Microsoft needs that Friday feeling

Tuesday 23 October 2012 12.26
Microsoft to unveil Windows 8 on Friday
Microsoft to unveil Windows 8 on Friday

This Friday, 26 October, the wait will finally be over as thousands of personal computer users the world over, who queued for midnight store openings get their fevered hands on Window 8 - Microsoft's latest, arguably boldest, operating system yet. 

Software sales will be brisk and the quick pre-order sell-out of the first round of Windows RT (Win 8's little sister) tablets will be matched over the coming days by massive demand for a range of slates, all-in-one PCs and ultrabooks from HP, Lenovo, Dell, Acer and Asus (in that order).

Even embattled mobile phone manufacturer Nokia will see a bump in sales of its beleaguered smartphone business as Windows Phone 8 seeks to push Microsoft's reimagined mobile offering into double digit market share.

Retailers will be happy, manufacturers will be happy, Microsoft will be happy. Heck, even a lot of CIOs, primed for the release after a lengthy charm offensive, will be glad they opted to wait on enterprise-friendly Windows Surface tablets rather than cede to employer demands to put their iPad or Android alternative on the company network.

At least, that's the plan.

I'm exaggerating for effect, but not by much. Put simply, there has been so much invested in Windows 8 that, like it or not, this is the new face of PC computing. This makes the absence of a strong play for the consumer space so frustrating. And here our troubles begin.

On sitting down to write this piece I found myself unable to remember a single thing about the marketing push behind Windows 8. Having tracked the story since the first viral video of the Windows 8 UI (nee Metro) I'm baffled that the TV ad campaign only began in earnest in the US last week. I have yet to see anything on the domestic airwaves, print or radio to promote the release. Nor have I seen much from OEMs, distributors, retailers or any of the major players who need this release to work. If ever there was a 'get out and push' moment for the PC industry this is it.

The figures on the state of the PC industry do not pain a pretty picture. Globally, third quarter 2012 sales of PCs are down 8.3% on the same period in 2011. At the top of the market Lenovo has caught up to HP and looks set to become the top PC manufacturer by the end of the year. The other players in the Top 5 OEMs - Dell, Acer and Asus - are just about holding their own. Dell's enterprise business is picking up the slack from a declining consumer market, while Acer has turned a third quarter 2011 loss into a profit over the same time this year.

Chip manufacturers, however, are telling a different story. Despite powering the bulk of machines Windows 8 will be running, Intel made a loss of $500m in Q3. Not far behind it is rival AMD, who made a loss of $157m over the same period and are about to cut its workforce by 10%.

In mobile, Nokia had another nightmare quarter, losing $969m, despite making $7.2 billion in sales. Still, it's not all bad news from a Microsoft perspective. Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility shows no sign of being a canny investment - the company is set to put another thumping big hole in the search giant's balance sheet with an operating loss of $527m.

In the context of a market that has effectively flatlined, hopefully in anticipation of a strong opening week and Christmas sales a revamped Windows with good word of mouth will be a boon to the industry.

But will word of mouth be good? My colleague Paul Hearns wrote about his experience of Windows 8 so far and I agree with his assessment. As a means of introducing ultraportable computing to the workplace, the desktop replacement Surface tablet works well in a dual-screen environment and trumps ultrabooks in user experience. However, what works with an early adopter audience that expects everything to be touch-enabled will not have the same cache with a consumer audience used to a certain style. And make no mistake; Windows 8 is aimed at consumers - especially those who have been wowed by iOS and Android.

Windows 7 was a great solution to an awful problem - Windows Vista. The problem Windows 8 seeks to solve - how to integrate touch functionality to the desktop and mount a challenge to mobile alternatives - is a developer conundrum, not a pain point for consumers. What's more, Windows 7 works. As an operating system, Windows 7 is well-served and enjoyed by 40% of PC users worldwide, compared to 6.6% for Vista and 21.23% for XP, according to Wikimedia. That's a lot of satisfied customers.

What to expect come Friday? An industry expects. The market will shrug its shoulders.

Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie