Windows 10 PCs for back-to-school? Highly unlikely

Even if Microsoft wraps up the OS by July, OEMs will keep selling Windows 8.1 PCs, say analysts, then tell customers to upgrade

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Barring a miracle, devices pre-loaded with Windows 10 won't make it to stores in time for the back-to-school sales season, whether Microsoft issues the OS in late July or not, analysts asserted today.

"I would be really surprised if channel product was on the shelf with Windows 10 in July," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, and before that, an executive at chipmaker AMD and with Compaq, the PC maker purchased by Hewlett-Packard in 2002. "I was in OEM for 10 years and was the one who signed off on images [to be installed on PCs]. OEMs get a master [from Microsoft], but then build their images on top of that. Even the fastest OEMs might take one to two months, for some three to four months.

"I just don't know where they'll find the time to make back-to-school," added Moorhead.

Moorhead and others were reacting to comments made two weeks ago by the CEO of AMD, Lisa Su, who said that Windows 10 would "launch at the end of July." She also mentioned back-to-school, the second-biggest consumer technology sales season in the U.S., behind only the end-of-the-year holidays. "We are watching sort of the impact of that on the back-to-school season, and expect that it might have a bit of a delay to the normal back-to-school season inventory build-up," Su said.

Her loose talk about July -- Microsoft has declined to confirm the July timetable, and has stuck with its wider "this summer" window -- triggered certainty by some that Microsoft would ship Windows 10 then, but skepticism by others that a launch would be feasible given the OS's current rough edges.

Even if Microsoft does push Windows 10 out the figurative door in late July, it's hard to see how or why hardware makers would get products to retail in time for back-to-school, which runs for about seven weeks starting in late July, said Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group who specializes in technology retailing.

"I don't see a wholesale jumping into the back-to-school market with Windows 10," Baker said. "You can fill the channel in a very short period of time, a matter of a couple of weeks. The challenge is what's still on the retail floor. Execution of a switch-over [from Windows 8.1-powered product to devices running Windows 10], that can be challenging."

Typically, OEMs like to "sweep" retail of virtually all old product -- those running, say, Windows 8.1 -- as they simultaneously substitute new PCs, 2-in-1s and tablets, in this case powered by Windows 10. Doing that during the big back-to-school season would be difficult without also interrupting (and damaging) sales.

"The challenge of a new OS is that they'd want to do a general wholesale sweep, leaving one or two SKUs [stock keeping units] that are older and replacing everything else," said Baker. "That's a real tough period of time trying to make a switch. Why spend money to disrupt the supply chain?"

Baker didn't believe OEMs would bother. Instead, they're much more likely to sell Windows 8.1-powered devices, spend the following months finishing up new designs and/or models more or less explicitly crafted for the new OS, then launch those this fall in time for the holiday stretch.

A big part of Baker's rationale was Microsoft's emphasis on a streamlined, easier-to-do upgrade from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10. If Redmond makes good on that promise, there shouldn't be a problem with selling Windows 8.1 systems for back-to-school, since the hardware requirements for Windows 10 are identical to its predecessor.

"Things are different now. What with the upgrades for phones and tablets, consumers have been educated about what an upgrade means," Baker said. The process isn't as terrifying to them as it once was. And to those for whom it remains mysterious, then the free offer gives retailers an opportunity to do the upgrade for consumers. Whether that service comes with a fee really doesn't matter: Either way, it gets the customer back into the store.

Moorhead echoed Baker's take on OEMs' moves for back-to-school and Windows 10. "They'd rather have brand-new product, fully merchandized for Windows 10," Moorhead said. "But what we'll see are PCs with Windows 8.1 that are upgradable to Windows 10."

In any case, that may be OEMS' only play.

"Based on my use of Windows 10 [preview], it would take a Herculean effort for it to show up pre-installed in retail by July," Moorhead opined.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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