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Has a paradigm shift in computing already made Microsoft irrelevant?
The company sure hopes not, on the eve of its launch of a major catch-up operating system, Windows 8. But most consumers and businesses can ignore the hype, and keep flicking through screens on their iPads.
Windows 8 will add some new functions, but its biggest change is a touch interface of tiles and images. It's snazzy and zippy and, quite frankly, much more attractive and flexible than anything Apple has offered to date (those rounded app squares are looking downright ancient by now). But Windows 8, which debuts October 26, is too late and ill-suited for many users.
Back in the pre-Web era, DOS 5.0 or Windows 3.1 were major processor-shaking introductions. New functions and features, easier to use software, and (perhaps more important) faster computers caused everyone to upgrade. But Windows 8 doesn't offer anything like this.
The first problem is that Windows 8 -- which the company wants to stretch across tablets (yes, a Windows tablet), smartphones, and eventually its game consoles -- is still essentially a humongous piece of software designed for desktop computers. The trouble is, no one is going to use a touch interface on a desktop. I've tried for years and have a touch screen on my desk, but I still use a mouse. Who sits that close to the screen? No one.
Furthermore, the desktop market is dying, so why bother upgrading? It's so bad that even counting this heavily advertised Windows introduction -- which should spawn PC sales -- iSupply predicts that PC sales will decline slightly this year.
Laptop users are also unlikely to change. To use Windows 8's touch tiles, one will have to buy a new system. I can hear them now: "We already have a portable touch screen system. It's called an iPad (or Kindle Fire or Android tablet)." In fact, this year for the first time tablet sales have surpassed laptop sales. And, let's face it: Those ultra books have been a complete flop.
Okay, so what about Microsoft's Surface tablet and all that fabulous, funky Windows 8 hardware coming out from Sony, HP, Lenovo, Dell, etc.? Unfortunately, this is likely to cause more confusion than excitement. Some models will run one version of the new Windows (if they use a low-power ARM processor) that doesn't support old software; others will use a more robust version of Windows (the convertible laptop/tablets, for example) that does support your current Windows programs. Not a way to win friends and customers.
Now there are some truly sleek, technically advanced Windows 8 smartphones coming from Nokia and HTC, and they could help boost the software with a halo effect. However, the software for the phones has been shaky and many doubt whether it's ready for consumers. And the competition -- Apple and Android -- is pretty stiff.
Maybe the biggest argument against a major OS upgrade is that we now live in a world of free applications and cheap apps. No one expects to wait three years for a new operating system; today Android users are demanding monthly upgrades on their phones.
Perhaps if there was a killer app to help -- like Visicalc once did -- then that might save Windows 8. But the company hasn't even fully leveraged Skype into the software (and a Spotify wannabe isn't going to make the difference).
So will Windows 8 be the last of the big OS introductions? Probably.
But Microsoft will continue to make boatloads of money. According to analysts at Forrester, businesses will spend about $10 billion dollars on iPads this year (a 76 percent increase over last year) but they'll spend a whopping $124 billion on Windows machines (a 3 percent drop, incidentally, from last year).
Microsoft also is trying to use scare tactics to keep enterprise customers from straying from the upgrade path. Many businesses have clung to the old Windows XP in an attempt to save money, for example. So Microsoft has said it will end support for Windows XP in April 2014. But companies shouldn't be frightened, because in today's rapidly changing computing environment, that's like saying you're going to pull the plug 100 years from now.
By April of next year so much will have changed that Windows may not be relevant at all by then.
For those who still think Microsoft's launch this month is an earth-shattering event, think of the issue by considering a single question: What excites you more, the coming Apple iPad mini announcement or the release of Windows 8?