How big is Microsoft gambling with Windows 8?

Analysts try to parse the risk Microsoft's taking by blending touch with the desktop in one OS

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Although Windows 8 will run all traditional 32-bit or 64-bit software that now runs on Windows 7, Microsoft will also push developers to craft apps using HTML5, JavaScript and other Web-standard technologies, in a way aping the kind of online apps that Google markets.

Others were even more bullish on Windows 8's chances, and saw the transition as not so much a gamble by Microsoft, but the very best choice available.

"It would be a risk not to do what they're doing," said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research. "I see a risk by doing nothing."

Epps ticked off three elements to Windows 8 she believes are critical to the operating system's future relevance, including bringing Windows to devices powered by ARM's low-powered processor architecture, the touch-first model and the stress on new applications written with HTML5.

"Those three elements of Windows 8 support the behavior changes taking place in PC use," Epps said. "I don't see the PC as going away, but the PC is going to change."

And from her point of view, Windows 8 is the right move by Microsoft to stay abreast of those changes.

"Windows 8 will help stave off the defections from both Microsoft's partners and its customers," Epps argued. "Microsoft is transforming Windows as its defense against defection."

Directions on Microsoft's Miller seconded Epps, to a point.

"I think what they did was to play the best hand that they had," Miller said, referring to Microsoft's need to retain the desktop OS market while tossing its hat in the tablet ring. "This is as good an opportunity as they have, and one of the boldest strokes they've taken in a long, long time."

Gartner's Silver chimed in, too. "Microsoft needs to remain relevant on the desktop, but it's not really just about the desktop anymore, is it?" said Silver.

But with so few details known about Windows 8, and so many questions unanswered, skepticism remained a theme among analysts.

"I'm more positive about this release now than I was before, but lots of questions remain," said Miller.

"Until they can tell us how legacy apps will run on Windows 8 on ARM, I'll have to be bearish on their chances," said Gillen. "That's my biggest concern....Will legacy software run on ARM, [and] if so, how? So far, we don't have any idea, and it's not because we haven't asked."

That's not the only question analysts have that Microsoft hasn't answered about Windows 8. For Miller, the toughest chore Microsoft has is just explaining its Windows 8 strategy in a clear, concise way that everyone can understand.

"Microsoft's biggest challenge between now and RTM [release to manufacturing] will be to clarify for press and analysts the idea of 'two modes' -- touch and the desktop -- of Windows 8," Miller said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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