Windows 8: Redmond, We Have a Problem

Anton Wahlman

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I have lots of concerns about the version of Microsoft's(:MSFT) Windows 8 that is expected to hit the market this fall.

Before I discuss them, let me make it clear that these concerns are largely irrelevant to Windows Phone 8, which was just introduced and should also hit the market this fall. Microsoft is doing most things right with Windows Phone.

I have been concerned about Microsoft for many years, first because ofApple's(:AAPL) numerous initiatives (Apple stores, iTunes, and iOS), then becauseof Google(:GOOG) Docs, which competes with MS Office, and then when I laid myhands on the first Google Chromebook. All of these were clear signsthat Microsoft was going to lose market share and see price pressurein the future.

Then came the epic 8,600-word post on Feb. 9 by Steven Sinofsky, the head of Windows, on MSDN Blogs.

Titled "Building Windows for the ARM processor architecture," this was a declaration of Microsoft's intent to launch "full" Windows 8 on chips designed by ARM Holdings(:ARMH) and built by NVIDIA(:NVDA), Qualcomm(:QCOM) and TexasInstruments(:TXN).

This showed that Microsoft was going to be able to deliver something that Apple -- and Google -- could not: the full enterpriseproductivity suite on ARM, in the business productivity form factors.

On Feb. 9, Microsoft said it would deliver this new version ofWindows 8 in tablet, laptop and desktop formats, and that this version would runWord, Excel and PowerPoint.

You would be able to buy a laptop that ran these apps, but did so with an ARM chip that had so little heat dissipation, and so little power consumption, that it would not require a fan -- just like the iPad -- and would therefore have a muchbetter battery life, perhaps upwards of 20 hours.

Microsoft's "holy grail" formula was this: Imagine a customer whomainly needed to run Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It could now be doneon hardware that Apple simply does not have.

With Apple, you either get the x86 (Intel(:INTC))-based) MacBook, or you get the ARM-based iOS on an iPad.

The MacBook performs the Microsoft Office function perfectly, but the bestbattery life you can hope for is seven to nine hours, while the price of thehardware starts at $1,000 and goes up to well more than $2,000.

On the other hand, as much as there is a small number of people whotorture themselves by using an iPad with a keyboard and use avariety of methods to obtain Microsoft Office access or compatibility,the vast majority of people find this to be an inferior approachfor office productivity. The iPad is the market's best mediaconsumption gadget, but it's not a work productivity tool.

After I reread Sinofsky's blog post a second time, I realized thatthe word "Outlook" was never mentioned. Word, Excel and PowerPointwere, but not Outlook. I asked Microsoft's investor relations aboutit. Was it simply a mistake? No, I was told, Windows 8 on ARM fortablets, laptops and desktops will not get Outlook.


The No. 1 reason most people I know stick with Microsoft is becauseWindows is the best platform to run Outlook. Yes, you can run Outlookon a Mac, but it's not the same -- unless you run Windows in a virtualmachine (such as VMWare's(:VMW) "Fusion" or equivalent). Apple's ownaddress book, as well as Google's, simply doesn't have the functionalityof Outlook.

For example, Apple's own address book is limited to 25,000 users, asis Google's, and you can't customize the views to sort columns on anycriteria you want. There are millions of users out there who haveconverted everything they can to Apple and/or Google, but they stillkeep an old Microsoft PC around for the sole purpose of runningOutlook.

So here was Microsoft with an exciting new platform that had alegitimate claim for an enterprise sweet spot that Apple and Googlecould not claim in the same way, and ... whoops, Microsoft just shotitself in the foot by excluding the one critical piece of the puzzle.

There is a special place on a wall of shame for those who are sostupid to have missed this critical point in the product planning.Ballmer, wake up!

Then came June 18, and Microsoft's surprise announcement of the twoSurface tablets -- one based on ARM technology (built by NVDIA in this case) and the other based on x86. Let's distinguish betweenthe two: The ARM version won't offer Outlook, whereas the x86 versionwill run Outlook. In other words, the ARM version is doomed for the enterprise market, whereas the x86 version passes at least this hurdle.

But there are two more issues with both versions of the Surface tablet that will further hobble the enterprise version: screen size and keyboard.

For enterprise productivity, most workers want a device that'sgot at least a 12.1-inch screen. The Surface tablets are 10.6 inches. Game over, good night, roll down the curtain.

The screen size also largely determines the size and nature ofthe keyboard. There are three problems for the Microsoft Surface's keyboard:

1. It most likely is too small, because of the 10.6-inch screen size.

2. At least one of the keyboards Microsoft showed was flimsy. Thiswill work OK on a hard and flat surface, but how about trying towork with it in your lap? It's called a lap-top after all. Trywriting something with a pencil on a single 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper inyour lap, and you get the drift.

3. A keyboard attached to a tablet will also be top-heavy. Again, ifit's not flimsy, it will still be a bit difficult to deal with in yourlap. How would the screen stay up? Microsoft Surface has a stand toallegedly compensate for this, but although it works on a flattable, of course it is essentially impossible to use in your lap.

Bottom line on Microsoft Windows 8 in the form of its own Surfacetablets: fail, fail and fail.

What about regular x86 Windows 8 for laptops and desktops? Well, theanswer is divided into two parts of the market: Consumer andenterprise.

1. Consumer: These users are fleeing Microsoft by the droves intothe arms of Apple, and may also begin to go for Google'sChromebooks -- at least if Google manages to significantly turn on themarketing machine. Will Microsoft be able to stem the tide withMicrosoft 8? Possibly, but I doubt it.

I have yet to hear a single consumer who has said "I was going toditch my Windows laptop for Apple or a Google Chromebook, but insteadI've chosen to wait for Windows 8 so that I will be more likely tostay with Windows." We shall see, but color me skeptical.

2. Enterprise: This is the big kahuna for Microsoft. I keep hearingall day long that Microsoft is going to have such a fantastic yearahead of us because there is an "upgrade cycle" to Windows 8 startingin the fall. The Windows 8 "upgrade cycle" mantra is repeated endlessly, and nobody seems to challenge it.

Enterprises were thrilled to upgrade to Windows 7 in the last fewyears, for good reason. It offered much-improved functionality andsecurity for enterprises of all sizes. It was therefore a massiveupgrade cycle, the biggest for Microsoft ever.

However, when I ask business owners if they plan on upgrading toWindows 8, they laugh at me. In their minds, all Windows 8 brings tothe party is a bunch of really distracting and annoying tiles thatwill subtract from the attention and productivity of their employees.

A typical comment I hear is, "We want our employees to focus on work,not to be dragged into Twitter and Facebook all day long."

I would go so far as to say that enterprises tell me that they wouldpay to stay on Windows 7, which works just fine, rather than putWindows 8 in front of their workers. That's bad.

Don't just take my word for it. I've been reading the comments on theMicrosoft blog that deals with Windows 8.

Yes, not every single comment is negative, but spend a few hoursreading them and you will see many strong arguments against deployingWindows 8 in the enterprise.

For all I know, Windows 8 may have some wonderful attributes if youare willing to look past those flashing social networking tiles.

Perhaps Microsoft will allow you to turn off all of that distractinggarbage and focus on only the productive part of the OS that wouldlook just like Windows 7 does today. If so, Microsoft will haveaverted a disaster. Surely Microsoft will be clarifying this in thenear future, in case people like me missed it already.

But if Microsoft doesn't fix or otherwise clarify this and the severalother problems with Windows 8, then I doubt that it will have theWindows 8-led renaissance year ahead that the market seems to be expecting.

If Microsoft continues to develop products in such atone-deaf manner, the year ahead could look more like Palm 2010 or Research In Motion(:RIMM) 2011. I hope not.

At the time of submitting this article, the author was long AAPL,GOOG, QCOM, FB and NVDA, and short MSFT, AMD and AMZN.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.