Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft's Touch-Based Future: Will Customers Follow?

Mary Jo Foley discusses why Windows 8 is just the latest example of how the company is trying to push customers into a future that they're not ready for.

I'm not a sports person. Not even a Madden-on-Xbox kind of sports person. When I resort to a sports analogy, it must be really apt. And this one from hockey great Wayne Gretzky (or maybe Gretzky's dad, if you believe famous-quote debunkers) captures Microsoft's biggest challenge in the next year-plus perfectly: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."

This is what Microsoft has been trying to do for years with its new products. But rather than under-skating, the 'Softies have a habit of over-skating. When Microsoft under-skates and has to play catch-up, the company actually does pretty well. Underdog mentality as a motivator for the win!

Microsoft's toughest task with Windows 8 is to not to get too far ahead of users.

Microsoft designed Windows 8 to be a touch-first OS -- meant to be used on tablets and PCs with touchscreens. While Microsoft execs continue to insist that Windows 8 works just as well with keyboards and mice as it does with touch, many testers say that's not the case. It works great with a keyboard as long as you don't mind resorting to keyboard shortcuts, of which there are many.

According to techie urban legend, Microsoft Windows and Windows Live Division President Steven Sinofsky decided to go touch-first with Windows 8 after wandering around the Consumer Electronics Show floor and seeing many non-touchscreens with fingerprints all over them. His supposed conclusion: Users want and expect touch on all screens everywhere.

On tablets, I buy that. On PCs, I don't. On work PCs, many users (including me) don't want to reach out and touch their screens.

The Windows team may be overzealous in its expectations that touch-first will be the experience that the majority of users want and expect in the next couple of years. And the decision to focus so heavily on keyboards with the forthcoming Surface tablets shows possible wavering about this all-touch, all-the-time direction.

Windows 8 isn't the first time Microsoft might be too far ahead of its users. Going way back in the history vaults, my Exhibit A is "Hailstorm": Redmond's first attempt at a Microsoft-hosted set of services. While Hailstorm looked in many ways like what ultimately became Windows Live and Office 365, it was shot down back in the 2001 time frame for being too "cloud-y" too early. Yes, a decade ago, users were already worrying about the security of their data in a Microsoft cloud-hosted environment.

Exhibit B: Ultra-mobile PCs, or UMPCs -- the Windows-based PCs with which Microsoft and partners were experimenting back in 2006 or so. These were 5- and 7-inch Windows tablets, and the very few that ever made it to market ended up floundering. Users weren't sure back then that something with a screen bigger than a phone's but smaller than a PC's had a future. I bet Microsoft and partners wish they had stayed the course on that one, given that the 7-inch tablet form factor seems like the new black.

I'd suggest Microsoft's decision to position Windows Azure as a "pure" Platform as a Service is yet another example of the 'Softies being too far ahead of their customers. The result? The Windows Azure team is now adding Infrastructure as a Service components to Windows Azure -- such as the ability to host Windows and Linux in VMs -- in an attempt to step back and meet customers where they are on the road to the public cloud.

Based on history, maybe Microsoft would do better by chasing the puck (or, at most, skating alongside it) than trying to stay a stick's length ahead of its customers. What do you think?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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