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Windows 8: Microsoft's Strategy Still Wears Blinders

Leaked slides that discuss Microsoft (MSFT) plans for Windows 8 have led to massive discussion. Much of the attention centers on such things as an Apple (AAPL)-style applications store, an instant-on feature, and facial recognition.

However, concentrate on feature details and you can miss the assumptions that drive Microsoft's strategy. Although executives have given some intelligent thought to their new direction, they still wear the blinders of old attitudes that could cause Microsoft some big problems.

The reason to ignore product details is because the slides discuss possibilities for Windows 8, not a list of set features. Trying to see where the Windows PC market will go requires attention to what Microsoft thinks will shape the market. That's why examining the assumptions is important for high tech companies.

Microsoft bases much of its Windows 8 thought on expected changes in business and consumer electronics by 2012, when the product would theoretically come to market. For example, it assumes that netbooks will become far more powerful and that the line between them and laptops will be blurred. PCs will ship with 4 GB RAM and quad-core CPU will become common, with 6 to 8 cores on high-end machines.

The world will be networked, with people connecting to cloud-hosted data and computing, with initial deployment of 4G mobile networks (delayed by cost, technology, and infrastructure issues), and PC usage over mobile broadband that will "dwarf" bandwidth use by other devices. A third of televisions will have network connectivity (though whether consumers actually use that connectivity over a home network is an open question).

One eye-opening statistic is that Microsoft expects that "smartphones will represent 20% of the total market." Given the slide context of PC-type devices, I have to believe that Microsoft means not just cell phones, but all hardware platforms. Let that sink in. One fifth of computing will fit into someone's pocket, and Microsoft expects that 73 percent of the workforce will work while mobile. This last point seems a bit far-fetched, when you consider that much of the total workforce -- which includes all the people working in office clerical positions, at restaurants and stores, in factories and repair shops -- is stuck in one place. However, it seems to be a factor that will drive Microsoft's strategic decisions.

One point with a head-slapping "duh" feeling to it is that quality is the number one driver of product and customer satisfaction, and quality includes the feel and tone of the product. Welcome, Microsoft, to the 20th century, because this thought should have been at least 15 or 20 years old at the company. The fact that Microsoft had to state this as a major realization explains a lot about many of the sloppy work it has done over the years.

However, I wouldn't put too much faith into this point that should be the single most important realization the company could make. Why? Because Microsoft then goes on to say that over 50 percent of users are willing to invest an hour of time to make their computers better suited to them. Maybe so, but that's a significantly different from saying that over half of users want to spend that amount of time.

The company says that people want to tailor how content works for them, depending on device and context. That's not right. Most people want the content to work right, depending on device and context, but they want it to just happen. That's what Apple has figured out, though with a fairly draconian and approach of restricting user choice. Perhaps an angle that introduces more intelligence into systems, to learn how to act around the user and then to remember the preferences, might make sense. But Microsoft sounds as though it will continue to make its oldest mistake: assume that most people like to tinker.

The other someone-slap-me-so-the-bad-dream-will-be-over moment was in an analysis of software. According to Microsoft, over half of the top applications, by their nature, are non-web related. In that category, the company includes productivity apps, games, and imaging/printing. I'm dumbfounded as to how out-of-touch the company can be. You'd think any company that would brag about 23 million Xbox Live users would understand that people, by their nature, like to play games with company. Productivity apps? If by their nature the Web is unimportant to them, why bother to have a Web-hosted set of office productivity applications (that still suck compare to Google (GOOG) Docs). And imaging and printing? Better tell HP (HPQ) that the Web-centric printing and imaging activity is a waste of its time.

Microsoft wants to provide "a seamless experience" across personal and professional use of devices. In other words, Microsoft thinks that by continuing to be the powerhouse in business, it will continue to control home use, and visa versa. But unless Microsoft can remove its historic blinders, when strategy meets entrenched attitudes, it will end up exactly where it's been, not where it needs to be.


Image: Flickr user Gelatobaby, CC 2.0.