The Golden Age of Microsoft Windows is Over

Microsoft next week will unveil Windows 8.1, an update to its latest operating system that will restore features demanded by customers. While Microsoft is trying to regain its relevance, longtime allies are cozying up to rivals, particularly Google. Perhaps the age of Windows dominance is over for good.

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Windows 95 LaunchRemember the launch of Microsoft Windows 95, the company's first true GUI-driven operating system. The Rolling Stones’ anthem “Start Me Up” was heard around the world as firewalls heralded the arrival of the new application. Soon, Windows 95 and its subsequent versions would dominant the computing landscape.

Well, Hewlett-Packard is starting up a new All-in-One PC – the Slate 21 – that runs Google Android 4.2 Jelly Bean operating system. While HP recently became the fourth PC manufacturer to develop Chromebooks based on Google’s Chrome operating system, this is the first foray of a Google-powered large desktop device.

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Clearly Slate 21 is a consumer device, but nowadays consumer devices are leading rather than following enterprise IT adoption. This AIO could be the cornerstone of a new generation of Google-powered PCs to permeate the consumer and commercial markets.

Windows ain’t what it used to be, and evidence has been mounting in advance of this week’s Microsoft Build and the following week’s Worldwide Partner Conference. While Google’s Chrome operating system makes up a fraction of the install base, it is gaining traction among OEMs, presenting Microsoft with a thorny challenge.

In San Francisco next week, Microsoft will unveil Windows 8.1, the update to the latest operating system, which will add or restore many features demanded by customers. Most notably among them, the vaunted Start button that users have grown to love over the past two decades.

While Microsoft maintains Windows 8 is selling briskly – as much as 100 million units since the launch last October – PC sales continue to fall. IDC estimates PC shipments in 2013 will be down as much as 8 percent. And, for the first time this year, tablets – mostly of the Apple and Google variety – will outsell notebook computers. Many analysts blame lackluster PC sales on the shortcomings and lack of appeal of Windows 8.

To be fair, Windows 8 probably isn’t the problem for the PC slump. Businesses and people have more options. The commercial market really didn’t need another operating system; Windows 7 was a vast improvement over Windows Vista and worthy replacement for Windows XP. As a result, businesses are reticent to change. Consumers, on the other hand, have more options for consuming digital information, and smartphones and tablets have become their medium of choice.

Microsoft was slow to get into the tablet market. Surface, Microsoft’s first tablet device, and Windows 8, aren’t bad devices and platforms for mobility. They just face a steep uphill climb against Apple, which created and dominated the tablet market, and the ocean of Android-powered devices. Even if Microsoft doubles annual tablet sales, it will still be 1/10th of the sales pace Apple posted for the iPad over the holiday season alone.

The real trouble for Microsoft is the defection of longtime allies in the PC manufacturing segment. Earlier this month, HP announced a partnership to resell Google Apps, giving Google a large and strong ally to challenge Microsoft’s Office and Office 365. Now, with HP’s Slate 21, the PC manufacturer is sending a signal that it’s willing to spread its bets beyond Microsoft.

HP isn’t alone in moving away from complete dependence on Microsoft and Windows. Acer and Samsung have been partners with Google from the launch of Chromebooks in 2011. And, recently, Lenovo joined the pack by developing a ThinkPad Chromebook for the education market.

Many questions remain open for Microsoft on its future in mobility, tablets and operating systems. Microsoft is already shifting its focus away from Windows and more toward its business systems, which includes the Office productivity suite. And Microsoft is expected to announce a major reorganization next week that will likely consolidate the Windows and Windows Phone units. The biggest question isn’t whether Microsoft can regain its magic in Windows, but rather where Microsoft will find its next big of magic in the post-Windows world.


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