Now that Microsoft has finally launched its next-generation operating system, Windows 8, it must tackle what may be the most daunting marketing challenge it has ever faced.
Once the supreme leader of personal computing, Microsoft is now just one of several competitors in a brave new world in which PCs are losing ground to tablets and smartphones -- platforms on which Windows has a minor presence.
At the Windows 8 launch event in New York late last month, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called Windows 8 a radical change from previous versions of the company's flagship operating system. Windows, he said, has been recast to provide a unified interface across a range of devices, from smartphones to tablets to traditional PCs.
Microsoft officials acknowledge that much has changed in the three years since the last major Windows release, Windows 7. "In Windows 8, we shunned the incremental," said Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division.
Thanks to Moore's Law and dramatic improvements in technology, it's now possible to give users access to a good deal of computing power via handheld devices, creating opportunities for alternative operating systems like Apple's iOS and Google's Linux-based Android.
Nonetheless, Sinofsky contends that Windows 8 can build on the success of predecessors like Windows 7, which he called "the most successful operating system ever released," noting that 670 million Windows 7 licenses have been sold.
Any early success will have to come from consumers, because enterprises aren't likely to quickly adopt Windows 8, according to research firm Gartner.
"There are no compelling business imperatives to drive legacy devices in business toward Windows 8," said Gartner analyst Peter Sondergaard at his firm's annual Symposium/ITexpo conference last month. He predicted that any widespread corporate move to Windows 8 won't happen until "at least 2014."
Gartner said its projection doesn't mean Windows 8 is already on the ropes. Large enterprises rarely move quickly to new Microsoft operating systems. Applications have to be tested, and many IT shops wait for the release of the first service pack.
Gartner analysts expect to see selective rollouts of Windows 8. The emergence of tablets and smartphones as the primary tools for some enterprise workers, such as salespeople, means the days of massive, enterprisewide upgrades of a single standard platform are over.
Derek Minnich, an IT program manager at a company that he asked not be named, said his employer has used Windows 7 for about two years and there's no reason to upgrade at this point.
The only thing that might speed a move to Windows 8 would be "if tablets overtake the PC rapidly," Minnich said. Users will want Office products on tablets, and "that's where the [Windows 8] entry point will be," he said.
Peter Nies, who works in information security at a company that he asked not be named, said a significant amount of user training may be required to help familiarize people with the dramatic new features in Windows 8, such as its tiles and new interface.
"From a user perspective, it scares me because it is so radically different," said Nies.
Jackson is a reporter for the IDG News Service. Juan Carlos Perez of the IDG News Service and Gregg Keizer contributed to this story.
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.