Microsoft has announced the first quarterly loss in its history, the same day as it announced the launch date of Windows 8. To say it has a lot pegged on the new operating system would be putting it mildly.
So what does Windows 8 – and its partner Windows Phone 8 – have to do?
Microsoft lost $492m (£392m) in the three months to June this year. This was in part due to the lacklustre performance of aQuantive – Microsoft wrote down the value of the digital marketing company it took over in 2007 by £3.94bn. Which is quite some drop.
In the same period last year, the Xbox maker made a profit of $5.9bn (£3.7bn).
Despite this recent drop off, Microsoft is generally doing ok. Sales of PCs running its Windows operating system are on the wane, but many say this is because people are waiting for Windows 8, which is due on October 26th.
Microsoft announced the release date yesterday. A new operating system from the Redmond-based company is always big news, but this is even more of a landmark. With a new look and feel, a version optimised for tablets, and a brand new sister OS to work on mobiles, it’s the biggest redesign in a decade for Microsoft.
If it’s going to win back customers lured by the simplicity of Apple’s Mac OS, then Windows 8 has a lot to do. Happily, it looks like Microsoft has learned its lessons from the monumental fallout that came from Windows 7. All the chrome plating and pointless reflections have gone, replaced by a pared-down, clean look that’s almost sparse in its minimalism. The shadows from the windows have also been binned, making the desktop appear flat. It’s really closer to Gmail’s look since its recent redesign than Windows 7.
Usability is the key
But it’s no good having a whole new look if it bares no relation to what it’s like to use. Let’s not mince words: Microsoft has fallen behind here, both in desktops and mobiles. But Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 look to remedy that.
The tile-based UI seen on the touch-oriented version for tablets and on Windows Phone is a real step forward. Even tech legend Steve Wozniak sang its praises recently, proclaiming it more beautiful and intuitive than Android. And with Android aping iOS’s app-based layout, the live tiles of Windows Phone offer Microsoft a real chance to stand out. One design student has even knocked together a proposal for how Microsoft could rebrand and show itself to be more forward-thinking.
A new image
Andrew Kim has titled his project ‘the new Microsoft.’ He proposes a new logo he calls the ‘slate’. It’s much more modern-looking, and resembles a window of an inner-city office building. The logo would sit much better on products as well, Kim claims, as the current Windows motif is “visually uncomfortable.”
“The next Microsoft is built around the belief and passion for the future,” Kim writes on his website. “Innovation and progress is engraved into the culture and expressed to the public in a bold and mysterious fashion.”
But where it gets really interesting is when comparing iOS and Android.
Apple’s mobile operating system is described as “skeumorphic”, which is a fancy way of saying it features digital versions of old analogue controls (just see Apple’s recent Podcasts app for proof of this). It also may be responsible for kickstarting all these ‘new age fun with a vintage feel’ shenanigans that have been going on of late.
Android, meanwhile, is described as a hybrid. This leaves Microsoft perfectly positioned to come in with its “purely digital” look and feel, and steal the show. Though Kim does question the company’s choice of colours, suggesting a more muted palette.
Hand in hand with this bold new design language would be a no-nonsense marketing campaign that would be even a little aggressive, and less friendly than Apple and Google’s approaches.
Scratching the Surface
And then there’s Microsoft Surface.
This is the company’s own tablet it announced recently, surprising and no doubt annoying some of its hardware partners. Microsoft had already seen what its partners had come up with, so was in a unique position when it started work on its own tablet. Some say Microsoft launched Surface purely to generate interest in Windows 8; others that it was a foolish move guaranteed to annoy companies it needs to keep on-side. But it definitely shows Microsoft isn’t afraid of riling anyone, which is a step in the right direction. It just needs to carry through this kind of boldness to the execution of Windows 8.
(The Surface wasn’t all good news. Briefings were very short, with access to the tablets limited. Microsoft also wouldn’t disclose the full list of specs.)
With the iPad having the top-end of the tablet market sewn up, and Google and Amazon making huge in-roads on the budget end, there’s a lot of middle-ground that’s currently only served by a slew of identikit Android slates. A shame then that the Surface is said to start at around $600 (£384, but expect it to cost a lot more than that in the UK). If Microsoft is serious about tempting people away from their iPads and Android tabs, it needs to be a lot more competitive with its pricing.
A Window to the future?
We’re impressed by the previews of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. Despite the huge competition it faces from Apple and Google, Microsoft could well claw back some market share, and win back some customers who went wandering when Windows 7′s quirks proved too much. Roll on October 26th.