Steve Ballmer was interviewed by the local Seattle Times newspaper during the annual Microsoft company meeting. This event was held in Seattle’s Key arena and was attended by 15,000 Microsoft employees. It creates traffic hell in town. Steve called this an epic year for Microsoft. With the release of Windows 8 Microsoft will compete on the desktop (ok they still own the desktop), the tablet and the smartphone (Windows Phone 8). Not to mention releases of Office and new games for XBOX. There is no question that what he says is true. Windows 8 is really the first true big change in the Windows UI since Windows 95 was released almost 17 years ago. In an industry that moves so fast it is rather mind-boggling that the “Start” button has lasted so long. It also brings a unified operating system across all devices to reality. The desktop, the tablet and the phone will all have a standardized OS, so for developers this should in theory make life easier. Steve was going good until he said bigger that Windows 8 will be bigger than Windows 95. That particular reference seems to come up a lot among Microsoft executives.
In one of my early blogs I wrote about the launch of Windows 95. I can honestly say that was a big day in my life. To have participated in such a great event was truly fantastic. Any of my former co-workers at the time I would be so bold to say, would agree. It is a fantastic part of the Microsoft legacy. It has also proven to be something that Microsoft has wanted to desperately repeat and do again. To somehow have another such event that launches the company into the technology stratosphere. To make it the envy of the tech world once again. To be loved and feared, again. It is not far-fetched. There still is talent at the company. They still work very hard in Redmond. Despite critics they do innovate. Windows 8 will generate more money than Windows 95, just by virtue of the huge distribution machine that Microsoft has created. Despite all this apparent success in the end Windows 8 will not restore Microsoft glory. It will not be bigger than Windows 95.
First it will not surprise anyone as there is already so much about Windows 8 that is known and that has been seen already out in the marketplace for sometime via the beta program, MSDN Subscriptions, etc… The biggest change in Windows 8 being the new UI formally known as Metro. Which is not really new since it first appeared and is borrowed from Windows Phone 7, which has been out for 2 years. Windows 95 also boasted a new UI, but it was different in several regards. It was much more user-friendly than previous versions of Windows, it was a 32 bit OS and it’s price point was much lower than the alternate Macintosh, which had been floundering since Steve Jobs was ousted. It was a big leap forward for the company and the industry.
Second Microsoft had done a really effective whisper campaign prior to the launch of Windows 95. Yes there were beta’s out in the market, the new UI had been reviewed. But it was just the tip of the iceberg and consumers had read enough and were interested enough and wanted the new OS. In fact they really wanted it. There were launch parties, lines at midnight. There was just a lot of excitement. The press was on board as it seemed every news station was covering the launch. Showing people lined up at midnight to buy the new Microsoft OS. The people in line were smiling and laughing. Microsoft at the time was very much like Apple is today. It was generating excitement about their products and about the company. It was the coolest pace to work on the planet.
Third and most importantly it was fulfilling a dream, a vision. A PC on every desktop and in every home. The dream had been there since the company launched in 1975 with the birth of the Altair Computer. The PC was moving from being a toy, an interesting gadget, a confusing to device, to becoming a mainstream product that everyone had to have. The products had matured and were being more and more used in corporate offices, small businesses, schools, and homes. It was also releasing at a time that another significant event was taking place, the dawn of the internet to the consumer society. The timing was right for success of Windows 95.
As I said make no mistake, Windows 8 from a revenue perspective will generate the billions of dollars. Wall Street will be happy with its performance on laptops and desktops. On tablets and smartphones we will just have to wait and see. But maybe the bigger point is the OS is just part of a bigger picture, the device. People will only be truly excited if the hardware is exciting. The OS is still very important it is just not as exciting as it was 17 years ago. It is a welcome change, it shows how far the industry has come. But what excites the industry has changed in a big and positive way.
If you think about what the operating system is there to do, what it was originally designed to do was to take commands from the hardware and interpret them into images (letters) one the screen and over time it evolved to allow developers to write applications and generate new lines of business. It was software that was creating this magic. It created a lot of millionaires. And, yes, it created a few billionaires. No one understood the meaning of the operating system and what it could do and what it did do better than Bill Gates. Windows 95 was a fulfillment of a journey, started in his youth at Lakeside School. However between Windows 95 and Windows 8 even more exciting stuff has happened as the rate of innovation increased and technological advances were made in hardware and software that would dwarf what had been created in the first 20 years of Microsoft’s existence The competitive landscape for Microsoft has changed and expanded. Windows 8 remains a core piece of that competitive Microsoft advantage but it is under ever-increasing pressure from all sides as desktops morph to Lap[top to Netbooks to Tablets to Phones . The latter two have appeared within the last 5 years, what new form factors will the next five years bring. What OS will they run? What OS will they need?
In the end Windows 8 will be big, but as big as Windows 95? Not a chance, the stars are just not aligned like they were in 1995. The idea of a OS making that significant of a change in how society functions will not happen with a new fancy UI. The big releases in tech industry are few and far between. Windows 95 was a big one. The launch of the first Apple iPhone was another huge one. You saw society and their interaction with their cell phone change what was seemingly overnight. Windows 95 had a similar impact as the PC was an accepted device and was everywhere. In the end Microsoft can have the impact they want again, but it just will not be the OS, it will not be Windows 8. Society has moved on and awaits the next big change.
Good Night and Good Luck
Hans Henrik Hoffmann Portland, OR September 19, 2012