The most hotly anticipated announcement at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona was not the next big thing from Apple – that is going to happen next week – but Microsoft's big push into the tablet market.
The company that has made billions providing the Windows operating system for desktop and laptop computers is entering the next era in its long and largely successful history. At MWC, it unveiled the Windows 8 Consumer Preview for users to download and try out.
This is not yet another version of Windows – Microsoft must adapt to the consumerisation of IT and it is pinning its hopes on Windows 8.
“Windows 8 is a critical part of Microsoft's history. The operating system can potentially unify its fortunes,” said Richard Edwards, principal analyst at Ovum.
According to Edwards, Microsoft's success came about due to consumer pressure. When IBM attempted to establish OS/2 in the early 1990s, home PC users put pressure on businesses to adopt Windows instead.
“Windows was Microsoft's route into the enterprise," he said. "Now Microsoft is pinning its hopes on power users who want the power of a PC with the flexibility of a tablet device.”
Operating system on the go
The Windows 8 Consumer Preview appears to take the same approach as mobile platforms such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android. There are apps in the Windows Store, with Microsoft clearly hoping to emulate the huge success of Apple's AppStore and the Android Marketplace. Users also need a Microsoft Live account to access cloud-based services such as cloud storage, e-mail, calendar and contacts.
The so-called Metro touch-based user interface shows that Microsoft is taking the tablet market seriously, while under the covers there is built-in support for low-powered hardware.
Windows 8 supports the ARM Cortex-A9 processor. Graphics chip maker Nvidia has integrated a graphics processor in its Tegra3 quad-core mobile processor. There are many variations based on the ARM architecture, each vying to capture a piece of the tablet market.
Yet, while it borrows from tablet trends, unlike iOS or Android, Windows 8 will be a fully fledged operating system, capable of running sophisticated client applications.
According to Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division at Microsoft, the Windows 8 Consumer Preview delivers a "no-compromises approach to using your PC”.
New style of web browsing
Oke Okaro, general manager and head of mobile at Bloomberg, admitted that the new Microsoft offering is impressive, with its attempt to give users an optimal tablet and PC experience on one device.
“In the two years since the iPad's launch, growth in the PC market has slowed. Windows 8 is trying to bridge the touch-based tablet world and the traditional PC world,” he said.
Okaro said Windows 8 has the potential as a new platform for Bloomberg's news and television service. “Our goal is to deliver essential news and information that business executives need to make better informed decisions. As a result, we need to be on the device platforms with an experience that is optimal, as long as there is a critical mass on that platform.”
He recognised that as Windows has a very large installed base, and traditionally there is a rapid uptake, the new operating system will gain critical mass quickly.
Windows 8 is trying to bridge the touch-based tablet world and the traditional PC world
Oke Okaro, Bloomberg
In addition, Okaro said Windows 8 is a game-changer for traditional web browsing. “[Windows 8] will provide Bloomberg and many other companies [with an opportunity] to start the redefinition of the web experience as a result of the desktop PC and tablet worlds merging.”
Making a mobile push
When it was launched in 2009, Windows 7 was a big step forward for Microsoft and a huge improvement over its predecessors, Windows XP and later Vista. It was the last version before Apple convinced everyone to buy an iPad.
Three years on, Microsoft desperately needs to regain control over client-side computing. It is no longer about the desktop and laptop. Smartphones are almost ubiquitous and tablets have established a new form of client-side computing.
Craig Cartier, an analyst for ICT practice at global consultancy Frost & Sullivan, said: “Windows needs a foothold in the mobile space if it is to continue to be one of the world's premiere technology brands, and it is desperately grasping for one.”
Cartier pointed out that while Microsoft dominates market share in PC operating systems, it has struggled in the smartphone sphere, never surpassing low single-digit share in the mass-market smartphone era.
He added that Microsoft's partnership with Nokia has potential, but has yet to reap any benefits.