Microsoft delivers 'copy Apple' Windows 8 message
Sinofsky admits 'balancing act' to avoid fondle fumble
With Windows 8, Microsoft is joining Apple and Linux-shop Canonical in trying to make its signature operating system mouse-free and more touchable for use on devices like tablets.
The approach Microsoft is taking, however, has more in common with Apple than Canonical – chief custodian of the popular Ubuntu – as Windows chief Steven Sinofsky has inadvertently just reminded  everyone.
It's a cautious approach that might yet save Microsoft from fumbling tablets.
Windows and Windows Live president Sinofsky closed August by going once more unto the blogosphere  to tell both the fearful and the red-blooded developer optimists in Microsoft's camp that Windows 8 will have not one but two interfaces: the tiled, Windows Mobile-like Metro that has been the industry buzz for the best part of 2011 and is being built for tablets and, oh yeah, something for PCs.
Sinofsky told the blogosphere that Microsoft is not forcing an either-or approach on developers or customers.
A man who likes to control the message as much as development of product, Sinofsky was forced to restate the strategy after an earlier post on his Building Windows 8 blog caused turbulence when his team showed off a creeping ribbonisation of the Windows 8 interface.
What was blogged  was just a glimpse into what is going on in Windows 8 but it was enough to get people excited, confused, worried and angry. The Explorer file manager is going the way of Office, with a ribbon interface designed to make it easier to find popular actions and commands.
Just how far is Microsoft going on the matter of putting the ribbon UI in Windows 8? Classic Sinofsky: he didn't say. Even in his follow-up blog to calm things down, he wasn't saying.
The Explorer meltdown followed Sinofsky's demos earlier in the year of the tiled Metro interface, which is giving Windows 8 a Windows Mobile look as well as its touchability.
Stepping in on Wednesday, Sinofsky said:
Some of you are probably wondering how these parts work together to create a harmonious experience. Are there two user interfaces? Why not move on to a Metro style experience everywhere? On the other hand, others have been suggesting that Metro is only for tablets and touch, and we should avoid 'dumbing down' Windows 8 with that design.
Microsoft is not the only operating system maker trying to change the way people interact with its software. A PC market that had become fat and happy is suddenly looking out of shape and behind the times, thanks to Steve Jobs. Analysts and even the PC makers are asking whether "this is it" for PCs as smartphones outsell them. Is this a blip caused by the economy or are seismic forces causing a permanent re-alignment of the techtonic plates?
If it's a permanent change, then the operating system makers must put changes in place that let end-users touch and poke at apps on screens optimised to make more of the available space, where the apps are fired up from icons, and the apps are grouped together after being downloaded.
There are two ways of dealing with this: revolution or exploration, and the approach an OS maker picks has much to do with how deeply vested it is in that fat-and-happy camp.
If you have a relatively minimal PC market share, then you have little to lose by going with revolution. Canonical committed to this strategy with Ubuntu 11.04 when it set the touch-friendly Unity as its default interface. If you have market share of any kind, even if you are Apple and own the cursed device causing problems for so many, then you'll want to take an approach that doesn't flame-grill your existing PC business.
There's only one Apple
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. ®