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Microsoft delivers 'copy Apple' Windows 8 message

Sinofsky admits 'balancing act' to avoid fondle fumble

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When it comes to Windows 8, Microsoft is therefore following Apple's example by straddling camps. Steve Jobs' Lion version of OS X this year brings little touches of iOS to the Mac in the way it scrolls through screens and the way apps are fired up from icons.

For Apple it pays to be cautious. Apple sold 20.34 million iPhones in its recent quarter along with 9.25 million iPads – compared to 3.95 million Macs, with the Mac growing most slowly at 14 per cent. However, the Mac ensures Apple has around 7 per cent of the PC market: the second biggest share for anybody, after Microsoft. Giving that up means lost money and prestige. Also, Mac's 14 per cent growth contrasts to contraction in the US PC market and to a global growth rate of just 2 per cent.

With Windows 8, Microsoft isn't burning any bridges either. So to all of you who want Metro on everything and those out there who fear Metro on everything, Sinofsky has a message. "This is a balancing act," Sinofsky says in his latest blog. "Having both of user interfaces together harmoniously is an important part of Windows 8."

He makes the business case clear. According to Sinofsky:

[The Windows desktop] powers the hundreds of thousands of existing apps that people rely on today, a vast array of business software, and provides a level of precision and control that is essential for certain tasks. The things that people do today on PCs don't suddenly go away just because there are new Metro style apps. The mechanisms that people rely on today (mice, physical keyboards, trackpads) don't suddenly become less useful or "bad" just because touch is also provided as a first-class option. These tools are quite often the most ergonomic, fast, and powerful ways of getting many things done.

You don't ditch that overnight. Even less so if your company just clocked up $19bn in annual sales of operating-system software built for the PC. And don't forget the partners: Microsoft works with thousands of ISVs and SIs who would have to change how their apps work with Windows in order to embrace a Metro clean sweep in Windows 8.

Apple is aware of the disruption such a change would cause for its partners, too. This is why, while it might be pushing for greater similarity between OS X and iOS, it has not yet combined OS X and iOS in the way it has got the iPhone and iPad running the same operating system. Revolutionary Canonical, meanwhile, has risked the potential for disruption by its embrace of Unity. Ubuntu 11.04 dumped the long-standing Gnome interface for Unity, upsetting plenty of Gnome developers in the process. We have yet to see whether Ubuntu's lost the Gnomes to other Linuxes.

Given Microsoft's dominance of the desktop, the multi-billion-dollar cash cow that is Windows, the huge partner network building apps for Windows, and Microsoft's relative newness to tablets, the dual strategy makes sense.

In time it might even be seen as a sensible approach to take: yes, Microsoft has been criminally late when it comes to tablets – having, once again, ignored Apple at its peril – but there is actually nothing to suggest that the tablet phenomenon has paid off for anybody other than Apple.

The predictions of easy money based on the concept that all you had to do was build a "better" tablet – which translated in reality to building "our version" of the iPad – failed to be realised. The world's largest PC maker, Hewlett-Packard, and one of the most successful makers of smartphones in the industry, RIM, have both taken a critical and a commercial pounding, with HP's skittish management calling it quits on the TouchPad after five weeks. HP's exit set a new industry record for killing a product, besting Microsoft's six weeks for its unwanted Kin smartphone last year.

One day in the future, Sinofsky might blog about how wise it was for Microsoft to make the interface for the next version of Windows entirely touch-based. Given Microsoft's considerable legacy on desktops and laptops and regardless of the thrill of tablets and smartphones, that won't be any time soon. ®

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