With the announcement of Office 2013 and the upgraded Office 365, Microsoft has finally shown its complete hand. Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, IE 10, Xbox with Kinect, and Office 2013 is the family of products Microsoft wants you to use throughout your computing life. The Windows Store is where it wants you to spend your money.
Roll back just a few years and Microsoft was in the creative doldrums. Windows Vista, Office 2007, IE 6, Windows Mobile... The world's largest software company had a pile of cash with which to play and, in most cases, a huge chunk of market share, but not even the most poker-faced MS staffer could honestly claim that Microsoft had the best products in a world in which Apple and Google were constantly innovating. In fact, with the exception of Xbox its portfolio was tired, and its products barely fit for purpose. Microsoft was attempting to bluff.
Kudos to Microsoft for recognising and acting on this. We know that it did because those self-same Microsoft employees will now candidly admit it (in private, at least). More importantly, look at the products it is announcing and launching: radically new to an extent that we are witnessing the equivalent of Apple upgrading from OS 9 to OS X, and Google launching Android. At the same time. Microsoft believes that it is holding aces.
It takes serious strategic thinking, creativity, and forceful management to draw such a line in the sand, keep your products ticking over, and aim for a date in the future at which all major product lines will be radically overhauled. It takes a bit of bottle, too, to stay in the game and wait until you have the right cards to play. The creative turnaround attempted by Microsoft flies in the face of its popular image as a character free, faceless conglomorate living off past glories.
Windows 8: a new start?
How well it can deliver on this promise remains to be seen. And there are, of course, victims. Recent purchasers of Windows Phone 7 devices such as the Nokia Lumia 900 can be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed by Windows Phone 8, as they simply won't get it.
People intent on purchasing one laptops and PCs right now should be aware that although the upgrade from Windows 7 to 8 will be inexpensive, the new OS won't feel like an upgrade. For traditional PCs and laptops, Windows 8 offers only a new way of interacting with the Start menu (now known as 'Charms'), the Metro interface, and access to the Windows Store. If you have existing software you want to use, you'll find that you spend little time in Metro, and touch controls have few uses on devices that don't have touch interfaces.
Nonetheless, Microsoft is playing a bold and neccessary game, and at least Windows 8 is perfectly usable on any Windows 7 system. I sense a confidence and coherence in Microsoft that hasn't been there since Vista launched.
With Xbox, Windows Phone 8 and the x86 and Arm flavours of Windows 8, plus the Surface, Bing, IE and Office, Microsoft has a coherent lineup of exciting products that - crucially - all play together nicely.
Given that around a billion people use a Windows device, if Microsoft can deliver on this promise the Windows Store becomes an unprecedented commercial opportunity. This in turn opens up the possibility of Windows becoming the platform of choice in literally billions of households and businesses.
Windows 8 is cheap for the same reason the Google Nexus 7 is cheap (and presumably the Surface will be). It's why phone handsets are subsidised. The aim of the game is to get people using the platform and, ultimately, buying their apps and media through the Windows Store. And then buying further Windows 8 devices on which to use the same apps.
With the portfolio of Windows products Microsoft has taken the time to create and launch, it has a chance of staying relevant for another generation of PC users. It's played its cards now, and its going to be fun seeing whether it holds aces or jokers.