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Microsoft Windows 8

Owen Williams asks Why can’t Microsoft get products right on the first try? He talks about problems with recent products which mean following a big launch with a series of fixes.

It’s a good question. I’ve followed Microsoft for 30 years and have some insight into this.

This is how the software giant has always done things. It didn’t matter when the company had an effective monopoly. Customers, business partners and the whole damn world had no choice but to stumble along behind Microsoft.

Believe it or not, things are better now. Remember how it took until version 3.1 for Windows to be usable? That period ran from 1985 until 1992.

Sloppy was fine when Microsoft’s competitors were dolts. Today the company is up against sharp opposition who leave no leeway. Stumbling towards getting products right no longer works.

Despite turning over US$75 billion a year and thousands of employees, Microsoft is unable to focus. It’s a company that can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

I put that down to poor top leadership which in turn means an out of touch old-fashioned structure where the various parts of the company compete with each other for resources and top management attention. This automatically ensures the various parts don’t join up.

Microsoft won’t go away – at least not in the short term – but it is sleepwalking toward irrelevance. The market won’t forgive many more stumbles.

Microsoft Touch Mouse
Microsoft Touch Mouse

When looking at Microsoft’s Touch Mouse last year I said the device: “Adds some of the advantages of touch screens to everyday Windows 7 PCs”. That’s doubly true when using the mouse with the touch-focused Windows 8.

Touch gestures which felt a little forced with Windows 7 are an part of Windows 8. They’re still not natural, not yet, but I’m getting there.

The Touch Mouse makes navigating Windows 8 easier.  It detects multiple touches – slide three fingers forward across the mouse and the current Windows will zoom, slide them back and the display zooms out. Slide two fingers to the left to open the Windows 8 charms, slide them to the right to switch apps.  One finger will scrolls the screen up and down or left to right.

Flicking your thumb up and down acts like back and forth buttons when using a browser – this is the most clumsy gesture and doesn’t always work for me.

In use the mouse is responsive most of the time – but not always. This gets confusing when gestures don’t necessarily trigger events as expected. I’ve noticed on occasion the mouse stops working altogether for a moment or two.

In practice I find I used the one finger touch scroll features all the time – I have to consciously think before using the other gestures and still often use alt-tab or control-table to move between Windows.

The Touch Mouse still isn’t perfect. It chews through batteries. I do better than the one set per week I whinged about last year – but not hugely better. I’m on my third set of batteries after using the mouse for a little over a month. On the other hand, you can pick the touch mouse up for around $50 which is way cheaper than buying a new touch screen or a Microsoft Surface.

Microsoft Office on ElitePad
As seen in a two dollar shop? Not quite, but cheap enough to sell in bulk

There are lots of things to like about a Windows tablet, the price isn’t one of them.

Prices for the first crop of tablets running Microsoft’s latest Windows 8 operating system typically cost as much as iPads. They quickly rise to levels far more expensive than Ultrabooks.

Android tablets often cost less than half the price.

Given Apple’s market leadership and the cachet attached to the iPad brand, this makes life hard for people other than Microsoft selling Windows 8 tablets. And even Microsoft doesn’t sell its Surface tablets in the large numbers it might if the price was sharper.

Admittedly Windows tablets target a different market. People don’t buy them for the same tasks as Apple or Android tablets. Nevertheless, the price difference is extreme, so many potential Windows tablet buyers are going elsewhere for their hardware.

Relief could soon be on its way from Intel. Last week the chip-maker said a new generation of processors is on the way which could see tablet prices drop to as low as US$200. After allowing for currency, the usual technology price-gouging and GST that should see devices land in New Zealand for around $300.

That price is likely to kick-start sales and grab market share away from Android and possibly even Apple. Of course, it won’t do anything to help slumping PC sales.

Incidentally, that price is less than consumers were expected to pay for Windows software upgrades a decade ago.

This is where it all started - the Apple II
This is where it all started – the Apple II

Analysts blame the PC sales slump on Windows 8’s failure. They would do better looking at Apple’s success.

IDC says PC Shipments the Steepest Decline Ever in a Single Quarter. The analyst says unit sales fell 14 percent compared with a year earlier.

Gartner has different numbers: Worldwide PC Shipments in the First Quarter of 2013 Drop to Lowest Levels Since Second Quarter of 2009. It says year on year sales declined 11 percent. It is the first time since the second quarter of 2009 worldwide PC sales fell below 80 million.

When these numbers were release analysts and pundits were quick to blame Microsoft. IDC’s press release quotes a senior executive:

“At this point, unfortunately, it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only failed to provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market”

That’s one explanation. But what’s clear from both reports is the demand for PCs is falling and there’s no sight of recovery. The PC era is over.

Windows 8, cause or effect?

Windows 8 is Microsoft’s reaction to the end of the PC era, not the cause of it. It also happens to be awful.

The real reason for the PC’s decline is soaring tablet sales. ABI research estimates tablet sales will hit 150 million in 2013.

Apple is the leading tablet maker. Its iPad started the modern tablet market in 2010 and it still dominates sales. Last year Apple’s tablet market share was 60 percent.

Apple offers a mature and full suite of personal devices: phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. It supports this with all the hardware, software and services needed to make these devices be productive and easy to use.

The story of falling PC sales is not about Microsoft’s failure, it is about Apple’s success. After years of struggle, Apple has won a stunning victory.