Will Windows 8 Win? Microsoft's Uphill Battle Against Apple, Android

2012 is shaping up to be a make-or-break year in the crucial mobile operating system market and, for perhaps the first time in its distinguished history, Microsoft will be looking up at incumbent market leaders.

Windows 8, Microsoft’s next-generation operating system, is scheduled to launch this year, with a beta release slated for February. Unlike its many predecessors, the new OS is slated to deliver an entirely new user interface optimized for both desktop and touch-screen-enabled mobile devices. As more details emerge about the new release, reactions are being stirred up among OEMs, developers and solution providers -- many of which view Windows 8 as a pivotal, do-or-die move for the software giant.

While Microsoft made a sizable splash at CES 2012 with Windows 8 (the OS was featured on numerous Ultrabook and tablet demos), the spotlight shifted when Intel unveiled a major mobile alliance with Motorola Mobility around the chip maker's new Atom chip, code-named Medfield, for tablets and smartphones. The move displayed Intel's support for Android (Motorola Mobility is in the process of being acquired by Google) and left questions looming about how Microsoft and its operating systems will fit into Intel's plan for mobile dominance.

A lot of the uncertainty surrounding Windows 8 stems from the fact that, historically, Microsoft hasn’t had much of a foothold in the mobile space. While Apple and Google have managed to capture a significant chunk of mobile market share, Microsoft has stuck, more or less, to its PC-centric roots. According to recent statistics published by Web analytics firm Net Applications, 43.1 percent of U.S. mobile devices run on Google’s Android OS, while 16.7 run on Apple’s iOS. Microsoft, however, wasn’t among the top five, as Windows Phone 7 has lagged behind.

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It’s with these statistics in mind that many are questioning whether Microsoft is joining the mobility game too late -- and whether Windows 8 will ever gain the traction it needs to compete. Developers and solution providers told CRN that, while a new touch interface and an app store may pique the industry’s interest, they won’t necessarily mean a quick win for Microsoft’s new OS.

Bill Lucchini, COO of OnForce, an on-site services marketplace that matches service buyers with service providers, believes only a game-changing device or OS could successfully enter today’s already saturated mobile market.

Take Apple, for instance. It was able to enter the mobility space four years ago and succeed -- even among mobile giants Nokia and Samsung, which already had staked their claims -- simply because the iPhone was different. That same innovation is required to compete (at least seriously) in the marketplace today, Lucchini explained. “Apple changed what it meant to be a phone, and therefore took such a strong position, as Android did afterward,” he said. “So I think there is still room for that, but somebody needs to come up with that market-changing idea in order to get in at this point.”

While it’s too early to tell whether that “somebody” is Microsoft, Windows 8 does tout several new features that distinguish it from both competitors and previous Windows releases. The new Metro user interface, for instance, is fully touch-capable and replaces the traditional desktop Start menu with a tile layout similar to that of the Windows Phone 7.

NEXT: Breaking Down Windows 8

What’s more, the new OS features a log-in method called Picture Password, allowing users to define and enter a password by making select movements over a photo rather than typing one. Windows 8 also will deliver the most recent installment of Internet Explorer, version 10, and is expected to spark a more robust app selection in the Windows Store.

Perhaps one of the most innovative features seen with the new OS, however, is Windows to Go. The new feature allows IT administrators to create USB drives containing fully managed Windows 8 systems for users to take with them outside the office. As the name suggests, it’s essentially a portable and secured version of the new OS, apps and all (for more, check out the CRN Test Center review of the Windows 8 developer preview ).

Shahin Pirooz, executive vice president, engineering operations, and CTO of CenterBeam, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based solution provider, views Windows to Go as one of the most exciting new features to be delivered with Windows 8. Its appeal, however, is enterprise-focused, meaning that it may not necessarily draw a wider consumer audience. “In typical Microsoft fashion, they are speaking to the IT industry rather than the consumer,” Shahin explained. “Even though that’s who they are trying to get to.”

In addition to positioning itself as a true mobile innovator, Microsoft faces another challenge when it comes to Windows 8: the consumerization of IT. The phrase, referring to the increasingly blurry line between what is considered a “corporate” vs. a “consumer” device, could suggest that as more and more Apple and Android devices make their way into the corporate world, Microsoft’s grip on the enterprise market will start to slip.

Chad Osgood, CEO and managing partner at Premier Logic, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based software developer and solution provider, has seen declining interest in the Windows OS ever since the iPhone and other consumer-centric devices landed in enterprise users’ hands.

“I think what we started to see with the release of the iPhone was a lot more consumer-oriented mobile devices,” Osgood told CRN. “And what that did … we started to see a lack of demand from a consumer and an enterprise standpoint for Windows mobile.”

The decline of Research In Motion proves just how hefty a blow the consumerization of IT can deal enterprise-focused vendors. The BlackBerry maker lost a hefty chunk of its enterprise customer base to the iPhone and Android-run devices this year and saw a major blow to its third-quarter revenue, reporting $265 million compared to the $911 million the company reported in the same quarter the year before. If Windows 8 isn’t a game-changer, Microsoft also may find itself living in Apple’s ever-expanding shadow.

NEXT: Microsoft's Silver Lining

While the consumerization of IT and tough competition from Apple and Google may make it tough for Windows 8 to gain the competitive edge it needs, Microsoft does have a few things working in its in favor. The first, solution providers said, is its partnerships. The software giant’s long-standing ties with major OEMs including Hewlett-Packard and Dell may give Windows 8 more of a boost than any new user interface or log-in method ever could.

Specifically, Microsoft’s partnerships could facilitate the adoption of Windows 8 in corporate environments, where PC makers such as Dell already have a massive customer base.

“The beauty of Microsoft -- and I think this is where a lot of people tend to underestimate Microsoft’s potential -- is that that’s where they win. They win at that kind of relationship,” Osgood said. “Microsoft controls the market in a very different way than both Apple or Google. I think they are a sleeping giant in that regard, and once they sink in, that’s where they get their traction. It’s not going to take a lot if they get the Dells of the world to continue doing that.”

Both Dell and Microsoft declined to comment for this story. Earlier this month, however, Dell quietly pulled its Streak 7 tablet --the last of its Android-based devices on the U.S. market -- from shelves. The PC maker didn’t give much of an explanation as to why the tablet was being discontinued, but many speculated that it was in anticipation of the Windows 8 release in 2012.

"With Windows 8 on the horizon and Dell’s continual investments in tablet platforms, I think there is a very strong chance that, coming soon, we will see a Dell tablet with a version of Windows 8," said Tyler Dikman, president and CEO of Cooltronics, a Tampa, Fla.-based solution provider. "I don’t think, though, that means Dell won’t continue exploring enterprise platforms down the road. But if I had to take a wild guess today, if a new version of an Android OS comes out for tablets and Windows 8 for tablets comes out, which would I choose as far as what Dell would pick? I would definitely say Windows 8."

Fellow PC maker HP already has expressed its commitment to the Microsoft platform, along with its plans to incorporate Windows 8 within future tablet releases. “I think we need to be in the tablet business, and we are certainly going to be there with Windows 8,” HP CEO Meg Whitman said during the company’s third-quarter earnings call. Other OEMs including Samsung, Nokia and Lenovo reportedly are eyeing Windows 8 as well.

NEXT: Comfort And Compatibility With Windows 8

Like its partnerships, the Windows brand itself may give Microsoft’s newest OS a leg up in the mobility market, solution providers speculate. As much as consumers seek out the newest mobile trends, the familiarity of the Microsoft name could alone be a catalyst for Windows 8 adoption, especially in the enterprise.

Josh Covington, marketing manager at Velocity Micro, a system builder based in Richmond, Va., believes that the deep-seated Microsoft brand within so many enterprise IT infrastructures is going to one of the biggest drivers to Windows 8 success. For many IT teams, Covington explained, Microsoft means compatibility.

“The biggest thing is going to be the compatibility with the enterprise systems that are already out there,” he said. “One of its biggest strengths is going to be within the enterprise market. People have invested millions and millions of dollars on their IT infrastructure to make them Windows-compliant. If they buy a Windows 8 tablet, it’s going to seamlessly work with the infrastructure they already have in place.”

Indeed, Microsoft has a different strategy than Apple and Google for its mobile push. Unlike iOS and Android, which cover tablets and smartphones, Windows 8 will work on desktops, notebooks and tablets and not smartphones (Microsoft has Windows Phone 7 for that). Microsoft is hoping its desktop dominance will trickle down into the tablet market with the lure of cross-device compatibility and ease of use.

Osgood said that while competing operating systems such as iOS may provide a sleeker look and feel, Windows 8 provides something much more valuable: consistency. “Even though Windows may not provide as compelling a user experience as, say, a Mac -- even from a hardware standpoint it’s not even close -- Microsoft makes up for that by the fact that a CEO says, ‘You know what, this is where I do my e-mail. This is where I’m comfortable operating. And this is what I’ll continue to do.’”

Whether the Windows name, enterprise adoption or a long-standing reputation will be enough for Microsoft is yet to be seen. What solution providers, analysts and IT enthusiasts do know, however, is that the software giant has certainly proved its resiliency over the years. And Windows 8 may be no exception.

“They are kind of the turtle in the race,” Osgood said of Microsoft.” They can stay in the race long enough to eventually win. They don’t have to produce a winner every time to ultimately win. They’ve had a lot of flops. But they use that, and they learn from that.”