Windows 8: Too little, too late?

Microsoft has unveiled Windows 8 OS -- and it looks a lot like Windows Phone 7 on steroids. But by the time Win8 actually appears, will anyone still care?

Microsoft has loosened the sash on its kimono and given us a flash of what Windows 8 will look like. And the answer is...

Sorry, just lost my train of thought. What was I saying? Winwhat? Oh, right. That old desktop operating system. I remember it now.

Microsoft has posted the first of what will be a series of videos previewing the next version of its flagship OS -- what it calls the "re-imagining of Windows."

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Forget PCs. Though Win8 can run on a desktop with a keyboard and a mouse, it's very much oriented toward your fingers. Think touchscreen tablet. Actually, think Windows Phone 7 on steroids. Instead of six colorful tiles you tap to get at your games, apps, email, Facebook, and so on, you get nine at a time (an increase of 50 percent!).

The tiles are live, so they update automatically when, say, there's a new email or tweet you need to ignore. There's a feature called Snap that lets you "snap" one app into place next to another app. To cycle quickly through your open apps, just swipe your finger to the left. To open the control panel, drag your finger up from the bottom. And so on.

It will run all your old Windows 7 programs, plus a plethora of new apps they plan to build just for Win8. And it will work with low-power ARM processors as well as the usual Intel and AMD suspects.

Is Win8 a radical departure from previous desktop versions of Windows? Yes. Does it look cool and groovy. Yes. Is this just a demo? Yes. Then again, Microsoft managed to make Vista look cool and groovy in the demo.

Remember "The Wow starts now?" The Wow never started. The Wow was a cow.

Microsoft's problem is this: Even if Win8 ends up being great, it's probably too little, too late for most of us. Microsoft stopped steering the tech innovation train a looooong time ago. It's spent the last 10 years riding in the caboose. Now it's outside the train, running as fast as it can to catch up. Windows 8 won't change that.

This is hardly a rare sentiment. When Google chair Eric Schmidt named the four companies driving the future of technology at the All Things Digital confab yesterday, one name was conspicuously missing.

Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are on his short list. Microsoft? Just a distant, albeit painful, memory.

It gets worse. Pressed to name numbers five and six on his list, Schmidt gives a shout out to PayPal and Twitter.

My guess: Microsoft does not crack Schmidt's top 10. Or maybe his top 20.

Per the Pockmarked One: "Microsoft is not driving the consumer revolution. They've done a very good job of getting them locked in on the corporate side."

Of course, he's right. Microsoft will continue to be relevant to large organizations, just as IBM is. Big Blue still makes billions of dollars off mainframes and minicomputers, as Microsoft is likely to continue to squeeze billions out of its enterprise businesses for years to come.

But on the consumer/mobile side of tech, where all the heat is being generated, Microsoft is as lively and vibrant as the surface of Mars. There may have been life there once. If we keep looking closely for it we may yet find evidence of it.

So Microsoft has finally joined the tablet revolution. That's good. By the time we see tabs built around Win8, the iPad will be on its third iteration, if not its fourth, and there will be another 247 Android tablets crowding the market, as well as who knows how many BlackBerry and HP Palm-based models.

Then the only question will be: Will Microsoft market Win8 tabs as tablet PCs to save us from our tablet PCs?

Would you buy a Windows 8 machine, and if so, why? Weigh in below or email me:

This article, "Windows 8: Too little, too late?," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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