PC-makers hope for Windows 8 hero to sweep up sales
Gotta be sure, and it's gotta be soon, and it's gotta be larger than life...
In the current tight economic climate, manufacturers of PCs and laptops are eagerly looking forward to the arrival of Windows 8 to rescue their sales.
It's worked before: the launch of Windows 7 in 2009 got off to a galloping start, more than doubling equivalent sales of Vista two years earlier. A few corporates even advanced their refresh cycle to soak up the new goodness, taking advantage of the hefty discounts Microsoft was handing out to make it happen. Consumers switched from the Windows XP – which the Vista disappointment had encouraged them to cling to – buying new laptops that offered the full 64-bit experience that became available with Windows 7.
But this time around things may not be that simple. The 64-bit revolution is now standard fare, and the only key hardware upgrade Windows 8 invites is the touch screen, something the punters, and particularly the suits, are still trying to figure out a use for.
But sales people are optimists. "Yes, we're very excited about Windows 8 - there's a lot of anticipation," says Neil Marshall, MD of Acer UK.
"Obviously we're banking a lot on Windows 8. From our perspective as a company that's involved in smart phones, tablets and traditional PCs, this is a great opportunity to really sell the whole connectivity piece and to link all these devices together under the Windows 8 platform."
The sales proposition is a rosy combination of tradition and innovation. The new touch interface will appeal particularly, it is suggested, to the consumer market, while underneath the familiar Windows GUI and APIs will still be there to offer continuing reassurance to business users. And desktops, laptops, tablets and phones will all be humming from the same songsheet.
"It's in the corporate space, in B2B," says Marshall, "that Windows 8 will really come into its own."
The white knight runs the gauntlet
This suggestion may come as a surprise to the IT departments of some of our multinationals, several of which are still struggling to upgrade from Windows 2000. Marshall quickly adds the rider that he's thinking long term. "I'm not suggesting it's going to happen overnight."
And the challenge isn't just the Windows upgrade lag, as Marshall goes on to point out. "Today we're starting to see a lot of Android, a lot of Mac OS products going into the corporate segment." In Marshall's view this hardware and operating system diversity carries double jeopardy. "That can't be good from a security perspective, or from a connectivity perspective," he suggests. For Marshall, the solution is homogeneity. "This is really where a Windows 8 platform will come in." In its own good time. "It'll be a drip feed."
Raj Pandya, General Manager of Sony B2B Channels, acknowledges this "supertanker turnaround" issue in the corporate market. The upcoming refresh has its own special problem. Unlike the previous upgrade from Vista – pretty well universally disliked, and in many cases avoided altogether by the corporations – customers are now being invited to leave behind the generally well-received Windows 7 for a new and very different-looking operating system with as yet unexplored benefits and features.
'I have a fiendish plan'
Pandya suggests that Microsoft will be taking steps to tackle this. "My understanding is that this is a really big launch for them, so I think they are going to be trying to market their way into persuading corporates and SMBs to migrate to the new system earlier."
For Sony the arrival of Windows 8 will be part deux of what the company hopes will be a double whammy. Says Pandya: "From a Sony perspective the two key launches we're encouraged by and planning for are the impending Ultrabook launch at the end of June, and obviously then the migration into Windows 8 come the second half of the year."
He admits it's not easy for Sony and its channel partners to determine in advance exactly what the impact is going to be. Looking back at the 2009 Windows 7 launch, he recalls: "We didn't actually see any major uptake from the corporate market until the following year."
His best guess? Microsoft will hit their revenue targets in the consumer market over the Christmas period, and follow that with an "onslaught" on the business market to encourage operating system migration during February and March.
How much of this is wishful thinking? As Windows Vista showed, consumers are easily tempted by novelty, at least until the word gets out. So a consumer Christmas bonanza for Windows 8 is certainly on the cards - or at any rate would be, were the UK not in the middle of the worst High Street trading conditions for over a decade.
Even assuming an encouraging outcome from the initial consumer wave of Christmas sales, what are the chances of this being reflected in the subsequent business follow-up? Microsoft's "onslaught" - we might assume a huge marketing spend associated with strategic "subsidies" of one form or another – will hardly be a guarantee of real customer take-up and true sales success.
Could we see a repeat of Microsoft's great Windows Phone 7/Lumia push of 2011?
The Microsoft-backed launch of Nokia's Lumia range of Windows 7.5 phones at the end of last year is a recent reminder that marketing might and million dollar back-door bungs are not necessarily sufficient to get a new product into orbit.
Customers need genuinely to want the product. And in today's constrained economic climate it would be truer to say that customers need genuinely to NEED the product.
So what exactly will the business world see as the USP of Windows 8 over Windows 7?
The most sweeping promise of the upcoming Windows 8 platform is its supposed "seamless experience" across all the computing devices we use today: desktops and laptops, tablets and mobile phones. But of course there's nothing very revolutionary about this idea; it has largely already been implemented by Apple, with its Lion/iPhone/iPad strategy. Even more interesting perhaps is Google's attempt to create a smooth cloud-centred user experience across multiple manufacturers and platforms via browsers and apps.
And in fact we've heard it all before from Microsoft. At the UK launch of Windows 7 back in October of 2009, Microsoft's UK MD of Consumer and Online, Ashley Highfield, introduced us to the company's new "Three Screens and a Cloud" strategy. The three screens were your PC, your television set and your mobile phone, and these were supposed to "all meld seamlessly together", all ecumenically sharing storage space out on the internet. As a necessary condition of this seamlessness, all these platforms would be running various versions of Windows.
The TV part of this very quickly fell off the radar. Windows Mobile sank like a stone, having already taken down a phone company (Sendo) with it. Windows Mobile Redux, aka Windows Phone 7, is faring a little better, but not much, with the Curse of Sendo now hovering over Microsoft's current most favoured phone company, Nokia.
The cloud piece of the strategy has been implemented under the brand name "SkyDrive", but its very limited features are hardly a challenge to the long-established DropBox or the revamped version of Google Docs, now called Drive. It would be fair to say that, getting on for three years after the launch of Windows 7, the "Three Screens and a Cloud" strategy just didn't happen.
But Microsoft's plan for Windows 8 indicates that, however different the look and feel, they are still thinking inside the same box. Like Acer's Neil Marshall, they are pushing the solution to the "double jeopardy" problem of security and connectivity as "Windows Everywhere". And it's becoming clear that the corporates are no longer in the mood to buy this.
The security crunch
Security is no longer seen as a natural result of homogeneity. Quite the reverse, in fact. The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) strategy now being widely explored in the business sector is allowing employers to make their own choice of laptops, tablets and phones. This approach simultaneously slashes the IT hardware budget, while boosting the staff's sense of self-empowerment. It is also, of course, a huge challenge to security. But it is challenges like this that, if they don't kill you, make you stronger.
"The traditional model," says security guru Adam Laurie, director of Aperture Labs, "is what we in the business call 'hard and crunchy on the outside and soft and squishy on the inside'."
This means you surround your business with a ring of flaming firewalls, and then allow untrammelled interconnectivity within that ring, he says. You issue supposedly "certified" hardware to the troops that authenticates itself as belonging to the soft and squishy centre, and nothing gets in its way from there on in.
"This security model is relatively easy to implement if every desktop, laptop, tablet and phone is running the same operating system," says a multinational IT insider who didn't wish his company to be identified. "Trouble is, it's rubbish. Hackers love it."
Laurie concurs. "Once they've conquered the challenge of that corporate firewall on the perimeter, the world inside's their oyster." The preferred security model, although by no means impenetrable, fits in well with BYOD. "You let employees connect in with whatever device they like, within limits, of course," says our IT insider. "But no device is trusted".
He adds: "The philosophy is called 'de-perimeterisation'. You harden every device, so every device has its own perimeter, only runs the services it needs to, and only communicates with things it needs to. So there is no single perimeter. The servers in your office only talk to services that they intrinsically trust. So they don't care what the platform is."
No one doubts that Windows 8 will eventually find its place in the BYOD mix, as well as in the core IT infrastructure once it has been thoroughly evaluated. But as a short-term shot in the arm for flagging hardware sales? Perhaps not so much. ®