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Microsoft's Windows 8 Battle Is Everyone's War

This week at Computex, PC manufacturers are outing hybrid devices of every stripe. They’re fun, goofy, slightly-to-moderately confusing little gadgets, but they’re also a reminder that Microsoft isn’t going it alone in its massive gamble on Windows 8. Everyone’s along for the ride.

No one denies that Windows 8 has a wonderful touch interface. We’ve loved Metro on Windows Phone for ages now. But the cross-pollination of tablets and laptops is something totally new and possible only with Windows 8′s unified platform. That’s why we have the new Asus Taichi, and the Lenovo Yoga, and a bevy of tablet-ultrabook mutants. But all of the wonderful, quirky, outrageous hybrids that Microsoft’s OEM partners pop out underwrite Microsoft’s enormous bet that people will like Windows 8. They’ll buy it and love it and use it exactly how Microsoft intends. That’s far from guaranteed.

Reaction to Windows 8′s Metro UI on traditional PCs is polarised. Obviously. It’s more accurate to say it’s a holy war, as the new religion of Metro blasphemes all over the familiar old gods of PARC.

Traditionally, successful Windows products haven’t been the earth shakers. Windows 7 is really just an idealised version of Windows XP, which was an idealised version of Windows 95, which was an idealised version of Windows 3.1. And so on. Successful iteration stacked on the shoulders of iterational upgrades. But Windows 8 isn’t just the latest iteration of Windows — it’s Redmond’s entrant as a viable tablet competitor, and it’s a stab at consolidating mobile and desktop PCs in a way that Apple isn’t even thinking about yet. It’s a hugely ambitious play.

You simply can’t overstate the importance of a Windows 8 victory for Microsoft and its hardware partners, both of whom have been steadily losing ground to Apple in the laptop market and have been obliterated in tablets. Windows 8 dives headfirst into waters that Apple, so far, has only dipped its toes in. An iOS-Mac OS convergence is coming — iOS godfather Scott Forstall’s influence can be felt in all of Apple’s products — but not quite yet. Apple has been relatively reserved about making the big, sweeping changes that would really push the mobile-desktop convergence from motif to mission.

Windows 8 can take that step. It is that step. But unlike Apple, which makes and profits from its own hardware, Microsoft’s kingdom is still built on software. It’s the commander-in-chief for Windows 8′s war to unite tablets and laptops. It’s Acer and Samsung and Asus and Lenovo that are charging the hill.

Every single PC hardware manufacturer is in bed with Microsoft on this. Yes, the lines will remain diversified — the Asus Zenbook U31XA is a pure ultrabook, for instance — and the current ultrabooks will ship with Windows 7, giving buyers an out if they hate Windows 8. But a Windows 7 ultrabook has about as much chance of competing with the Apple juggernaut as it always has: not much. What does have a shot? New forms. Tablets that turn into laptops, Voltron devices, a whole new generation of computing. For the first time in a long time, PC makers can offer something fundamentally different, exciting and unique. What we don’t know yet is if anyone actually wants to buy them.

That’s just it: if these things bomb, they’re going to bomb. It’ll be ugly and obvious and we’ll know sooner rather than later. That would be a disaster for Microsoft — the Triple Crown’s a tough sell if all your racehorses collapse midway through the derby.

That’s why Steve Ballmer was pushing early adoption numbers so hard. Obviously, 500 million possible day-one Windows 8 machines didn’t mean sales would be that high, since Windows 7 only sold 350 million in its first 18 months, and Vista 180 million in the same timeframe. But the underlying message is clear: Don’t worry, people will buy this.

The most popular test case of Microsoft failure is Vista, which was broken on a fundamental level in basic ways, but it was performance, not aesthetics, that drove users away — especially casual, mum and dad users who were warned to STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM VISTA BECAUSE I WILL STOP COMING OVER TO FIX YOUR COMPUTER.

Windows 8 is not Vista. It is the opposite of that. It’s hugely user friendly and inviting. Microsoft’s counting on parlaying that “Windows for real people” image into real people actually buying it. And they might! But if not, it’s going to be a rough few years for Ballmer’s crew and all of the manufacturers who are going along for the ride.

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