Microsoft is staking a lot on the unified platform approach of Windows 8. Yet a big payout from the new operating system is by no means certain, says Gartner’s David Cearley.

Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to make the shift into what many have called the post-PC era. This is a period when new interfaces using touch and gesture will replace the user interface (UI), and mobile devices take centre stage from desk-bound machines.

Microsoft’s approach is to provide a single client operating system platform and modern user experience that spans Intel and ARM architectures as well as the full range of client devices, from mobile handhelds through to fixed-location desktops. Microsoft presents this strategy as “reimagining Windows”.

Windows 8

Windows 8 is not a finished product and Microsoft will need a number of iterations to refine itPhoto: Microsoft

Windows 8 is an ambitious project and I generally like the direction Microsoft is taking. The new Metro interface looks promising and Microsoft now supports HTML5, CSS and JavaScript as key elements in the development model.

If Microsoft can come up with the goods and deliver a modernised and optimised experience, and a unified application model across chip architectures and form factors, then it could maintain its leading position in client platforms.

However, this outcome is not guaranteed. The company faces three major challenges:

Challenge 1. Windows 8 needs to mature

Windows 8 is a developer preview, not a finished product. The demos at this month’s Build conference in California crashed frequently and we are probably months from a beta product. The new UI is still very rough and there are functionality gaps for Metro-style applications compared with the current Windows 7 environment.

Microsoft needs a number of iterations to refine the product. I don’t expect commercially available Windows 8 devices in the market before next August and it could easily slip to…

 

…the end of 2012. Meanwhile, Apple and Google are not sitting still and the movement towards smartphones and tablets is accelerating.

Challenge 2. Windows Phone is disconnected from Windows 8

Although Microsoft has not gained significant market share with Windows Phone 7, it has generated a fairly robust set of applications. On the plus side, Windows 8 builds on the UI model introduced with the phone. On the down side, these applications must be modified to run on Windows 8.

While arguably any phone application should be modified to take advantage of the larger screen, the failure to exploit the Windows Phone 7 app environment to bootstrap Windows 8 Metro apps could limit developer interest in both Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8.

Challenge 3. Windows 8 targets the world

By trying to be all things to all people on all devices, Microsoft runs the risk of offering too little for anyone on any particular device. A Windows 8 tablet must be a great end-user tablet experience first. This requirement includes providing a core set of easy-to-use apps for functions such as email and calendar, rich browsing and media consumption.

It also means having a robust ecosystem of third-party apps optimised for the tablet. A common platform across desktop and tablets and support for Windows 7 desktop apps are nice but will not matter if the core tablet experience is inferior.

The next 12 months will be an interesting time both for users and developers as the shift away from the UI model we have known for the past 20 years continues. For Microsoft, it’s all riding on Windows 8. Will it be OS/2 or will it succeed as Windows 3.1 did? Only time will tell.

David Cearley is a vice president and fellow at analyst firm Gartner.