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Windows prelaunch paranoia: 17 years of gloom and doom

Everything is on the line with Windows 8 and Microsoft. It's do or die, according to pundits. So goes the headline hyperbole.

But here's the zinger: Dire make-or-break predictions for the launch of the latest Windows, tying it to the failure of Microsoft itself, have also greeted the releases of Windows 7, Vista, XP, Windows 98, and Windows 95.

A Windows OS launch just isn't complete without an everything-is-at-stake-for-Microsoft prediction.

And this time around, the feeling that Microsoft is at the precipice of failure on the eve of releasing its latest operating system is no different, as the fear mongers would have you believe that the October 26 release of Windows 8 may be spookier than a Halloween thriller for Microsoft.

I agree that more than the usual is on the line for Microsoft with the release of Windows 8. The company is going all out, introducing the Windows 8 and RT OSs, an overhauled user interface, the Surface RT tablet, Windows Phone 8, and a bevy of upgrades to the back end for cloud services and mobile apps. Does the future of Microsoft rest on Windows 8's success? According to many experts it does. At this point, who knows? This time they may be right.

Will Windows 8 topple Microsoft?

My personal favorite paranoid headline from the 2012 rollout is Forbes's "Is Windows 8 going to kill Microsoft?" In the article itself, the writer, Forbes contributor Tim Worstall, doesn't actually assert that Microsoft will go under; the headline is more trollish than anything. Instead, Worstall hypothesizes that, because Windows 8 looks different from Windows 7, "the very change [Microsoft is] bringing in means that people will be open to changing to a non-Windows platform." For pure entertainment value, I like the headline better.

A more nuanced risk analysis comes from ZDNet's Larry Dignan, who writes in "Microsoft: Radical shift to devices, risk ahead of Windows 8" that the Windows 8 launch represents Microsoft's move from being a software company that earns the lion's share of its revenue from software licenses to being a "devices and services company," to quote Steve Ballmer.

The risk for Microsoft if it doesn't adapt to change is that it might lose a portion of its 1.3 billion Windows users as Android smartphones and Apple tablets continue to transform the way people use computing devices. The challenge for Microsoft is to keep traditional desktop users happy while hoping that they migrate away from the desktop OS to Windows 8-powered gear--and not to those Android or Apple devices.

Windows OS sales in 2011 brought Microsoft $11.5 billion in revenue. If people forgo upgrading to Windows 8 or make the decision to buy a new Apple iPad instead of a Surface tablet, all of a sudden Microsoft is in trouble.

However, given that Microsoft makes the majority of its money from licensing software to businesses--it took in $24 billion in revenue and posted $15.8 billion in operating income in 2011--I'm not sure even sluggish sales of Windows 8 could topple Microsoft anytime soon.

This is just the most recent roundup of paranoia: Skeptics have been around ever since Microsoft released Windows 3.0 in 1990 and went head-to-head against IBM's OS/2. But let's begin our walk down Naysayer Lane in 1995.

Windows 95 is too powerful for its own good

The launch of Windows 95, on August 24, 1995, was supposed to spell doom for Microsoft because it was sure to motivate trustbusters within the U.S. Department of Justice to take crippling action.

The beef that the Justice Department had with Microsoft was a link on the Windows 95 desktop to the now defunct Microsoft Network. Remember when the mighty AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy online networks worried that such a link would give Microsoft an unfair advantage in online services?

The antitrust case will kill Windows 98

Let's score a point for the doomsayers: They would be proven right about the antitrust hammer eventually, but they underestimated Microsoft's resolve to fight the case in court.

On May 18, 1998, three days after Microsoft launched Windows 98, the Justice Department took the company to court. Newsweek ran the headline "Windows Under Attack." Industry pundits piled onto the "Can Microsoft survive getting sued by the United States?" bandwagon.

For years, the sides were locked in a bitter antitrust case that centered on whether Microsoft had the right to favor its own Internet Explorer browser and software over rivals such as Netscape when it came to bundling software with its operating systems.

Windows XP's lousy timing will be its demise

Three years later, Microsoft had survived the threat of being split into "Baby Bills," and on October 26, 2001, the folks in Redmond officially launched Windows XP. The timing was not ideal, as the launch was a little over one month after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Microsoft held its launch event only four miles from Ground Zero, at the Marquis Theater in New York's Times Square. In one article about that event, Bob Keefe of the Austin American-Statesman wrote:

Microsoft Officially Launches Windows XP in New York

Microsoft's timing turned out to be terrible. Because of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the poor economy and other factors, the long-planned release could be anything but festive for Microsoft and many of its partners.

The economy and the questionable timing weren't the only bad news for Windows XP's launch. Paranoia about XP's security and a built-in feature called Passport gave critics genuine reasons to slam the OS. Passport was a single-sign-on service that let you log on to a collection of websites without reentering your personal information. Hiawatha Bray, in a Boston Globe article titled "A Passport to Disaster," wrote:

The anti-XP gripes are many and varied, but the most serious one involves Microsoft's plan to build in a feature called Passport that could let the company collect large amounts of data about millions of computer users worldwide. Never mind any suspicions about Microsoft's nefarious motives for building dossiers on all of us. It's enough to recall that this is a company that can't even write a reasonably secure e-mail program.

Microsoft is its own worst enemy with Windows Vista

When the bloated and buggy Windows Vista debuted on November 8, 2006, many observers pronounced that the OS was the pinnacle of Microsoft coding and that it would all be downhill from there on out.

In the UK-based Telegraph's "Microsoft's Vista release may be last 'big bang,'" Josephine Moulds wrote:

Chairman Bill Gates has said this may be his last major launch as he steps aside from the company he co-founded to concentrate on philanthropic work. It may also be the last time the company undertakes such a major product launch as the technology industry shifts to a new business model.

But ultimately Microsoft may have been its own biggest threat. Notebook Review's Dustin Sklavos summed it up quite well in an editorial:

After using Vista for a bit, I'll be going back to XP and using that partition as a scratch disk for quite a while... Someone, somewhere in the hierarchy decided that "customer" was synonymous with "beta tester."

Ultimately Windows Vista was expected to flop because the OS failed to embrace hot trends of the time such as the rise of open-source software, the popularity of software as a service, and the cloud.

One last chance to get it right with Windows 7, or else

By the time Windows 7 came around, Vista users were so disgruntled that pundits declared Windows 7's debut a do-or-die situation for the company. In "Windows 7 could make or break Microsoft," Gregg Keizer wrote for ITBusiness.ca:

There's quite a lot riding on Windows 7--one of them being Microsoft's future itself... After the terrible reception Vista received, Redmond has once chance to show if it can do operating systems right, or if they've finally lost it. Windows 7 is that chance.

Critics thought that Microsoft was missing the cloud, and that such a mistake could come back to haunt the company. As Tim Weber wrote for the BBC:

[Microsoft] will be brought down by a resurgent Apple, insurgent open-source rival Linux, or a revolution in how we use computers, when the actual computing moves from desktop machines to the "cloud" where software runs on remote servers.

Today, as we await the premiere of Microsoft's biggest OS introduction yet, here's a final thought: Considering that the company has been left for dead with each Windows release, either Microsoft has more than nine lives or the paranoid pundits need to cool off.

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