Friday, October 26, 2012

Microsoft's next big job: luring users to Windows 8

The moment Microsoft has been building toward for years has finally arrived: the launch of Windows 8, the radical overhaul of the company's flagship operating system and its great shining hope for the rapidly expanding mobile market.

Now comes the really hard part: getting people and businesses to buy it.

Windows 8 became available for sale via download, on software discs and on new Windows 8 devices starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

Microsoft's challenge is not only to convince longtime Windows users they should use an operating system with an interface very different from what they're used to. It's also to convince those in the market for a mobile device that they should give Windows 8 a go.

Microsoft has not said how much it's spending on advertising and marketing for Windows 8, but estimates have placed the figure at more than $1 billion.

Microsoft executives at Thursday's launch event, held at Pier 57 by the Hudson River in New York, gave their best shot at making a convincing case for the new operating system.

"Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC really is," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said.

Ballmer talked about the different form factors inspired by Windows 8 — from tablets to ultrathin ultrabooks to convertible/hybrid devices that can change from tablets to laptops.

He talked about how the new Windows 8 interface "lights up" users' lives and keeps them connected by displaying on the tiles in the start screen everything from friends' social-media updates to news updates.

And he talked about how Windows 8 works well with Microsoft services, including Xbox music and games and its SkyDrive personal online storage service.

At Thursday's event, Microsoft also showed off Surface, the company's first branded computing device, which also is available starting Friday. This version is called Surface with Windows RT, a "lite" version of sorts of Windows 8 that's meant for devices with ARM-based processors. (Such processors are notable for conserving battery life.) The Surface starts at $499 and goes up to $599 and $699 for versions that include super-slim covers which double as keyboards.

Microsoft executives Thursday made a point of highlighting some positive reviews about Surface — especially regarding its software — but made no mention of the negative reviews, especially over the Windows RT software.

They also reiterated some of the highlights of Windows 8, from its swiping gestures to features such as "snap," which allows more than one app to be on the screen at any time, and the ability to easily share items within an app. None of that was new to people who've been following the development of Windows 8, but may have been new to some in the audience of 600 bloggers and media attendees from around the world.

The explanations from Microsoft execs are a way for them to shape the story around Windows 8.

"Microsoft's idea is that they want to create one seamless user experience across all devices," said Americus Reed II, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. Reed teaches a class that has focused on marketing challenges with Windows Phone, a device platform that shares a common user interface with Windows 8.

Microsoft's biggest challenge, he said, is "making sure you're communicating a consistent brand identity across these different delivery platforms."

The company will have to "figure out exactly what the right story is to tell people about what it represents as a brand, when people think about this new way of interfacing with Windows."

Apple's iPhone, for example, is "about creativity and being hip and about being easy to use and intuitive," while Google's Android devices are about "customization and 'you can do what you want to do with it,' " Reed said.

But the challenge for Microsoft right now, he said, is that for most people, "it's hard to identify what Microsoft is beyond productivity software."

So if Microsoft wants to expand its footprint in the mobile arena, it needs to focus more on what in its Windows 8 user interface is different and how those changes "allow people to have a more enhanced life," Reed said. "If they can tell that story, in a consistent way, over time, across multiple devices, then they have a chance."

How crucial it is to get people to buy in to Microsoft's story — and buy its products — is evident in some figures recently released by research firm Garner.

Currently, Windows is the dominant operating system across devices (including PCs, tablets and mobile phones) worldwide, operating on about 1.5 billion. But Garner predicts that Windows will lose that lead to Google's Android by 2016, when Android will be installed on 2.299 billion devices and Windows on 2.284 billion.

That's why Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg says that the real challenge for Microsoft isn't about what happened Thursday: "It's tomorrow, next week, next month, next year."

For Microsoft, the challenge now is the marketing and getting consumers to understand how Windows 8 is different.

"This is about evangelizing and educating," he said.



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