder to work with. As a result, most users have refused to budge from Windows XP or Windows 7.
Worse, Microsoft's "new Windows" design, aka Metro, did nothing to make Windows a meaningful operating system on tablets. Its Metro-only RT tablets died quickly from disinterest, and "full" Windows PCs, laptops, and hybrids have been essentially boycotted by businesses and suffered high return rates from individuals who didn't know what they were actually buying.
This tablet fiasco has left Apple's iPad the only serious tablet platform. (Even Microsoft has acknowledged that by releasing a competent version of Office for the iPad, but not for Metro.) As Windows users stick with the past, OS X users eagerly update their Macs with each new version, providing a dramatic contrast in the hearts and minds of the market.
We have other options: That's why Windows 10 matters
Windows has stalled and been sullied as the market is reassessing the role of the PC and tablet. The world has changed, and people no longer have to use Windows. OS X, iOS, and Android together now rival Windows market share, and they're growing whereas Windows is not.
Even conservative IT organizations will at some point have to move past Windows if Microsoft doesn't seriously change. You can invest in legacy only so long.
Today, Microsoft will detail some of its Windows 10 plans -- apparently, Microsoft even it knows Windows 8 was so bad that it had to skip a version number to put real distance between today's Windows and tomorrow's -- to a select group of reporters. InfoWorld was pointedly declined an invitation when we asked, likely due to our criticism of Windows 8 and our proposal to fix it, known as Windows Red -- though the leaks to date suggest that Microsoft may be implementing many of the common-sense fixes outlined in Windows Red.
If Microsoft makes the repairs suggested in Windows Red, that will stabilize Windows 8. But it won't grow Windows, which is a long-term problem for Microsoft. (And that in fact is what Microsoft described today: a repair to Windows 8 more than a stake in the ground for the future. However, there's more to be shown in the next six months.)
Windows 10 must go beyond the Windows we know today
The writers regularly in line for Microsoft leaks -- ZDnet's Mary Jo Foley and Ed Bott, as well as Windows Supersite's Paul Thurrott -- have suggested that Microsoft will start calling all its Windows versions simply Windows, removing the versioning scheme that reminds us of specific bad iterations. And Microsoft today said just that, so Windows Phone will be called Windows 10 as well, but not have the Windows 10 Desktop. That'll only work if the new version is really good. If it's more of the same, Microsoft will tar its entire platform.
Microsoft faces an existential dilemma with Windows: People are buying fewer PCs, and Windows doesn't work well on tablets. The Windows Phone version for smartphones has a nice UI, but it doesn't scale well to tablets and PCs -- as Windows 8 users will attest. The Windows Phone UI works best when you use few apps; it doesn't scale for rich usage environments. If you believe that mobile devices will become a primary platform, their operating systems have to scale for broad app usage.
I understand why Microsoft wants to move beyond Windows 7 -- it's a very dated operating system. Microsoft had hoped Metro would ultimately replace the old-style Windows Desktop, but it hasn't. As designed today, it really can't.
Microsoft could have updated Windows Desktop as Apple has done OS X, while pursuing a separate but related tablet and smartphone OS (Apple's iOS), then cross-pollinating the two every year for greater functional integration even with different UIs. Oh, wait, Microsoft tried that with Windows Phone and Metro -- poorly.
The good news is that Microsoft has had an execution problem across its multiple Windows versions -- and execution problems can be fixed.
The bad news is that Microsoft also has a strategic problem across its multiple Windows versions: There seems to be no strategy for how all the pieces work together now or in the future. Technologies are deployed haphazardly, seemingly without thought to the larger Windows ecosystem.
As a result, there is no Windows ecosystem equivalent to what Apple has created with iOS and OS X, nor as Google is now trying to build across Chrome, Android, and Chrome OS. Without an ecosystem goal, no amount of tactical fixes, name changes, or feature additions will matter. Windows will remain a collection of dissimilar products sharing a name. That's a sure path to more confusion and ultimate irrelevance.
Maybe it's too late for a compelling Windows ecosystem, so Microsoft needs to gracefully wind down Windows and focus on its Exchange, Office 365, and other services instead for the modern platforms like OS X, iOS, and Android. I don't believe we're there yet, but we're getting close. Ideally, we'd have a meaningful, compelling Windows ecosystem across the hundreds of millions of PCs that still are used today, plus across tablets and smartphones -- and we'd also have strong Microsoft apps and services that run well across competing ecosystems.
Apple is about the ecosystem, and Google is about the apps and services. Microsoft could play both games. But for the last several years, it's played neither well. It needs to pick one, or pick both. And this time, it must also take smart, meaningful action.
What Microsoft showed today doesn't feel like meaningful action. It feels like the obvious repairs that should have been made long ago. The company did say more is coming, that what it showed was early and not fully formed. I hope so, but I've heard that before from Redmond and been disappointed.