10 hurdles Windows 8 must clear to succeed

Microsoft has launched the Windows 8 Release Preview and is shooting for RTM in two months. But Justin James foresees some major obstacles in the path of the OS.

When Windows 7 launched, it was a huge success for Microsoft. Its biggest challenges were the lingering anger around Vista and the satisfaction with XP. Windows 8 is being launched into a totally different set of market conditions and with the ambitious goal of unifying all form factors onto one operating system. Here are 10 challenges Windows 8 will need to conquer to be a success.

1: The Metro UI

Make no mistake about it: An awful lot of people are pretty unhappy with Metro. From my use of Metro on a Windows 8 VM and a Windows Phone 7 device for more than a year, I can tell you that there is a night-and-day difference between Metro on a desktop and Metro on a touch screen. Not only is Metro really different from the traditional Windows UI, but even in the Consumer Preview, it feels like the mouse is a second-class citizen to touch. Unless Microsoft can get this right, a lot of first impressions of Metro will be bad.

2: PC OEMs -- can they finally get tablets right?

Microsoft's fate is closely tied to the ability of its partners to get things right. The problem is, Windows 8 is as much (if not more so) of an OS for mobile form factors with touch UIs (tablets, smartphones) as it is for desktops and laptops. And this is the exact market that PC OEMs have proven bad at penetrating for around 10 years now. Sure, there have been some successes (like the iPaq line of PDAs). But there have been many more instances where the PC OEMs just could not figure out how to give customers what they wanted.

3: iPad, iPhones, and Android

Windows 8 on tablets is going head-to-head with the well-established iPad. In fact, the iPad is so dominant in tablets Android can't get much traction at all, despite its success in phones. All the same, Microsoft is trying to push Windows 8 tablets. On the phone front, WP7 has been facing a huge uphill battle against iPhone and Android, despite much critical acclaim and a vocal and enthusiastic user base. Windows 8 on a phone will not be much different from WP7 to most users. If WP7 has been having it tough, Windows 8 is not likely to do much better in phones. Windows 8 for mobile form factors feels like a solution in search of a problem for many users.

4: Distrust of cloud

Windows 8 leverages cloud technologies in a great many ways, and it makes the OS easy to use. It's pretty slick to sign into a brand new Windows 8 install and have all your contacts there, Facebook integration, etc. At the same time, this integration will raise all sorts of red flags to corporate IT departments, which will want to either cripple the devices or take a wait-and-see approach to moving to Windows 8, looking for folks to show exactly what data goes where and how... and how to stop it.

5: No Active Directory support on ARM

Windows 8's big market advantage should be that it can allow tablets and phones to work as a seamless part of Active Directory, but this is not supported on ARM architecture. While Microsoft is giving corporate IT admins ways of managing Windows 8 devices, IT departments tend to prefer consolidation, not proliferation of management tools. Microsoft is going to have to work hard to prove to IT departments that they do not need Active Directory integration for ARM devices.

6: Brand new app market

The only way -- other than developers testing -- to get Windows 8-native applications (Metro applications) is through the app store. The question is, "Will the app store launch with a good number of apps?" Microsoft really surprised me with how many apps WP7 launched with, and it has been even more aggressive about getting apps into the Windows 8 app market early. And anything it can do to allow an easy port of WP7 apps to Windows 8 will be a huge help, especially if it is "no work required," since the WP7 app store is around the 100,000 app mark at the time of this writing.

7: Microsoft Office

Microsoft has been taking steps to bring Office to other platforms (notably iOS), and when it does, that will reduce Windows lock-in quite a bit. It is also working hard to expand its Web reach with Office. Add it up, and users' biggest reason to need Windows goes away, unless they depend on plug-ins that won't work on other platforms.

8: The economy

The economy still stinks. A large part of getting a new OS into the market depends on people buying PCs, and a lot of folks are choosing to do without a new computer because of the cost.

9: Longer refresh cycles

While computers keep getting faster, most applications are not getting more demanding. It used to be that you needed to be on the cutting edge of hardware to keep up with software, but no more. Now, even budget hardware from years ago is still more than adequate to run most applications. That means that the refresh cycle that used to be three years is being stretched to four, five, and beyond. To make it worse, the companies that skipped Vista are now moving (or recently moved) to Windows 7, and they're not in a hurry to do another migration.

10: Windows 7

Microsoft is its own biggest competitor with Windows 8 on the desktop and laptop. Windows 7 has been a big success, and for good reason: It delivers on the promises Microsoft has been making now for so long regarding security and reliability. Windows 7 finally "just works." All the consumers and IT departments that have been clinging to XP far past its prime will be doing the same with Windows 7, and Microsoft is not likely to get them to jump onto the Windows 8 train easily.

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Your take

Do agree that these issues represent major hurdles for Windows 8? Do you think Microsoft will be able to overcome them?