Posted by: gregboyko | September 14, 2011

Thoughts on the Windows 8 Strategy

I’ve been watching the news coming out of the BUILD conference pretty closely for the last two days (like most technology enthusiasts). While I may be a Microsoft employee, I’m not on the Windows team and I don’t have any “inside” info when it comes to Windows 8. I’m hearing the news and trying to make sense of it all just like everyone else. I eagerly downloaded the developer preview last night along with 500,000 others (according to Ballmer’s keynote appearance earlier today).

There is a tremendous amount of information to digest! But I think the most important part of what has come out of BUILD so far has nothing to do with information or technology directly. Rather, what’s coming out of BUILD is emotion and excitement for Microsoft unlike anything since Windows 95. Developers love this stuff. There’s a feeling of wonder and discovery surrounding Microsoft today greater than at (perhaps) any other time in the company’s history.

But back to some of the hard info that’s been shared. First, and most obvious, Windows 8 brings a new metro-style UI. But what isn’t obvious without seeing architectural diagrams is that Windows 8 brings a whole new Windows API (called WinRT) to the table. And what’s perhaps most striking is that this new API has no (zero!) dependencies on the Win32 APIs that have been the heart of Windows for so many years. Brand new applications need to be written against the WinRT API to take advantage of the metro-style UI paradigm. One problem: a new OS API that developers are just now seeing for the first time means an OS without apps.

The solution, of course, is to get developers to create the new apps. That’s what BUILD is all about. The other obvious solution (and one that Microsoft has used for a long, long time) is that Windows still needs to support the millions of applications written for it over the years. It does so by letting “Desktop Applications” (the classic Windows apps we all use today) run side-by-side with the new metro-style apps that are now being developed. If it runs today on Windows 7, it will run on Windows 8.

Critics have severely criticized Microsoft for keeping legacy compatibility. And in the past, I would have conceded that placing such a strong emphasis on backward compatibility was a compromise that limited what could be done to move the platform ahead. Critics argued that the only way to truly move forward was to make a clean break with the past. They argued that Windows could never be an appropriate OS for the new tablet form factor that is just now becoming so popular (almost entirely due to Apple’s iPad). They argued that using the same OS for desktop and for mobile just can’t work. But this time it’s different! The WinRT API is a clean break from the past. And that it does make Windows appropriate for tablets.

In watching the reactions to Windows 8 in the tech press and in the blogosphere, it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of feedback is highly positive. But there are still those who think Microsoft is making a terrible mistake. In digging into the reasoning, the primary criticism seems similar to that described above: that a converged OS simply isn’t appropriate for different use cases (desktop apps vs. touch-based mobile apps). The argument is that they want to use special dedicated devices (with dedicated OS’s and software) for dedicated tasks. But I just don’t buy that. Was using MSDOS for some apps/games while starting Windows 3.1 for others a better world? Was running Windows 98 at home while running Windows 2000 at work a better than running Windows XP for both? NO! A converged OS is a better solution! And consumers will benefit from this convergence in real ways. Devices and peripherals that you’d like to use on your tablet will work the same as on your desktop. In fact, depending on your computing needs, your tablet might actually be your desktop.

Often discussions around competing products/technologies turn into holy wars, with fanboys on either side more or less blind to the benefits the competitor brings. And that is clearly happening now; just read the comments on any high-profile article reporting on Windows 8. The debates are raging. But let me circle back to one of my opening thoughts: what’s coming out of BUILD is raw excitement and emotion. Technology enthusiasts of all kinds are talking about Windows and about Microsoft. Once again, Microsoft is doing something that no one else is doing. Taking an approach that at least some in the industry think can’t work. Getting to market far too late to win. But if history has shown us anything, its that Microsoft is formidable when they have a goal in mind.

To me, this is clear: Windows 8 is a bold new step for the future of computing. Windows 8 truly is Windows Reimagined. I can’t wait for 2012!

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