Microsoft backpedals from Ballmer's Windows 8 comments

One analyst, betting on late 2012, early 2013 release, says Microsoft has 'one chance' to get next version of Windows right

Microsoft yesterday backed away from comments made by CEO Steve Ballmer, who had told Japanese software developers that the next version of Windows would be dubbed Windows 8, and that it would launch in 2012.

"It appears there was a misstatement," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement the company issued Monday afternoon. "We are eagerly awaiting the next generation of Windows 7 hardware that will be available in the coming fiscal year. To date, we have yet to formally announce any timing or naming for the next version of Windows."

According to a transcript of his Monday speech made available by Microsoft, Ballmer said Monday that, "as we look forward to the next generation of Windows systems, which will come out next year, there's a whole lot more coming. As we progress through the year, you ought to expect to hear a lot about Windows 8. Windows 8 slates, tablets, PCs, a variety of different form factors."

Microsoft often keeps a tight lid on its products' names. In 2008, for instance, Microsoft didn't officially label the next edition as "Windows 7" until just weeks before it debuted an early build to developers, even though it had used that moniker for months as a code name.

Nor is this the first time that Microsoft has told everyone not to jump to conclusions about the next Windows. In February 2007, just days after a then-vice president of development refused to reveal the name of what would later become Windows 7, a Microsoft spokesman said the company was "not giving official guidance to the public yet about the next version of Windows, other than that we're working on it."

Most analysts have settled on "Windows 8" as the likely name for the next version of Microsoft's operating system.

Michael Cherry, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, wondered exactly what part of Ballmer's comments Monday were misstatements.

"Was it the name, Windows 8?" Cherry asked. "Or was it [the release in] 2012? Sometimes this is like being a soothsayer, pulling apart the entrails of animals."

Cherry remains slightly pessimistic about Windows 8's release time, saying today that he's sticking with his earlier predictions that the next operating system will reach customers in late 2012 or early 2013.

A majority of pundits, however, seems convinced that Microsoft will launch Windows 8 in the fall of next year, matching the October 2009 appearance of its predecessor, Windows 7.

"I'd love to be proven wrong," Cherry said, "but this will be a major release. And as they move forward to debug and test, they may have to rethink and change things. Some of those may be fixes of a caliber that are so [significant] that testing has to restart."

Cherry pointed out that that is what happened with Windows Vista, the problem- and perception-plagued operating system that Microsoft essentially had to restart after abandoning much of the work it had already done.

Vista, which launched in retail in January 2007, was several years late to market because of the restart.

Clues abound about the pace Microsoft is on with Windows 8, said Cherry, including statements last week by chipmaker Intel, which claimed that the next edition would not run older Windows software on rivals' low-powered processors.

Microsoft quickly reacted to statements made by Renee James, the general manager of Intel's software and services group, calling them "factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading."

"The fact that Intel made a statement about Windows 8 means that the first set of key OEMs have their hands on code," said Cherry. "That makes sense. You want important OEMs and partners to have the [Windows 8] code, call it an 'alpha,' before PDC so that they can test and build low-level drivers."

PDC, or Professional Developers Conference, is Microsoft's biggest get together for software and hardware developers. Microsoft will hold this year's PDC Sept. 13-16.

Another hint, Cherry said, was the announcement Monday that Steven Sinofsky, the Microsoft executive who heads up the Windows group, will be at the All Things Digital conference that runs May 31 to June 2.

"I think Microsoft will use that to show us that they're making progress on Windows 8," said Cherry. "In January at CES, Microsoft showed a bit of Windows 8, but it was held together with alligator clips and duct tape. Sinofsky will probably demonstrate a more polished package, and show us enough to prove progress."

But even with those tidbits, Cherry said he would wait until PDC, when he expects Microsoft will provide all developers an early version of Windows 8, to make a more precise call on whether the next OS will ship next year.

"At PDC, Microsoft will probably release a beta or preview, then nine to 12 months after that, launch Windows 8," said Cherry. "That puts it in late 2012 or early 2013."

Three years ago, Microsoft gave developers an early build of Windows 7 more than a year before the operating system released to retail.

As a Microsoft observer, Cherry would prefer Microsoft delay the next release of Windows if necessary, rather than rush it to market with flaws.

"If this is going to be a true tablet OS, which runs fast, has low power requirements and all the rest, then Microsoft has to get it right the first time," Cherry said, referring to the anticipated Windows 8 specially designed for tablets. "They're coming to the party late, long after Apple and Google, so they have to come in with a really great product, and can't have any problems or cut features or expectations. They have only one chance."

Cherry advised Microsoft to hold rather than deliver. "As long as you're late to tablets, you might as well be later and get it right than on time and get it wrong," he 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 .

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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