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Windows 8 fondleslabs: Microsoft tip-toes through PC-makers' disaster

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Yes, but is Microsoft committed?

Going hand in hand with the "right device" are the "right applications" – games, books and magazines, CRM, email, streaming films and TV and so on.

And with Windows 8 this is Microsoft’s real challenge.

In the past, when Microsoft introduced a new platform or language, the big challenge was to convert the existing Redmond coding faithful.

Windows 8, however, throws partners a curve ball: the Metro UI itself and WinRT, underneath. The analogy is the introduction of .NET only this time.

WinRT is a simple UI programming model for Windows devs that means they don’t need to learn Win32 - and which exposes the Windows Presentation Framework and Silverlight XAML UI model to developers. WinRT is designed to let you build apps which are self-contained, and can live in and be downloaded from an app store.

Only the analogy breaks down, because it is not just the usual Redmond faithful Microsoft is trying to win over. Redmond is also hoping to poach iPhone and iPad devs, those building for the Blackberry, and Android developers programming for others’ smartphones. And that’s just the app developers, never mind the content shops – creatives who have for years built media for Windows that ran in Windows Media Player, Flash or Silverlight. Now, while WinRT can bridge the gap, there’s also the HTML5 factor, a force Microsoft is backing but not – as far as we can tell – wholeheartedly on Windows 8 tablets. Instead, it has opted for the Silverlight, XAML and WPF mix.

Even the old bet of the Redmond faithful isn’t as reliable as it once was. The door on existing desktop apps - writing for Windows 7 and earlier, and working on Windows 8 ARM tablets - has closed. With the closure of that door, Microsoft has given up on the idea of being able to port your existing apps to Windows 8 on ARM – a concept it floated at this year's CES and scrapped with Intel over when it came to control of the message. All this comes with the usual question of whether Microsoft can be trusted not to pull the rug out from under your feet after you’ve committed. Sure, Microsoft says WinRT now, but just a few years back Microsoft threw everything into Silverlight only to dump its browser-based media plug-in for HTML5.

And while WinRT sounds simple from a technology point of view, the technology is not yet finished. Much will rest on the beta. From a business case point of view, WinRT and Windows 8 are less clear: why would I – a developer or content author – want to do it when the best-selling tablets remain the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle?

Microsoft is late to the party, no question. Analyst Forrester sniffs opportunity, calling the company a fifth mover in the tablet market and claiming interest has "plummeted" during the past nine months. Only Forrester can save Windows 8 tablets is the message.

Others reckon we might not even see Windows 8 or tablets this year, putting the Windows 8 RTM a year from now and pushing Windows 8 tablets to 2013. If this is the case, it would be a criminal act by Microsoft’s management: not just another 12 months behind Apple but coming out after the consumer-tastic window of another Christmas.

If, as others suggest, Windows 8 betas in January or February, Microsoft can save some face.

Delivering Windows 8 is one thing, however, and during the coming year Microsoft must do more to succeed. It must cajole, convince, evangelise, proselytise: not just app devs but also the makers of the all-important games, movies, TV shows, business applications, book publishers and warehouses that the public will follow.

Unfortunately, Microsoft must also work with many of those PC makers who have already blundered. They will need to tip-toe through a minefield of recent experience, not just putting Windows 8 on tablets but also on more niche devices, too. ®

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