Safe, steady, boring - why Microsoft should give up on "cool"

There will have been three dominant reactions to the previews of Windows 8 demonstrated by Microsoft at its BUILD developer conference in California this week.

If you’re a Windows developer or Microsoft geek, you probably thought, “Great! Look out Apple and Google, we’re coming back atcha!”

If you’re the average PC user, you maybe thought, “So what?”

If you’re the average IT manager, you undoubtedly thought, “Oh no, not another upgrade.”

But let’s be clear about one thing – Windows 8 will be a success. It doesn’t actually matter whether the product is better than Windows 7, or if it’s better than iOS or Android or Linux or any other operating system. Despite the growing claims of the death of the PC, millions of people will end up using Windows 8, simply through the same natural refresh cycle and the default of buying PCs with Windows pre-loaded that allowed Microsoft to hail Windows 7.

The importance of the PC may be declining, but it’s not going away. However, every new iteration of Windows presents an opportunity for users to have a rethink, and becomes a catalyst for more people deciding that maybe another form factor – whether tablet, smartphone or netbook – is the right choice for them.

It’s a bit of a cleft stick for Microsoft – it needs to bring Windows into the tablet/smartphone arena, but every new version will inevitably lead to users deciding to try an alternative.

Windows 8 has had a generally positive reaction, but for me it smacks of following not leading, catching up not innovating. (You might like the new Metro interface, but best not to mention Aero in the same breath).

For safety-first corporate buyers, the prospect of a unified Windows environment across PC, tablet and smartphone offers a solution to the clamour from employees to use consumer devices in the workplace.

But for consumers – who these days are increasingly leading the direction that business technology will take – Windows 8 seems to lack the spark that will allow it to take away the “cool” edge that Apple and Google have established.

Perhaps, though, that is the future for Microsoft. The company clearly wants to convince people that it still has the elan of its 1990s heyday, when it released what was probably the last truly disruptive version of its flagship operating system – Windows 95. But maybe it is time that Microsoft gave up on cool.

For IT buyers, the best innovation that Microsoft could add into Windows 8 would be a new method of upgrading and software licensing – a cloud-style, pay-as-you go subscription type model, rather than the conventional up-front licence fee and upgrade charge. That, and an upgrade path that minimises disruption – why not, if you pay a monthly fee to use Windows, just auto-upgrade to the latest version, instead of requiring a major planned roll-out? That would certainly stop corporate buyers moving away from Windows.

The traditional cycle of launching great new versions with massive fanfare has worked for Microsoft in the past, but perhaps it would benefit from a more low-key approach now.

Microsoft became a success by changing the basis of decision in buying PC software – pre-loaded Windows killed every major rival in the heyday of the PC. It could change the basis of decision now by removing the upgrade cycle entirely, if only it could engineer Windows in such a way as to be fully and easily backwards-compatible with other software running on the previous version. Easier said than done perhaps, as the unlamented Vista showed, but if CIOs no longer face the technical challenge of version upgrades, when and why would they ever think about moving away?

Safe, steady, predictable, boring – these may not be the words that Microsoft wants to be associated with. But they may just be the words that ensure its longevity.