The assassination of Windows 8

It looks as though Windows 8 may meet an early demise.

Last week, HP announced its new Windows 7 campaign to boost flagging PC sales in a year that analysts are calling the worst in PC sales history. Both research firms IDC and Gartner reported a 10 per cent slump in global PC sales last year.

HP's tagline for this new campaign is "Back by popular demand - Windows 7 PCs". It is even offering an instant US$150 (S$190) discount on new Windows 7 machines.

Days later, Mr Paul Thurrott, a well-known expert on all things Windows, said on his website that Windows 9 would be out in April next year and that it would bring back the Start menu (finally?) and let people run Metro-apps in the desktop environment.

If this comes true, it means that Windows 8 would have lasted only 21/2 years before being replaced, giving it the dubious honour of being the shortest-lived version of Windows in the last decade.

Both Windows 7 and Windows Vista lasted three whole years each while Windows XP lasted an amazing six good years. For the record, my office laptop is still running on XP, though it is being upgraded to Windows 7 (yes, not 8) soon.

The youngest victim of operating system infanticide, however, goes to Windows Millennium, effectively killed off just a year after it was launched and replaced by Windows XP.

At the time of writing, Microsoft did not respond to the speculation about Windows 9, but I would expect that the software giant would want to delay official word on this for as long as possible. Or to use the late Steve Job's line "We do not comment on rumours". This way, buyers will shell out for Windows 8 PCs instead of waiting for the next version of Windows.

Many explanations have been offered for slowing PC sales - the rise of tablets, people not replacing their PCs, and the failure of Windows 8 to make an impact.

HP is clearly not waiting. While its Windows 7 move has so far been limited to the United States, I would not be surprised if it extends the option to more countries if it is successful.

Only a few years ago, such a brazen move by Microsoft's long-time ally would have been unimaginable, as HP had always prided itself as the best PC partner of Microsoft. But the marriage has become strained over the last year, particularly because of Microsoft's decision to launch its own line of Windows machines which it has branded Surface.

This has clearly not gone down well with HP. Proof of that strain was evident last year in HP's launch of a line of Android tablets, laptops and desktop PCs.

Several PC vendors I have spoken to over the last year also indicated to me that they no longer share their product roadmap with Microsoft openly because some now see the software giant as a direct competitor.

Personally, I think April next year will be too late for Windows 9.

With Windows 8 and so-called hybrid two-in-one devices which can work both as tablet and laptop, Microsoft is hoping to gain a foothold in the tablet market which has been dominated by Apple's iPads and a burgeoning number of mobile devices running on Android.

The problem with these hybrids is that they typically do not work as well as stand-alone tablets or laptops. A touchscreen adds extra bulk to the device, and in many cases, unevenly weighs down a hybrid PC on the hinge side.

A bigger problem is that the Windows 8 store is still lacking in many apps at a time when many users already own iPads or Android tablets and are already familiar with their own devices.

While some of my friends love the touchscreen interface of Windows 8, many have not taken to it.

When so many people own and use three computers - smartphone, tablet and PC - the PC needs to be differentiated from its competitors. For me, there can be no replacement for the PC when I need to get some serious work done or indulge in hardcore gaming action.

Microsoft's attempts to meld tablet and PC into a single device with the Windows 8 operating system still need work.

For example, if you open a photo from your photo gallery in desktop mode the default photo viewer switches to the Windows 8 version, which will not let you scroll through your photos. Also, Microsoft's flagship Office suite continues to run on desktop mode, even if it can be launched from the Windows 8 Start interface.

For users who just want to get in and start working in the familiar Windows desktop mode, Windows 8 can be a nightmare as Microsoft has so far refused to budge on bringing the Start menu back.

In Windows 8.1, it finally relented and added the Start button, but click on it and it takes you back to the Windows 8 Start interface.

Windows 9, one hopes, will fix this and return users to the familiarity of the Windows desktop mode and make it work right out of the box.

Microsoft needs to split Windows into two separate versions - one purely for desktop and laptop PC users, and a Metro version targeted at touchscreen tablet users.

And maybe a third version for those who still believe in the wonders of a two-in-one hybrid PC.

More than four years ago, just before the launch of Windows 7, I wrote a commentary in The Straits Times titled "Will Windows 7 exorcise the ghost of Vista past?". Right now, I wonder if Microsoft can unshackle itself from the spectre of Windows 8.

Interestingly, the new nickname for Windows 9 is Threshold - the largest planet in the Halo video game universe, bigger than Jupiter even. In Halo, Threshold was the planet where the alien race Forerunners built a Halo ring, an orbital array installed and kept secret until the time came to activate the ring and destroy the planet and all sentient life on it - the only way to annihilate the parasitic alien species known as the Flood.

Maybe that is what Microsoft needs with Windows 9 - a major explosion to take out Windows 8 and bring back all the reasons why users like me still love our Windows PCs.

ginlee@sph.com.sg


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