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Windows 8 has a great story. Can Microsoft tell it?

October 18, 2012 09:21 AM ET

Then it finally dawned on me: Windows 8 is really two products in one. One is a new user experience that has been optimized for a new generation of devices by effectively shedding the old Windows desktop. The other not only offers something very close to the user experience that stretches back in a long line through Windows 7 all the way to Windows 95; it is also capable of running legacy Windows applications. (Note, however, that the ARM version, branded as Windows RT, lacks legacy app support, though it does include a version of Microsoft Office and therefore has what looks like a Windows desktop for file management.)

While that new interface does address current reality regarding the growing use of touch-enabled devices, it also makes some assumptions about the future. It works great if you have the right hardware, meaning a touchscreen or a PC with a trackpad that fully supports Windows gestures. I'm told such trackpads will be available, but none of the devices I used had one. But Microsoft has hedged its bet by letting you use the classic Windows desktop if your input devices are a mouse and keyboard. How easy the transition is for you will depend on how much you need to use legacy applications and how often you have to go back and forth between the two interfaces.

To a large degree, Windows 8's success will be dependent on how well Microsoft can explain the benefits that it brings as a bridge between two worlds: the old Windows that millions of people are comfortable using every day, and a bold new version designed to compete against the likes of iOS and Android. So how can Microsoft get the message out and keep users from thinking Windows 8 is schizophrenic? It won't be easy. The kind of manic enthusiasm that greeted the launch of Windows 95 is unlikely to be seen again for any operating system. No one is going to stand on line all night to be the first to get a copy of Windows 8 at Egghead Software -- and not just because we no longer have brick-and-mortar specialty stores selling software as packaged goods. But Microsoft needs to recapture some of that consumer enthusiasm for Windows 8.

Doing that will be difficult, because Windows 8 is a complicated story, with two distinctly different versions running on devices that often look similar but work differently. Microsoft must tell this story -- perhaps by stressing flexibility as opposed to schizophrenia -- to everyone from CIOs of Fortune 500 companies to my mother (who currently lacks a PC of any kind). No doubt all eyes will be on Microsoft on Oct. 25 to see how the tale is told and how users react.

is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.

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