With Windows 8, Microsoft Hasn’t Forgotten Its Strength

Microsoft’s Windows OS generates interest like no other product, the only other technology product that commands the same attention is Apple’s iPhone–the reach of these products is staggering. Windows & iPhone are used by anyone and everyone; the two products are ubiquitous in daily lives. The people who cover technology have known what’s coming in Windows 8 for a while but that hasn’t reduced the excitement around the launch. For Microsoft, Windows 8 does indeed mark a turn. Metaphorically, the ship is turning in a direction that defines the company’s future. iPhone and iPad’s success have forced Microsoft to respond, and the company’s past has helped them make the move faster than most expected. As Peter Bright wrote in his piece, to understand Windows 8, we have to look at the company’s past. Steve Ballmer has time and again emphasized the importance of Windows to Microsoft. It’s the one product that’s synonymous with the company’s name.

Google and Apple have forced Microsoft into adapting to the new dynamics of life. Consumerization of IT is not just a enterprise phrase, it explains how the technology resources between ones work and personal life are merging, and this is defining the evolution of computing. Smart and capable phones like the  iPhone and mobile devices like the iPad powered by Internet are changing how people use technology. Microsoft realized this a long time ago but simply failed to get things together on their operating system. Microsoft’s partners–their partners–failed miserably to bridge the gap between personal and work devices. The status quo was disrupted by Apple and as people started buying their devices, Microsoft’s partners had more to lose than Microsoft. The loudest tech press ignores Microsoft’s presence in the enterprise. As Christopher Budd in his guest column on Geek Wire says, Microsoft isn’t going to disappear even if Windows 8 & Windows Phone 8 fail.

Bill Gates’s decision to license Microsoft to hardware manufacturers was the single best decision for Microsoft and even with the Surface, nothing has changed. A huge deal has been made out of Surface and Microsoft’s decision to get into designing computer hardware but the timing couldn’t have been better. To remain relevant in the consumer market that is now dictating technology decisions made in the enterprise, as a company, Microsoft had to take radical steps. You either adapt and change or you fail and perish–it’s the one rule that separates corporations that survived the test of time and that withered faster than the leaves of Fall. Surface was needed to drum up noise, show OEM partners what can be done and to rally the charge against the iPad. For Microsoft to continue its dominance, they need their OEM partners to succeed. And despite the Surface, Microsoft hasn’t forgotten its ecosystem strength.

The New York City launch was about conveying four messages:

  • Windows 8 is here
  • It works great on tablets, and here’s our Surface showing you how
  • We’ve got our own stores for you to see the products
  • Our OEM partners have great products for you too

At New York City, Microsoft’s pop-up store was selling the Surface. And the company had setup several stations showing what their partners have to offer. It was clear that Microsoft knows their success depends on the success of their OEM partners. Devices from all major OEMs were in the middle of Times Square for pedestrians to touch, hold and experience Windows 8.

As much as the loudest tech press in America might want to shout through their blogs, humans have different preferences. It’s why Apple came out with a White iPhone, it’s why Apple was compelled to do an iPad mini. For every person who likes the iPad, there will be someone who doesn’t. For every person who likes iOS, there will be someone who doesn’t–Android’s growth is proof of that. The PC ecosystem has for years thrived on choice, Windows has been the same across all OEMs but we have seen manufacturers rise and fall. Apple has made a huge deal out of a statistic that x% of Fortune 50 are considering deploying iPads but that statistic doesn’t say PCs are being replaced.

Video: Microsoft’s Newest Surface Commercial

On the heels of its special Surface launch event yesterday, Microsoft published yet another Surface commercial to its YouTube channel. While the ad doesn’t really show the device in use, it instead briefly shows off the primary aspects of the Surface: The Touch Cover (and all of the colors its available in), kickstand, and briefly, Windows 8. In that regard, it’s pretty similar to the ad that was released on Wednesday, but with a more futuristic setting (and no people.)

I say that it’s a pretty awesome ad. I’d also love to see a modified version of the initial Surface promo video make it on the air as well.

If you haven’t already pre-ordered your device, the Surface is available now at your nearest Microsoft Store (or holiday pop-up store), or online, if you’re willing to wait a couple of weeks.

Experiencing Windows 8: From Exasperating to Adoring

First of all, here’s some history. When Windows 8 was first shown in ‘Allthings D’ conference last year, I was skeptical  The interface was intuitive on a touch enabled device, but for a non-touch device, I was not so sure. And with that in mind, I tried the very first release for the public, the Developer Preview or DP and as expected, I was not impressed. It didn’t feel quite that well when used with a keyboard and mouse. I went back to Windows 7 in around three days. The same was the case with the Consumer Preview. And although I downloaded the Release Preview as soon it was released, for some reason, I didn’t even bother installing it.

Last month, I got access to the RTM version of Windows 8 via the Dreamspark subscription. Since it was the final version, I decided to give it a chance. And on September 29th, I finally installed Windows 8 on my primary system as the only OS. I was certain that if I had installed it along with Windows 7 as a dual boot setup, I would just keep on switching back and forth between the two operating systems and that wouldn’t be doing a fair assessment and would just lead to decrease in productivity. So, here’s my initial experience with Windows 8 RTM and how it has evolved over time.

Initial Setup

The installation was smooth with the need of minimal user interference. Microsoft has really worked on improving the installation experience through the years from Vista onwards. Unfortunately for me, the simplicity ended right there. I had to face some driver issues, particularly with the Wi-Fi driver. Since Windows 8 was not yet released, I couldn’t find drivers on the manufacturer’s website. And, there was no generic driver available. I tried installing Windows 7 driver, but it gave me an error. But ultimately, I was able to solve the issue by installing the same driver in compatibility mode.

Apps

The next thing to do after installing Windows was of course installing the required apps. Now I use a multitude of apps ranging from big software like Visual Studio and Photoshop to tiny applications like NetWorx. I could install all of them on the new setup without any hassle. But the big change here is the introduction of the new Modern (formerly metro) applications.  Although Windows 8 was not released, there were still around 4000+ apps in the Windows Store which I think is incredible. But how many of it were actually usable or more importantly, does it include the apps that I need was the real question. Windows 8 comes with a bunch of useful apps such as Mail, Messaging, Bing News and which are really nice. I was particularly fond of People Hub and Photos app. The People hub connects to various major social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and shows updates and notifications. The Photos app aggregate photos from various services including your photo library to one location.

Although I couldn’t find replacement for the majority of my software, there were quite a few nice apps that I liked. Being a heavy user of various social networks, the first few apps that I downloaded were the ones for various social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.  For Twitter, I am using MetroTwit which is very good. I used to have Fliptoast for Facebook, but recently it started crashing on me, even after doing a reinstall. So I am pretty much using the Facebook web interface as of now, until there’s a good app. Another important app that I required was a good reader for fetching feeds from Google Reader. I rely on Google Reader heavily for keeping up with the latest developments on technology as well as information security. Fortunately for me, I keep some good company. Ed Bott directed me to an excellent app called Feed Reader (which is a paid app). I also discovered a free app called Flux which was really nice, but didn’t have all the features that Feed Reader had. For browser, rather than using the default IE10 as my primary browser, I installed the metro version of Chrome. The metro is just in the name and it looks just like the original Chrome window maximized with the title-bar removed. But that did the job for me as I wanted a browser that would display the tabs by default whereas with IE10, one has to right click in order to see the open tabs.

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the software I am using are legacy desktop apps and although it is not really inconvenient to switch back and forth between desktop and start screen, when you are forced to use desktop for simple tasks like copying files, it feels like a compromise, something that Sinofsky had said you wouldn’t have to deal with.

So, what Microsoft has to do here is to maintain developer interest in the new OS and to make sure that Windows Store gets all those popular apps that people care about. How well the developers accept the new OS will have a huge impact on the market share for Windows, especially for Windows RT which will only be able to run Windows Store apps.

Usability

Once I had all the apps in order, the biggest challenge for me was to get used to the operating system itself, especially the Charms bar. For example, while using the Music app, I was foolishly looking for the volume changer while it was in the Charms bar (which had to be opened by swiping from the right edge of the screen or by hovering the mouse to the top/bottom right corner). Charms bar provides a set of commonly used commands and settings option that could change with the app that is currently open. For example, when you have a webpage open, you can share it on a social network or email it to a friend using the Charms bar. Once I got accustomed to Charms bar, it was much easier to use Windows 8. I knew exactly where to look and that made a hell lot of difference. For using general settings or for interacting between apps, use the Charms bar and for viewing the specific app settings or controls, you can right click the app or swipe down from top of the screen. Once you get hold of this, Windows 8 will be pretty much easy to use.

Then there are things that I hated first, but as I got to use it, I started loving it. The snapping of apps was one such feature. I was not a fan of the fact that you cannot snap two apps side by side like in Windows 7. One app will go into a minimized state whereas the other one will take the majority of the screen real estate. But after using Windows 8 for a few weeks, I have started loving this feature. I can read articles from Bing News or Feed Reader while the Music app or Metrotwit is snapped to the side for easy viewing of ‘Now Playing’ list or my Twitter feed. And when I need traditional multitasking, I just go to the desktop.

Some of the issues I had issues with Windows 8 were solved with driver updates. Previously, when I was using Windows 7, after I unplugged the HDMI cable that connected my laptop to an external display, the display would automatically reset to the default laptop panel. But that was not the case with Windows 8. I had to first change the display before unplugging the cable. This issue has since been solved after a driver update. Also the Synaptics driver for the touchpad still has some inconsistencies. Vertical scrolling is only present in desktop mode and doesn’t work with start screen for some reason. I’m hoping that this will also be fixed soon like the display driver.

Conclusion

It’s been a month since I started using Windows 8. And how has it affected my life? I can now safely say that it has transformed me from a web person into an app person. Previously, I just used Chrome to check my mail, Twitter, Facebook and Google Reader. I now use different apps for each of those tasks. My mornings now start with reading news using the Bing News app along with my morning coffee. I listen to my favourite albums using the Music app, surf twitter using Metrotwit and when I stumble on an article I feel like sharing, I just use the share option in the Charms bar. I use Feed Reader to keep up with the latest happening in the world of technology and when I need it, I head to desktop to use Word 2010 or Visual Studio 2012. It’s all good.

And what’s better? The performance of my computer has improved a lot from what was with Windows 7. Now my laptop takes just around 10 seconds to boot which is incredible considering the fact that Windows 7 took around a minute to boot.  The battery life has also increased but not by a great margin.

Wrapping up, I would say that Windows 8 is like a roller coaster rider. You might be a little bit afraid to get into one at first and might not feel comfortable during the initial climb, but once you get comfortable, it’s one hell of a joy ride.

It is fast, fluid and intuitive and has improved a lot from the early DP or CP stages that I had encountered earlier. Microsoft’s biggest challenge now would be to educate its user base and to make sure that they do not dump the OS before they realize how great it is. So my advice to everyone going to try Windows 8 is, give it a chance and give yourself a little bit of time to get accustomed to it. Because once you get the hang of it, there’s a very good chance that you are going to love it, just like I did.

 

Upgrade To Windows 8 Pro For Only $19.99/Rs 1,999

Yesterday, Microsoft unveiled its much-awaited successor to Windows 7 – Windows 8. The company has been working hard on Windows 8 for the last few months, and aims to change how people use a computer with its new Modern UI, inspired from its own Windows Phone 7 UI.

Unlike Apple which usually charges around 20$ for its operating system upgrades, Microsoft is known to charge a couple of hundred dollars for a Windows license. Thankfully, with Windows 8, Microsoft has kicked off a new promotional campaign that will allow existing Windows XP, Vista or 7 users to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for only $19.99 or only Rs 1,999 for us Indians.

The promotional offer is, however, only valid from October 26th to 31st January, 2013 and is limited to five licenses per customer. Keep in mind that this promotional offer is only for users who already have a genuine license of Windows XP, 7 or Vista and are interested in upgrading to Windows 8. The full terms and conditions for the promotional offer and other information are available here.

If you got a new Windows based PC after June 2 with Windows 7 pre-loaded, you can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for only $14.99 or Rs. 700 INR. Head over to Windows Upgrade Offer to register yourself and get a Windows 8 Pro license copy for cheap.

Microsoft: 670 Million Windows 7 Licenses Sold

At Microsoft’s Windows 8 launch event in NYC earlier today, Windows President Steven Sinofsky dropped the news tidbit that 670 million Windows 7 licenses have been sold as of now, also praising the operating system’s business adoption rate — which he touted to be the “best ever” — and its status as the “most widely used and widely praised OS ever”.

Here’s a list of other notable Windows 7 sales milestones:

March 4, 2010 – Over 90 million copies sold.

April 23, 2010 — Over 100 million copies sold, six months after general availability.

June 23, 2010 — Over 150 million copies sold, making it the fastest selling operating system in history with approximately (and ironically) 7 copies being sold every second.

July 22, 2010 — Over 175 million copies sold.

October 21, 2010 — Over 240 million copies sold.

January 27, 2011 — Over 300 million copies sold.

July 12, 2011 — Over 400 million copies sold.

January 19, 2012 — Over 525 million copies sold.

June 6, 2012 — Over 600 million copies sold.

It’s definitely well-deserved boasting; the improvements and polish added to Windows 7 led to an overwhelmingly positive launch and reception, one that greatly contrasted that of Windows Vista. Now, the big question is how the public will take to Windows 8, and whether it will be an equally big hit despite its major and risky changes.

Pokki Takes on Microsoft, Tries to Fix Windows 8

Microsoft expects Windows 8 to herald a new era in computing with a touch-first user interface that is suitable for both post-PC devices like tablets, and traditional computing devices like desktops and laptops. One of the most iconic changes in Windows 8 is the lack of a start button as well as a start menu. While the new Start Page is a lot more informative and interactive, it will undoubtedly confuse a lot of users. This has prompted some manufacturers like Samsung to bring back the Start Menu through software patches. Pokki is amongst those that are trying to fix Windows 8.

Pokki isn’t, however, a simple Windows 8 Start Menu app. It’s an entire ecosystem. Pokki believes that Microsoft is onto something when it comes to using the web technology stack for native desktop apps. However, it doesn’t believe that a touch-first interface with reduced emphasis on multi-tasking is the way forward.

Pokki-Windows-8-Start-Menu-Replacement

Pokki has a fairly decent selection of apps. It’s not even remotely as comprehensive as the Play Store or the iTunes App Store; however, it’s better stocked than I was expecting it to be. You can find games like Angry Birds and Cut the Ropes, and apps like Facebook Lite and Tweeki.

Pokki-Windows-8-Store-Replacement

The Pokki Start Menu stocks your Pokki apps in a handy favourites section, but also provides access to traditional Windows apps, and frequently accessed system folders like Control Panel and Documents. Pokki will also begin supporting Modern-style Windows apps in its Start menu in the coming weeks.

The Start Menu also has a nifty search bar that searches for installed apps, documents on your system, as well as resources on the web. However, the search function doesn’t work perfectly, and is the biggest annoyance with Pokki. For example, I searched for ‘IrfanView’, and the search functionality only returned ‘IrfanView – Thumbnails’, which is a different app. The other big draw of Pokki is a smart notifications system that displays real time notifications from your installed apps in the Start Menu.

Techie Buzz Verdict

After taking Pokki for a brief whirl, I can confidently say that it’s worth a try. However, it is facing an uphill challenge. Not only is Pokki betting on the desktop app ecosystem, but it is also going head-to-head against the Windows Store that will be built into Windows 8. As browser developers like Mozilla and Opera can attest, that is never an easy proposition. In order for Pokki to survive and develop a viable business model, it will need to be adapted by a sizeable chunk of Windows 8 users. No matter how impressive the functionality offered by Pokki is, without an advertising budget, the little startup has slim chance of taking on Microsoft and surviving. I am rooting for Pokki, but I will be surprised if it actually succeeds.

Techie Buzz Rating: 3/5 (Good)

[ Download Pokki ]

Microsoft Surface RT Pricing Revealed, Starts At $499

Through a pre-order page on the Microsoft Store website that appears to have been prematurely made public, the company has revealed the pricing of the much-anticipated Surface RT tablet. The verdict? It’s aptly priced to directly compete against the iPad, though some may be a bit startled at the cost of the infamous Touch Cover which also functions as a keyboard.

The 32GB base model without a Touch Cover is priced at $499, a 32GB Surface RT with a Touch Cover is $599, and a 64GB model with a Touch Cover is $699.

As you can see, it’s suitably priced to compete against the iPad; the 32GB model with a Touch Cover costs exactly the same as a 32GB WiFi-only iPad without any accessories, and the 64GB model with a Touch Cover costs the same as its WiFi-only iPad counterpart that is also well-endowed in the storage department.

Until now, Microsoft has remained largely silent on Surface pricing ever since the company held its mysterious press event back in June where they announced the tablets. As a result, there has been plenty of discussion and speculation as to how the device will be priced, and how that will affect its fate.

At the time of writing this post, the pre-order page for the Surface RT is still offline, but it’s safe to assume that it will be up soon.

Xbox Music – a Great Service with Some Asterisks

I hate to focus on the missing aspects at the time of the launch of a great new service, but as a fan of Xbox Music (i.e., it its original name, Zune Music), I can’t help shake my head at the things that it does not do. I really like how Xbox Music looks and cannot wait to try it, but here’s hoping Microsoft works on quickly fixing these things.

First, a quick primer on what the newly announced service: Xbox Music is an all-you-can-eat music consumption service along with a music store all tied to a cloud-based sync service to enable your music and playlists to roam across devices. For now, these devices are Windows 8 PCs (including Windows RT devices), Windows Phone 8 phones and Xbox 360. The Xbox Music Pass, which enables free streaming of the entire catalog would cost $9.99 per month for phones and Xbox, and it would be free (ad-supported) for Windows 8 PCs and Windows RT devices. Additionally for using it on the Xbox you also need an Xbox LIVE Gold account, which comes with “tens of thousands” of music videos in addition to the streaming music. See my colleague Manan Kakkar’s take on Xbox Music here.

As you can see, everything is great about the service if you live within the Microsoft ecosystem, and if you are planning to buy one of the new devices (PCs, tablets, phones) launching this Fall. iOS and Android support is “coming soon”. So is the social piece, where you can share what you are listening to (and presumably, more) with your friends. Both of the these missing pieces are big for similar reasons: adoption and viral marketing.

First of all, let me clarify that there is no single service that provides what Xbox Music provides. While Pandora provides music discovery and streaming, it does not allow on-demand play nor does it have a music store. Rdio and Spotify provide on-demand streaming and a little bit of music discovery (via social and “radio”) but they don’t have their own stores. iTunes has perhaps the world’s largest store but it does not have a subscription plan. Xbox Music has all of the combined features, so you can actually ditch multiple services and use just Xbox Music.

However, one of the reason Rdio and Spotify are so popular is the social aspect. Friends share what they are listening to, making it easier to discover new music and also share the same with others. The other major factor of their success is that they are available on pretty much all major platforms in some shape or form, which in turn helps the social features even more – I don’t need to have all my friends on Windows 8, for example, in order to share my playlists with them.

iOS and Android being the fastest growing platforms today, are almost a requirement for any service which has ambitions of getting millions of users. Not having social is not as bad, but it helps in more than one way, so it is also quite a big missing piece. There is hope that this “new Microsoft” with its rapid pace of updating their products and services, is able to get these holes filled sooner than later.

Another glaring ommision is the concept of an Xbox Music Family Pass. In order to use the service optimally, you would want to use your own Microsoft account so that it can cater the selections to your taste. However, unlike the Xbox LIVE Gold accounts, there is no Family Pass for Xbox Music Service. This is a bummer because in a household, there is very likely going to be 2, 3 or 4 individuals who may want to use the service and having to pay $40 per month is not really a trivial decision. I was really hopeful that the lack of a Family Pass for Zune Music Pass would be remediated by an Xbox Music Family Pass. Looks like it was not to be. At least, not yet.

Setting those things aside, I think bundling Xbox Music for free on Windows PCs is a huge benefit, especially for Windows RT. For those not enthused by Windows 8/RT, who end up asking “why buy a Windows RT tablet instead of iPad or Android”, this becomes yet another feature in favor of Windows RT. With Xbox Music included for (ad-supported) free and Office Home and Student RT which comes bundled on Windows RT tablets, you have the world’s most popular productivity suite and on paper, the world’s only music service of its kind, included with a Windows RT tablet. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Android tablets should be part of this discussion at all given that the two successful devices so far have been 7″ (Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire), which don’t really compete with iPad or Windows RT.

So, in hindsight, the iOS/Android presence may actually be deliberately delayed, so that the case for buying a Windows RT tablet this holiday season is clearer. I like that pitch quite a lot because even if the Windows RT tablets are priced the same as an iPad, they will end up offering way more than an iPad can offer, and that, without adding the complexity of having a “full-blown PC”.

Xbox Music is a good move by Microsoft to showcase their execution of “devices and services” strategy, which previously would have been referred to as three screens and a cloud. Beautiful-looking services being delivered on well-made hardware, with roaming features so you can enjoy them the same way regardless of where you enjoy them? Now, that may actually be magical.

Microsoft Will Spend $1.5 Billion on Windows 8 Marketing

Microsoft will be launching Windows 8 on October 26, which is just two weeks away. It is going to be Microsoft’s most crucial launch in years, as it will decide its future in its most important market – operating systems. It will also decide whether or not Microsoft will end up being a major player in the tablet space, which is currently dominated by Apple and Google for the most part.

According to Forbes, Microsoft is very focused on making the launch a success, and will make a massive marketing push, spending nearly $1.5 to $1.8 billion on the launch campaign. If it wins, Microsoft will continue to be a major force in the computing space with Windows 8 leading the desktop/notebook space, and becoming one of the top three in tablets, but if it loses, Microsoft risks becoming irrelevant; a victim of the Innovator’s dilemma — something it’s trying its best to avoid.

While the Surface tablet has garnered some positive reviews, Microsoft may be too late to the tablet market, with both its major competitors having a huge lead over it – more than 2 years. In any case, Microsoft seems to be giving this its best shot.

Microsoft has also made sure to distribute its eggs in multiple baskets, with its revenue coming from sources as diverse as business software, servers, gaming etc.

Training Videos Leak, Provide Glimpse At Microsoft’s Strategy To Educate Consumers On Windows 8

 

Given the slew of relatively major changes in Windows 8, it’s important that Microsoft makes every effort possible to help educate consumers about the OS. That being said, the company will be training sales associates at Microsoft Stores — and at the temporary holiday popup stores — to educate consumers about Windows 8.

Brad Sams over at Neowin got his hands on a slew of videos showing off the training guidelines for said associates, who will then be offering training to consumers. The three videos are rather simple walkthroughs of the primary new/changed things in the OS.

The first video showcases the Start Screen, and things like tile management, charms, using the system-wide search in the charms bar, and app commands, among other things:

The second video focuses on the Share charm, showcasing how you can use it to share content in different apps and scenarios throughout the OS:

Finally, the third video begins by telling the associate that there are new things in Windows 8, and that consumers are counting on them to demonstrate and teach said new functionality. This video focuses on touch, and how to interact with various aspects of the OS — such as tiles, the charms bar, accessing app commands, and cycling through apps — using gestures:

I think that the videos do an excellent job of briefly — and succinctly — showcasing Windows 8’s new features and paradigms. It’s also admirable that Microsoft is making the effort to help educate potentially change-resistant consumers about the OS to help ease the switch over from previous versions of Windows.