Microsoft's Windows 8 problem(s)

Over these last few gift-consideration weeks, I've gotten numerous queries about and given multiple demonstrations of Apple's iPad mini, both from people interested in giving one and from those interested in getting one. Nearly universally, the response from women I spoke with to the iPad mini is a variation of my wife's "it's so cu-u-u-u-te!"

Over the same period of gift-consideration weeks, I've gotten absolutely zero queries about anything related to Windows 8: not about Windows 8 desktop PCs, not about Windows 8 laptops, not about Windows 8 tablets, not about Windows Phone 8 smartphones.

And apparently I'm not the only one apathetic about Windows 8.

To start with, I have nothing against Windows 8. While I have some macro complaints, I am generally impressed with W8's fresh OS approach, which finally distances Windows from its Apple-borrowed look-and-feel.

But W8 has been greeted by giant yawns by both geeks and mainstream consumers, thanks to varying market, implementation and perception issues on each W8 platform — desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone.

W8 On Desktops

Over its first month of availability, Windows 8 uptake on desktop PCs falls between the much-maligned Windows Vista and Windows 7.

According to Net Applications, 1.2 percent of all Windows PCs were running Windows 8, barely better than the initial response to Vista.

W8 hasn't lured folks to buying a new PC, either — in fact, it seems to have had the opposite effect on PC sales. During the initial W8 availability period, PC sales have actually DROPPED a whopping 21 percent according to market research firm NPD.

Why haven't spanking new W8 PCs boosted PC sales, or at least steadied them?

One reason may be how non-attentive Windows users generally are.
According to Net Applications, nearly 45 percent of all Windows users are running Windows XP, an operating system dating literally from the last century.

Compounding this upgrade apathy is how radically different Windows 8 is compared to any previous PC OS, Windows or Mac.

Gear heads like me may like W8 because it is so different. But Mom and Pop consumer may NOT like W8 because it is so different, put-off at having to learn a whole new interface logic.

Why Touch?

But I think W8's biggest problem is the whole touchscreen business.
Some W8 PCs are touch-capable, some aren't. Most consumers aren't even aware there is a touchscreen option.

Even if they were aware, neither Microsoft nor retailers are doing a particularly good job of differentiating touch from non-touch models. If a new W8 model isn't touch-capable, it's not exactly going to announce "NON-TOUCH!" in neon signage. The whole "Is it touch?" adds yet another level of W8 consumer confusion.

But I — and likely many consumers — can't conceive of why I need a desktop PC with a touchscreen.

I am currently typing this on a PC whose screen is just about two feet away from me. To touch the screen, I have to sit up (horrors!) and reach across the vast expanse between me and the screen to do something I can easily do without sitting up and touching.

And the larger the screen, the further away from the screen I'll be, widening the reach-to-touch gap.

The ergonomics just don't work.

And if I don't need a touchscreen, why do I need a new PC running W8?

W8 On Laptops

Compounding these desktop PC problems are the flagship W8 products leading laptop makers have come up with — what I call "laptabs," laptops that double as tablets.

These laptabs are jacks-of-all-trades/masters-of-none, combining products with distinct and usually divergent usage cases. If I need to work, I need a laptop. If I want to play, I use a tablet.

Plus, laptops run one version of W8, while standalone tablets run the closed ARM-specific W8 RT. So which OS does the laptop half of a laptab run on? And why do I even have to worry about this?

Combining a laptop with a tablet solves no problem I am aware of in the mass market, and adds even more W8 consumer confusion.

W8 On Tablets

In many ways, W8's biggest problems are its tablets. Microsoft is the de facto desktop/laptop standard, so W8 is simply an upgrade to what consumers already own.

But in the tablet world, iPad is the de facto standard, and tablet shoppers get to make a competitive choice.

And consumers are choosing iPad more than 20-to-1.
Microsoft is projected to sell, maybe, 600,000 Surface tablets this holiday season, about half of what was expected.

Conversely, Apple is projected to sell 12 million iPad minis — not including additional millions of iPad 2s, iPad 3s and iPad 4s — over the same period, twice as many as expected.

Surface's problems are myriad — poor reviews, confusing compatibility with the desktop W8 OS, limited distribution, pricing, etc.

But IMHO, marketing attitude is Surface's biggest hurdle.

Microsoft's Surface Movement TV commercials completely fail to differentiate Surfaces' functional advantages — if any — from iPad. All those dancing kids with their snapping stands and clicking cover keyboard choreography contain no real reason to opt for Surface instead of iPad.

But, you say, Surface's keyboard cover is an advantage.

You ever try to tap type on a tightly-packed keyboard balanced precariously across your knees? If you have, 'nuff said. And few tablet usage scenarios include a table or desktop.

Since Surface offers no clear advantage over iPad, they're not selling.

W8 On Smartphones

I like Windows Phone 8. If I wasn't a captive in Apple's velvet ecosystem dungeon I might switch.

But Windows Phone 8 may be too late. Early adopters have already divided up the smartphone OS field, so Microsoft and its handset partners, primarily Nokia and HTC, are targeting late adopters — stubborn feature-phone owners — who are not exactly buzz-creators.

As a result, Windows Phone 8 is failing to find a firm foothold. Even though Windows Phone sales are nearly twice of what they were last year (Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer Nokia Lumia 920, reportedly have not met expectations.

Even if Ballmer's optimistic projections are accurate, Windows Phone handsets still represent just 2 percent of all smartphone sales.

Holiday WP8 sales may boost these numbers, and W8 may find its biggest success in the smartphone market. But it'll be a long slog to even dent Android and iOS's smartphone OS dominance.

Will W8 Survive?

It will take time and tweaks in implementation and consumer behavior and tastes in all four product categories for Microsoft to accomplish the kind of seamless Apple-like cross-platform ecosystem for which the folks at Redmond is clearly aiming.

W8 is certainly here to stay on desktop PCs and laptops. The question is how long Microsoft will want to — or is even able to — stay in the W8 tablet and smartphone businesses.

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