Windows 8 Looks Great, But Configurability Has Its Price

Savio Rodrigues By Savio Rodrigues
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Windows 8 demos at Microsoft’s BUILD developer and partner conference have been very compelling, inspiring even. But nothing about the UI will change the underlying challenges with Microsoft’s open ecosystem. Users will still have to deal with frustrating experiences, even if the blue screen of death is replaced with a blue frowny face.

Windows 8 looks promising
Our own Galen Gruman’s review of Windows 8 is quite glowing. Galen goes out on a limb and suggests that HP’s decision to jettison WebOS could have been due to Windows 8:

But if Windows 8 is nearly as good as the demos look, Microsoft could very well win the mobile wars, despite years of failures in Windows tablets and mediocre smartphone efforts. If Hewlett-Packard CEO L?o Apotheker had seen a preview of Windows 8 tablets, that would explain why he suddenly killed the WebOS-based TouchPad tablet last month.

Other reviews of Windows 8 have been cautiously optimistic that Microsoft may finally have an OS to combat Apple.

The only problem, software alone is not enough. The real test for Microsoft is how Windows 8 will demo on the hundreds or thousands of devices, PC and mobile, that will be “optimized” to run Windows 8. I stress optimized, because every hardware vendor will play that card, when in fact, no piece of software can be optimized for everything. That’s where marketing and reality depart.

Configurability versus design choices
John Gruber wrote a thought provoking post about Apple’s long term sustainable advantage residing not solely on their design, but their supply chain. The two points are related, and will impact Microsoft’s windows 8 strategy, especially as they grow beyond the desktop to tablets and mobile devices with a single operating system.

Gruber wrote:

Design is largely about making choices. The PC hardware market has historically focused on three factors: low prices, tech specs, and configurability. Configurability is another way of saying that you, the buyer, get a bigger say in the design of your computer. (Bright points out, for example, that Lenovo gives you the option of choosing which Wi-Fi adaptor goes into your laptop.) Apple offers far fewer configurations. Thus MacBooks are, to most minds, subjectively better-designed – but objectively, they’re more designed. Apple makes more of the choices than do PC makers.

I’ve been thinking of this more and more as part of my day job, and I can fully understand why making choices are hard for vendors. Clients tell us that they want to make choices, because a lack of choice can sometimes lead to vendor lock-in. But these same clients demonstrate higher satisfaction with products which have been, in Gruber’s words, more designed, and hence present fewer choices to buyers.

Microsoft’s issue with Windows is that their OEM partners offer a degree of configurability that, on the surface is helpful, but turns out to hurt user satisfaction with both Windows and the hardware OEM.

I hadn’t made this connection until I started to use Windows 7 in a VMware Fusion virtual machine on a new MacBook Air. Yes, I know, the horror. But I need to use Windows for work and will be travelling with the need for my work and personal machine. This was easier than lugging around two physical machines.

Even with the overhead of a hypervisor and the relatively mediocre Intel core i5 CPU, my work hypervisor, is a delight to use. I’ve had no issues with driver mismatches or blue screens of death. Windows startups, shutdowns and resume from sleep are speedy, thanks to the SSD drives. I actually like using Windows again. More importantly, my PC is no longer getting in the way of my productivity.

For once, a hardware provider that’s actually enhancing satisfaction with Windows. Unfortunately, Apple isn’t a Microsoft hardware partner.

What’s Microsoft to do?
It’s difficult to know how Microsoft will address this issue going forward.

Microsoft could get very, very, restrictive about configurations and testing before allowing hardware OEMs to use Windows 8. This would require the same level of testing for fixes and upgrades to drivers used by the hardware configuration. However, considering the billion odd users of Microsoft Windows, with vastly different amounts to spend on PCs, a very restrictive policy will be at odds with Microsoft’s business goals.

Increased restrictions could encourage Windows OEMs to build with Linux OS, or more likely, Google’s Chrome OS. Microsoft is in a difficult spot of being the undisputed market share leader, but at risk of market share loss to Apple at the high end and Chrome and Linux at the low end. Until recently, the high end and low end competition was theoretical at best, but no longer.

It’ll be interesting to see what Microsoft and its partners will do if Apple uses its supply chain and lower configurability to offer a much lower price point entry to their desktops and laptops. In some respects, the iPad is doing just this as it eats into existing PC share.

Whether Windows 8 will be enough to stop the share loss is an open question. The real question however is how well Windows 8 will be configured and optimized for the hardware you’ll be asked to buy. Keep that in mind as you purchase new machines for your teams and employees.

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About Savio Rodrigues
Savio Rodrigues is a product manager with IBM's WebSphere Software division. He envisions a day when open source and traditional software live in harmony. This site contains Savio's personal views. IBM does not necessarily agree with the views expressed here.

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