This is the Microsoft I thought was locked up in history: The company sparked broad interest in the user model that will be introduced with Windows 8 and will largely rely on the new Metro GUI environment. Is it innovative enough to save the PC?
A few days ago, I wrote a column on the PC crash and several readers made criticizing comments for having called the latest 2011 shipment forecast a "crash." Crash, of course, always implies a sharp decline, while the PC market is still expected to grow, even if it is just by 3.8 percent (which most certainly will change within three months again). I still believe that "crash" is the correct way to describe the current dilemma PC makers are facing with virtually no growth left. Let's just say that the growth has crashed.
If you have read my previous column, you may remember that I argued against the notion that the economy and the iPad are responsible for the current problem. I would claim there is a lack of innovation that has become a homegrown problem over a time span of as much as two decades. For much too long, PC users have been served the basic bread-and-butter PC that is tough to get excited about and tough to be proud of, at least if you are not willing to go to the length of obtaining an enthusiast box.
Windows 8 introduces a significant departure from the way we use a PC if we consider the Metro touch interface as the future, primary way to enter data into PCs, as Microsoft said. There is a noticeable excitement that has been sparked by Microsoft that has resulted in more than half a million Windows 8 Developer Preview downloads, according to Steve Ballmer. If you haven't tried the interface yourself and have a touchscreen PC available, I highly recommend installing the preview via a virtual environment, such as Oracle's VirtualBox, and running Windows 8 from there. It won't affect your PC and you can get rid of it easily again. If you are interested in PCs, this is a great opportunity to see how Windows will look a year from now.
Windows 8 and its strong focus on touch is a brave move that delivers a new platform opportunity for innovation in software and hardware. It will be critical for Microsoft to stimulate the current interest in the operating system to see whether we are heading into a "Post PC" or "PC Plus" era. Post PC would imply that the PC is dead and may just go away if even a progressive operating system such as Windows 8 can't help the good old PC anymore. However, the indication appears to be that Windows 8 would promote more than just one or two form factors than the traditional Windows desktop/notebook, extending the operating system to a variety of devices. These would include: tablets, ultrabooks, ARM devices, and traditional desktops and notebooks; all of which may go through several innovation stages as hardware vendors learn what form factors work for touch and which do not.
Microsoft is behaving about as aggressively as it can with the introduction of Windows 8. On the hardware side, Intel is also helping hardware vendors to come up with new ideas (well, as much as a Macbook Air copy can be called a new idea) for the ultrabook. If you have seen the first ultrabooks, including an Asus device that closely resembled the idea of the Macbook Air, there is a chance that you were slightly disappointed, in which case I would suggest waiting a few more months as Intel is encouraging vendors to experiment and make the notebook exciting again.
We should see a wave of innovative devices in 2012. In that view, I believe that Windows 8 absolutely can reignite PC sales and help the industry recover from the current minimal growth range. There is a certain symbiotic effect between hardware and software, as well as an overlap of complementary technologies, that combine to deliver a great foundation for much more passionate and useful personal computers. Heterogeneous processing cores, a new drop in power consumption, greater graphics capabilities, new screen technologies and a big shift in the way we interact with computers via touch is, at the very least, a reason to be hopeful that the PC industry is waking up and can innovate again.
However, this innovation will also blur the lines between devices that we consider PCs today, and those we do not. Smartphones, tablets, ultrabooks, notebooks and desktop systems are being combined into one personal computing ecosystem with their capabilities all very much in the range of what we consider to be a "personal computer". If Microsoft is finding a way to reimagine (the most favorite word these days at Microsoft) itself and construct such an ecosystem, it has every opportunity to give life to the PC 2.0. It will look different than the PC of the past 30 years, but will still be a PC. My personal opinion? The PC is not going to die anytime soon.