Microsoft kicks off Windows 8 marketing blitz in NYC

Microsoft spared no expense in launching its latest Windows operating system in the heart of New York City

Kicking off what may be the company's most challenging marketing effort yet, Microsoft has launched its next generation operating system, Windows 8, in New York City.

"Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC really is," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer during the launch presentation, held at Pier 57, a giant warehouse jutting out into the Hudson River. The OS is radically from previous versions of Windows 8, Ballmer said, one that addresses a growing number of computational form factors, many of which Microsoft showed at the event.

Such new devices blur the line between tablets and PCs, and offer the best of both form factors. "Are these new designs PCs? Yes. Are they tablets also? Yes. We brought together the best of both worlds. People will pick and choose what is important to them. Everybody should be able to find their own perfect PC," Ballmer said.

Ballmer also stressed how much more dynamic Windows 8 would be over competing devices. Windows 8 machines would be "alive with activity," with live tiles updating personal information on the start screen, he said. "Picture your start screen filled with everything and everybody important to you. You will always know what is going on with the people in your life," Ballmer said.

Microsoft has always marketed new versions of its flagship Windows OS with plenty of aplomb. But it is particularly important for Microsoft that this version Windows is a success. Observers have noted that, unlike any version since Windows 95, this Windows 8 has less of a predetermined course of success. Press have hailed this launch as Microsoft's potential "last stand" and maybe even the end of Microsoft's dominance on the computer platform.

Much has changed in the three short years since the last major release of Microsoft's Windows franchise, Windows 7. The market for consumer computational devices has expanded, and moved away from using exclusively Windows. And Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division, acknowledged this when announcing the official launch.

"This is a new era of Windows PCs," Sinofsky said. "Windows 8 is a major milestone in the evolution and revolution of computing."

Sinofsky noted that today's PC environment is radically different than the world in the early 1990s that Windows was first developed for. At the time there was no email, no Internet, no digital cameras. PCs were tethered to giant CRT screens, which had a lower resolution than smart phones do today. Fifteen years ago, working on a computer meant working on a desktop PC, or, perhaps a laptop for businesses. And both used Windows, except for a small amount of Apple Macintoshes. Windows dominated both form factors extensively. Since then, thanks to Moore's Law and other improvements in technology, computational power has been reduced to handheld proportions. And other operating systems, such as Apple's iOS and the Linux-based Android, have taken the lion's share of this giant and still emerging mobile market, forcing Microsoft to attempt to play catch-up.

The company's strategy is to recast Windows as a single operating system that can offer a unified interface across a wide range of devices, from handheld mobile devices to high-end desktop computers.

Sinofsky noted that Windows 8 builds on the success of previous versions of Windows. Windows 7 was "the most successful operating system ever released," he said, noting that 670 million Windows 7 licenses have been sold. Overall, more than a billion people have used one version of Windows, he said.

Microsoft took giant leaps to address all the many new form factors available today, such as convertible PCs, which can change from a laptop to a tablet, Sinofsky noted. "In Windows 8, we shunned the incremental," he said. "This is a re-imagined Windows."

For the launch, the company commissioned an exhibit called Microtropolis, which is a large scale replica of Manhattan in which many of the buildings serve as platforms for Windows 8 devices. Microtropolis was designed as a way to show the many and varied devices upon which Windows 8 runs, and carries the message that Windows 8 will engender a whole new range of computational devices, to meet every possible need. Thus far, over 1,000 different devices have been certified to run on Windows 8, Sinofsky said.

Sinofsky also touted how Windows 8 would serve as a significant upgrade even for machines running Windows 7. The new OS extends battery life by 13 percent. Boot times have been reduced to 10 seconds from 15 seconds. A Windows 8 machine can secure a WiFi connection in as little as one second. Overall performance has been improved by 30 percent. New Windows 8 applications can be downloaded in a single step from the Windows Store.

With this marketing effort, Microsoft is asking consumers to "re-imagine Windows," said Tami Reller, Microsoft chief marketing officer for Windows, in an interview a day prior to the launch. "We wanted to take the power and flexibility of Windows and scale it across a very, very wide range of form factors."

"We want to allow the customer to choose whatever device works for them, one device or multiple devices, and have a predictable and common experience" with the user interface, Reller said. Microsoft cloud services such as SkyDrive will allow users to share content across different devices.

Unfortunately, this decision to offer variants of Windows could cause potential confusion among consumers, pundits have noted. The company had to develop two variants of Windows 8 to run on two different processor families, Intel's x86 and Arm, which is widely used for mobile devices. Someone might buy a Windows RT device, such as Microsoft's Surface tablet, and then become frustrated when they can not run their own Windows applications -- those that ran on previous versions of Windows 8 -- on the Windows RT devices. Another challenge Microsoft must undertake is to explain why enterprises and other desktop users should move to Windows 8, especially given the fact that Windows 7 was, by and large, successful in this arena.

Reller said that the company will not try to explain the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8 in its consumer marketing efforts across different media. Instead, it will explain the differences on its website. She is also confident that the user interface, though new, will be intuitive to users. She said the company has compiled over "65 centuries" of aggregated user testing that shows that consumers do get how the interface works, and find it preferable to the old Windows look and feel.

Extensive testing was done, Sinofsky said. Thus far 16 million copies of the pre-build version of Windows 8 have been downloaded and tested, and the company has amassed over 1.24 billion hours of testing.

Microsoft is planning to let its Windows Store serve as focal point for the migration to Windows 8. Thanks to new development tools released last year, developers can now build an application once and have it run on either Windows 8 or Windows RT devices without modification. "Write once, run on everything," Reller said. Over time, Microsoft hopes, consumers will buy their new and replacement apps from the App Store and be less worried about the legacy programs on older machines.

"We have hundreds of apps being added to the store every day," Reller said.

Both Ballmer and Sinofsky seemed even more energized than the usual when introducing Windows 8 to the world, which is not surprising given, that with this release, the company's future now is at stake.

"It is a very important time. We fully recognize how important Windows 8 is," Reller said. "It's why we've been so ambitious. We've been focused and we're ready to bring this product to market."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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