Connected ecosystems, traditional PC hardware and the new Windows user interface

By Keenan Thomson, Desktop market analyst 

In the past decade, new mobile operating systems have introduced easy to navigate, touch-based, app-centric interfaces with a greater focus on the user experience. These new operating systems have captured large shares of the fast growing smartphone and tablet markets, the latter of which is so popular that it is now cannibalizing sales of traditional PCs and, having established themselves within the mobile community, these software vendors and their hardware partners are reaping the benefits of lucrative hardware and app purchases.

However, traditional PCs have essentially been left out of these connected mobile ecosystems, with development focused on new app creation and improving the mobile experience. In doing so, mobile OS vendors have presented Microsoft with an opportunity to migrate its large PC user base to a new mobile Windows platform.

Microsoft's Windows 8 is the company's first attempt at addressing this opportunity to bridge the gap between traditional and mobile hardware. Microsoft released a Developer Preview of its upcoming Windows 8 in September, which includes the company's touch-first, app-based user interface, dubbed Metro. One key benefit of Metro and its apps is the concept of "contracts," whereby an app can share data across devices and other apps. The goal of contracts is to make the user experience more enjoyable by making content and information seamlessly accessible. For instance, data saved on your desktop PC's Metro UI app can be accessed from other apps on any mobile device running Metro.

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Screenshots of Windows 7 user interface vs. Windows 8 Metro user interface, Source: Gap Intelligence, Oct. 2011

In the traditional PC segment, the greatest opportunity for the Metro UI lies with touchscreen desktops, which have seen considerable growth in popularity, despite a lack of practical touch applications to date. Touchscreen all-in-ones continue to flood into U.S. channels, with increasing product counts, broader coverage across resellers and a greater number of participating vendors.

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AIO = all-in-ones, source Gap Intelligence, Oct. 2011

Perhaps more importantly, Windows 8 is expected to gain share in the burgeoning tablet market. Although Apple and Google's current hold on the tablet OS market is quite firm, forecasts suggest that a significant number of Microsoft's 1.2 billion Windows users will migrate to a Windows 8 tablet following the OS' release in 2012. In fact, Canada-based RBC Capital Markets expects the market share of Windows 8 tablets to reach 15 percent by 2014. Research firm Gartner is not quite as bullish, but still expects Windows 8 to capture over a 10 percent share of the tablet market by 2015, equal to 34.5 million tablets, suggesting that a successful Windows 8 launch will help stem the current consumer migration to other platforms.  

It is also worth noting that Windows 8 is the only mobile operating system besides Android that supports x86-based CPUs. This support creates additional opportunity for the OS to be installed on more powerful tablets running Intel or AMD chips that are often used in enterprises.

tablet_retail_placements_by_cpu_build_0.png

Despite the dramatic steps Microsoft has taken to rethink its operating system, it's still unclear if the company's developer community, the true key to building a successful ecosystem, is robust enough to compete on the scale of iOS or Android. There is no doubt Microsoft is the undisputed OS leader in the PC market. Whether they can earn a place in the post-PC world remains to be seen.

Keenan Thomson is a desktop market analyst for Gap Intelligence, a San Diego-based independent technology research firm with emphasis in helping product manufacturers and retailers understand current market trends in order to respond to customer demands.  

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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