There’s nothing tech companies like more than creating buzz. The more buzz, the less substance – as a rash of me-too tablet events a few years back proved. Tomorrow, Microsoft is scheduled to host an event on the West Coast that many believe will be the scene of the unveiling of the next version of Windows.
Upping the speculation factor is Microsoft PR's decision to restrict attendance to the event to 50 journalists and analysts.
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Nothing gets people chatting more than an invite-only guest list: it produces exponentially more coverage.
One of the last times Microsoft tried this was the launch of Kin “social phone”. People dutifully wet their pants, but what followed was more embarrassing – for Microsoft.
This time, Microsoft promises to tell us “what’s next for Windows and the enterprise”.
It promises to be the first completely new Windows update since Satya Nadella took over as CEO in February with his cloud-first, mobile-first message.
It will also be the first since Terry Meyerson was placed in charge of Windows as executive vice president of operating systems just over a year ago.
Meyerson had led Microsoft’s Windows Phone team.
There’s supposed to be a growing convergence between the Windows Phone and the Windows client operating system kernels, but Tuesday will be about serious business.
It’s a major reversal for Microsoft. Two years ago the consumer was king and Windows 8 the jewel in the company's crown. Enterprises weren’t spending and the product strategists’ playbook said to target consumers, who would then bring their devices into the workplace. It was enterprise adoption through infiltration.
Microsoft tried this, courting an entirely new generation of users with touch-friendly tablets and desktops running Windows 8 and Metro.
But over the next two years, Microsoft came to discover just what a demanding and fickle bunch you consumers are and how its Windows bedrock is businesses.
It’s an exaggeration to say the PC market is dying, but it’s certainly re-sizing and re-shaping around new form factors.
Never since the 1980s has the end-point market been in such flux with so much choice: not just iPad and Android tablets but also smartphones and phablets – all with different-sized screens. Then there’s the uncertainty of Amazon and Google offering their end points anchored to their cloud services with the Fire phone or Chromebook.
The uncertainty comes in when you see companies cutting their losses – Samsung is the latest, quitting Europe.
Businesses aren't interest in touch input on low-power ARM chipsets that are the hallmarks of many of these devices and that was epitomised at Microsoft by Surface RT. They wanted a mouse and they wanted Intel. But Microsoft's obsession produced a Windows 8 operation system companies avoid like a vial full of Ebola, picking Windows 7 instead in their move from Windows XP.
The Windows 9 event is expected to show off features to prep businesses for upgrading to Windows Next, not Windows Three Versions Old.
What we are expecting is the return of the start menu and letting users run Metro apps and Win32 apps on the desktops.
It will be the completion of a retreat announced by Microsoft’s Tami Reller in May 2013, seven months after Window 8 launched and four months after one of the most disastrous Christmas trading periods ever for PC makers, a difficult climate for the introduction of Microsoft's Windows 8.
From business to consumer and back again
What’s behind the switch back to suited-and-booted business users, though?
In short, Microsoft is facing another Windows XP disaster in the making.
Windows 7 is now the dominant desktop operating system as it's the de facto choice when upgrading from Windows XP. Two years in, and Windows 8 and its variations have barely broken the 10 per cent marketshare threshold.
Aside from the flagship accounts, parts of BT and Metropolitan Police, moving onto Windows 8 on tablets, the vast majority of companies are going Windows 7 because it works with their existing apps and means less training for end users.
There is a very real danger to Microsoft that more companies standardise on the desktop-oriented Windows 7 to avoid Windows 8 – and in so doing avoid Windows Next and Windows After That, too.
The danger for Microsoft is that if everybody standardises on an operating system that's three versions old, it will have lost its raison d’être as a tech firm.
Worse, it may also have lost its future growth. Companies that don't buy the new OS, will also not be buying the accompanying apps or products in the accompanying Microsoft "Wave" of products.
Alarm bells are already sounding: Gartner last month told people they should start drawing up migration plans, even though Windows 7 has another six years to go.
Microsoft has clearly heard those bells and is pitching Windows 9 accordingly. How much of Tuesday is pitch and how much substance we will have to see. ®