By Harry McCracken | Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 2:24 pm
[NOTE: Here’s the lead story from last week’s Technologizer’s T-Week newsletter–go here to sign up to receive it each Friday. You’ll get original stuff that won’t show up on the site until later, if at all.]
Last week, I wrote about a Steve Ballmer quote–one about Windows Phone 7. I swear that I don’t intend to devote Technologizer’s newsletter to full-time analysis of Ballmer sound bites. But this week I’m intrigued by another one.
At a recent event hosted by research firm Gartner, Ballmer was asked what Microsoft’s riskiest product bet was. He answered “the next version of Windows,” and then moved on. It’s not surprising that he didn’t elaborate: Microsoft has said pretty much nothing at all about the next Windows so far, and probably won’t disclose any facts until it’s ready to say quite a bit. (It didn’t start disclosing information about Windows 7 until a year before it was released.) If you take Ballmer literally, though, even that quick answer is significant.
Generally speaking, major updates of wildly-successful, widely-used products–from Microsoft or anyone else–are fundamentally conservative things. The goal is to add features that will please as many people as possible, of course, but it’s also to avoid making changes that will tick anyone off so much that he or she will refuse to upgrade. Faced with that challenge, most companies aren’t interested in taking risks; they’re obsessed with avoiding them.
Risky upgrades are usually a response to products that are in such deep trouble that there’s nothing left to lose. The pre-Windows Phone 7 version of Windows Mobile was one example; so was the original Mac OS right before Apple replaced it with OS X. If the alternative is sure death, most companies suddenly get much more daring.
Then again, when I think of provocative revisions to products that weren’t struggling, the first one that comes to mind is from Microsoft. It’s Office 2007, which dumped the existing, pervasive Office user interface in favor of a radically new one. I’m not sure whether Microsoft looked at the Ribbon interface as being insanely risky–my impression from talking to Office honchos was that they thought just about everybody would adore it. But it was a sea change that did end up dividing Office users into two camps: Ribbon lovers and Ribbon haters.
So could Windows 8–or whatever it ends up being called–involve a transformation at least as striking as Office 2007? That would be big news. Especially since the last version of Windows with a truly all-new interface was Windows 95.
Even though Microsoft hasn’t released any information about the upgrade yet, we may have a vague sense of where it’s going: Back in June, a presentation to PC makers about the next version of Windows leaked. It didn’t have much in the way of real specifics, but did say that Windows might use a Webcam to do tricks such as performing face recognition to log in a user automatically. It also hinted at a version of the OS optimized for tablet devices. There’s nothing in the deck that suggests that Windows 8 is going to be a huge, game-changing gamble, but Microsoft may just have been playing its cards close to the vest.
Successful operating systems tend to have value propositions that can easily be summed up in a few words…
Windows XP: “A more reliable Windows for consumers.”
Windows 7: “A fixed, less annoying Vista.”
Apple’s OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: “A meaner, leaner OS at a low price.”
The upcoming OS X Lion: “iPad-like features for Macs”
(Windows Vista wasn’t easily summarized, which was surely one reason why it flopped, though not the only one…)
I’d love to know what Windows 8’s One Big Idea is–or at least to know when we’ll know. I haven’t seen any rumors about ship dates that sound convincing: Computerworld recently wrote about a 2011 beta and a 2012 final version, which could be the gameplane…but earlier this year, the same publication writing about a 2010 beta and a 2011 final version.
Even if Windows 8 doesn’t show up for another couple of years, I hope that Ballmer’s tantalizing sound bite is a hint that Microsoft plans to start talking about it soon. Windows 1.0 was released on November 20th, 1985, which means the OS is about to turn 25. There’d be no better way to celebrate than to show that the next version of Windows is all about the next quarter-century of personal technology.
[Windows 8 box art borrowed from this site, which, um, claims to have Windows 8 Ultimate Xtreme Edition available for download right now.]