We tend to look at products and companies—and, for that matter, people—as unchanging, but they all change dramatically over their lives. IBM has little in common with the IBM of the early 1900s, and today's Ford is not the one-size-fits-all company of Henry Ford and the Model T. Apple, meanwhile, had clearly broadened its focus beyond the hobbyists it first targeted, and Microsoft is about as far from the platform and tool company that it once was.
Windows is about to undergo the biggest change it has ever attempted. Windows 8 isn't the PC-centric product it has been since its inception. It is a multi-platform offering that goes farther than anything either Apple or Google has attempted. Recognize, too, that this isn't a single-step move but a process, likely changing over the next decade, to get to a place we may not yet see clearly.
Windows of All Shapes and Sizes
The name "Windows" never really made that much sense tied to an operating system, since it implied an experience. Now, Microsoft is on a path consistent with the name. The near-term goal is to create an interface that is contemporary—that is, no longer based on the old Xerox PARC GUI that drove the initial Mac OS and Windows—and can scale to all screens with a high level of consistency and ubiquity.
Windows 8 attempts to correct the mistake Microsoft made with its initial tablets and phones. Redmond tried to take an interface that was designed during the mainframe terminal age, long before we'd thought about tablets and smartphones, and tried to force-fit it to those devices. It didn't go well.
Even Apple tried to maintain a common interface, but it made the important innovation of bolting on touch. While Macs remained largely tied to the past, the iPhone and iPad remained somewhat crippled by the need to create commonality between the platforms, but not on an equal level. Nonetheless, Apple's strategy worked, and it proved to be surprisingly elegantly for the time.
Now Microsoft is aggressively moving ahead of Apple, pursuing the goal of a common user interface that's independent of display size. You get the strongest sense of this from Samsung's Windows 8 line. Like a glass window can be big or small, suddenly the Windows operating system can scale from big to very small. Finally, the name makes sense.
A "Window" to Back-End Services
A window does no good unless there's a view one the other side. We had a huge picture window in our old house that overlooked the apartment complex across the street. Needless to say, we kept that window shuttered most of the time.
The new Windows view, as it were, is a robust set of back-end services, ranging from the Windows Azure hosted services to Office 365 and, for consumers, the Xbox and other Microsoft entertainment sites. Microsoft has historically been much stronger than Apple or Google on enterprise class back-end services. Expect the company to push on this advantage sharply.
This is still rudimentary compared to how it will grow over time. This is also where we are likely to see the biggest changes and advancements going forward, coming from a curated app store which, like the Apple App Store, prevents many kinds of malware attacks and significantly raises platform reliability.
Building Better Hardware to Go With Better Software
Through the years, Microsoft has had one sustaining problem: The quality of the solutions that use Microsoft products has varied tremendously but generally fallen well below Apple or IBM solutions. Microsoft found that, by setting lofty specifications for hardware, quality rose sharply, but OEMs tended to blame Redmond for problems that appeared to be sourced from OEM practices, such as installing on PCs ad-funded applications that were poorly designed or nearly impossible to remove, leaving PCs infected before the box is even opened.
In Pictures: The Best of Windows 8 Hardware (So Far)
So Microsoft is beginning a gradual move into hardware—most notably with the Microsoft Surface—in an effort to significantly increase the perceived quality of the resulting solutions. Zune stands as an example that this may not work, while the Xbox shows that it might. Regardless, this is clearly a step in a different direction.
Is Windows 8 a Window to the Future?
Fast forward 10 years, assuming Microsoft is successful, and I think the Windows interface will be cloud-based, not device-based, and booting as a service. In a way, Redmond is moving to the thin-client model, but it's defining this movement in a way that, when Microsoft does arrive, the technology will be ready for it. (The tech isn't broadly available yet, but services such as OnLive show it is closer than many think it is.)
The end result: computing that's delivered across every device with a screen like a utility, with one subscription for access that will likely be split between personal and business uses. Of course, there's every likelihood that what we currently imagine the experience to be will be vastly different than what it is—but it will also be closer to the name Windows than ever before.
Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.