Last January, I publicly asked a question that certain people claimed proved I was stupid for even raising: “What if Windows 10 fails?”  

A few days later, Microsoft declared it would give Windows 10 away to registered Windows 7 and 8.1 users for free.

Doesn’t that render the whole failure/success question moot, folks asked me? Certainly that may have been the intent.

I’m not sure that people understood what I meant by “fail.” Windows 8 failed, but not just in the sense that its sales declined. It lost the heart of the people who use it.

The reason “technology news” today is mostly about smartphones and not refrigerators is because, long ago, the manufacturers of refrigerators lost contact with the heart of their public. Believe it or not, prior to World War II, there was a day when the refrigerator was considered the technological marvel of the consumer world.  People who didn’t even own one yet, loved it.

If you believe that everything that’s manufactured, like the refrigerator and the weed whacker and the electric toothbrush and the billionaire boardroom show host, eventually loses the heart and soul of the general public, then you must concede that the consumer tech press is already living on borrowed time.  

The PC has already become the most boring commodity on the planet.

But another device once held that distinction: the telephone. And where is it now, in the public conscience?

Anything that is made to work well, even a failed product, can be re-invigorated into an ideal worth rallying behind. In all the world, Apple is the premier example of an institution capable of establishing firm, new foundations on the ruins of its greatest mistakes.

Opposable Thumbs

op/edLast week, we saw two verdicts on Windows 10’s success batted about in the press. One was prompted by Corporate Vice President Yusuf Mehdi’s declaration, via Twitter, that the product was “running” (his word) on more than 75 million devices.

Stunning success.

The second, accentuated by a picture of a rocket exploding on the launch pad, reported the continued decline of the PC market, precipitated by an IDC analyst’s conclusion that since people knew they didn’t have to purchase new PCs to run Windows 10, they weren’t buying PCs.

Colossal failure.

Let’s parse the first one first. The tech press may be the least technical press there is, as Mehdi’s declaration was touted by headlines trumpeting “75 million installations” and “75 million downloads.” When we all know those are different things.

Mehdi here is talking about the jackpot, 75 million running copies of Windows 10. But on what?

A Different World

In the modern world, virtual machines are devices. If you think virtual machines don’t matter, look how many Macs run Windows, thanks to Parallels. Look how many colleges and research facilities run virtual desktops.

Think of all the virtual machines running on cloud platforms today whose underlying operating system had been Windows 7, up until the past four weeks. And ask yourself whether there’s a one-to-one correlation between VMs and users.

We live in an extremely different technology world than the one in which Windows 7 thrived.

But before I divert us onto that tangent, let’s parse the colossal failure: The PC market has been in a state of decline for some time. And it continues to be, for which a five-year-old may deduce that Windows is no longer relevant to that market.

Irrelevance is nearly impossible to reverse, as the boy-bands of the ‘90s discovered to their dismay.

Does this mean we should chalk up Windows 10 with a failure of Windows 8 proportions?  Remember, I’m the one who said Windows 8 failed because it severed people’s emotional connection with the product line. Windows 10 does not appear to be mending that connection yet, at least by these figures.

Or, interpreted another way, if consumers truly have become interested in Windows 10, then that interest is working against the PC due to the operating system’s being given away for use on existing platforms. That might be a viable theory, given the time to prove it out.

One month is not enough time.

After the PC

Simply declaring, “It’s too early to say,” is not really the point. We appear to be approaching this problem from a 1998 mindset.

We expect Windows 10 to rescue the PC, as if there would be any truly great purpose in the PC being rescued. We now live in a world where the functions we perform every day no longer need to be installed on spinning ceramic drums cooled by overworked fans on our desktops and in our briefcases.

That any professional analyst would approach the problem of the success or failure of the PC based upon Windows’ contribution to it, is an astonishing revelation about how much the 20th century still shapes analysts’ point of view.  It is as if the cloud never happened, that Salesforce never launched, that Dropbox never dropped, and that Amazon were merely a desert.

It is not Windows that is either saving or dooming the PC. It is its own path of evolution, which in several respects appears closed.

If Windows succeeds — as a brand, a platform, an ideal, as anything — it will be because whatever we use to become productive, to stay connected, and possibly to enjoy what we do for a living, has been enhanced by Windows. If the thing we use happens to be a PC, that’s fine.

If it’s not a PC, that doesn’t mean Windows has failed. It could mean the reverse, if a new platform assumes the place in our hearts the PC once held.

Of course, we could truly render the question moot by redefining failure to mean whatever we want it to mean. Some months ago, when a Quora user launched a discussion based on my initial question, a Microsoft employee (mind you, not an official spokesperson, just someone whose employer happens to be Microsoft) immediately responded by saying Windows 8 never failed at all.

Lots and lots of people adopted it, the employee said. And Windows 10 would not have had the opportunity to deal with Windows 8’s setbacks, had there been no setbacks.

And now you understand how Microsoft employees survive their work weeks.

Up and/or Down

If Windows 10 fails, by any realistic definition of “failure,” it will mean the product did not achieve the objectives for which it was designed. One of them is obviously self-serving: to put Microsoft’s business back on a firm footing.

Another, more important, objective is to become as strong a platform for our information systems, with whatever devices happen to be there, as Windows 95 once was for our PCs.

We are not anywhere close to knowing whether those objectives have succeeded or failed. In the meantime, though, expect those up- and down-pointing thumbs to be flailing madly, like a windsock over an Oklahoma wheat field.

We like our black-and-white answers, our thumbs-up or thumbs-down votes, our early verdicts. But it is our preferences that have become outmoded. In the real world of technology, black-and-white went out of style long ago.