Yes, this is indeed the question I just won’t let go.

When Windows 8 was unveiled in 2011, Microsoft promised it would converge every screen that could possibly support it under a single, cohesive usage model, moving the disparate device platforms closer together toward one way of working. It failed, spectacularly.

The measure of this failure was made clear, as the tech press reported in 2013, by analyst firm IDC’s calculation of a decline in PC sales at an annual rate of around 11 percent worldwide.

Keep that number in mind.

In terms of uptake, Windows 10 may be as successful as any commercial software product that Microsoft ever chose to give away — maybe, in the end, more so than even Internet Explorer.

The New Goal Post

By Microsoft’s accounting at the beginning of 2016, more than 200 million devices of all types worldwide are running Windows 10. The latest data from independent analysis firm NetMarketShare for the month of January shows worldwide Web traffic from desktop-based browsers running on Windows 10 constituting some 11.85 percent of all such traffic measured, eclipsing current Windows 8.1 traffic by better than one point.

“Windows 10 was a reconciliation in many ways,” remarked Ross Rubin, senior director of industry analysis for App Annie.

“It was a reconciliation of this new interface direction, and with that, a reconciliation between the desktop and touch environments. And, very significantly, it was a reconciliation between two long-running, parallel efforts: the phone and desktop PC versions.”

It is also, quite clearly, an earnest effort by Microsoft to reconcile with its users, making up for lost trust after Windows 8. Their expectations for how technology integrates with their lives and work, have metamorphosed since the iPhone and iPad.

Yet the “goal post” for Windows’ success has been reset several times since 2008. And it’s obvious that Microsoft and its customer base have been tugging at it against each other.

“The world has shifted to devices,” said Al Hilwa, program director for software development research at IDC.

During the pre-iPhone phase of human history, Hilwa recounted, PCs were at the center of people’s digital lives, with Web browsers like Netscape, music players like Winamp, messaging services such as AIM, P2P conferencing services such as Skype.

Mobile devices swallowed up that entire mental namespace, if you will, leaving the principal incentive for purchasing a PC in anyone’s mind — for both consumers and enterprises — as the possible resolution of a lingering doubt.

 “The driver for buying PCs, if you have a PC,” said Hilwa, “is about, has it gotten too old or do I need to do new things; is it performing properly; do I need something lighter or faster? To some degree that has not changed, but before the iPhone changed everything, we saw the PC had a bit of a heyday.”

Windows’ entire marketing philosophy, for most of its history up until Windows 10, has been to address those lingering doubts: to redefine the PC with each iteration as something desirable again.

“Windows releases in the past were so significant,” said Jan Dawson, principal analyst with Jackdaw Research, “coming several years after the previous one, that a lot of the time you needed the new PC hardware to take advantage of the new features.

“At the same time, it was an expensive upgrade. If you were thinking about spending several hundred dollars anyway to get the new version of Windows, and your current hardware really wasn’t capable of supporting it, you’d say, ‘Well, maybe it’s time for a new PC.’ So new versions of Windows would drive PC sales.”

The Old Ball and Chain

In 2009, when the worldwide PC market was projected to be growing at an annual rate of 22 percent, Gartner credited “aggressive promotion by PC vendors,” and other analyst groups followed suit. Those promotions centered around the arrival of Windows 7, the operating system that fixed the failure that was Vista.

“You started to get into this pattern of operating system releases addressing specific complaints in the previous version,” said Ross Rubin, “that were the root cause of the discontent.

“Windows 7 didn’t really look very different from Vista — it acted somewhat differently than Vista... The big difference is, Microsoft really reduced the footprint and improved the performance of the OS. And that seems to be a lesson that they’ve really taken to heart.”

Just before Windows 7’s release, many Windows users commented that I should not be so wildly optimistic about its success (as I was). If Microsoft really cared about fixing the Vista disaster, they said, it would have released the product as a free upgrade.

In the interest of balance, I reported this suggestion in subsequent stories. Privately, I passed on the suggestion to Microsoft’s Windows managers, who reminded me that theirs is a commercial software company, not some fly-by-night, open-source firm that gives software away when enough people beg for it.

Nevertheless, as Rubin noted, with Windows 10, Microsoft continued the pattern of charging every other version of the operating system with the task of fixing the one before it.

That Burning Question

It was in this context that I published a piece that asked the question on the tip of everyone else’s tongues: What if Windows 10 fails?

The question was repeated in Reddit, repeated in a major Mac publication, repeated in Microsoft’s own user forums, and repeated on Quora. There, a fellow who is a professional presenter of products on behalf of Microsoft (not speaking on the company’s behalf) responded with a kind of pre-emptive contempt for the customer:

“If Windows 10 fails,” he wrote, “it would also be a reflection of users not really wanting what they have been asking for.”

That article also featured my analyst friends Dawson, Hilwa, and Rubin, none of whom — to their credit — actually foresaw a complete Windows 10 collapse on the scale of Windows 8. But the article also included this quote from Rubin, which would also be repeated in several other outlets:

“If Microsoft were teleported to another planet tomorrow, it would still take a long time for Windows to disappear.”

A few weeks after the article’s publication, Microsoft announced it would be giving away Windows 10 as an upgrade for Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 users. And I was told by quite a few people (not just commenters) that suddenly my question had been rendered moot. Some asked whether I felt stupid for having posed it in the first place.

Learning Opportunities

“The biggest barrier, obviously, to succeeding in a market like that is the price,” said Jan Dawson. “If you reduce the price essentially to zero, especially for consumers, you take away one of the biggest reasons not to upgrade.

“So it’s not a fair comparison to any other previous version of Windows. Microsoft likes to talk in breathless fashion about how wonderful the upgrade cycle is, and it’s the fastest upgrade cycle ever, and all the rest of it, but they never mention the fact that it’s free — which none of the previous versions have been.”

Did the elimination of price as a factor also, in turn, reduce the value of the system in users’ minds?

The first real evidence of an answer to that question came in last week’s IDC report, revealing the state of the PC market for the year 2015: a decline in PC sales at the annual rate of about 11 percent worldwide. Gartner’s projections were more conservative, but tend to be so anyway.

At any rate, both major groups blamed Windows 10 for the continued slide, but not for the reasons you might think. Microsoft’s decision to give Windows 10 to registered Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 users as an upgrade, reduced their incentive to purchase new PCs, analysts concluded, dampening the impact of retail promotions.

By these measures, Microsoft has triumphed at the game of reduced expectations. It eliminated what my analyst friends regard as the major burden to Windows 10’s adoption, at the cost of its promotional impact for both consumers and enterprises.

The New Mission

Ross Rubin believes that, as a result of not having Windows at the center of their product strategies, PC hardware makers have had to dig deeper into their talent pool to come up with innovations. And to some extent, they’ve succeeded, if you take into account Intel’s dramatic reductions in power consumption for its mobile CPUs, and the vastly improved form factors for 2-in-1s and convertibles from manufacturers such as Dell and Acer.

IDC’s Al Hilwa agrees about Windows 10’s side-effects with PC makers: “I think Microsoft successfully managed to light the proverbial candle under their behinds, whether it be giving Windows for free, or putting Surface out there, or doing a variety of things to try to nudge the PC hardware ecosystem to up their game — to compete better with Apple in particular.”

App Annie’s Rubin also told me this freedom from responsibility for the health of the PC market may have helped Microsoft refocus its efforts on improving user productivity, not just for Windows but for Office 365 and its other services. And that focus has been allowed to shift to the mobile side of development, especially in producing Office for iOS and Android, to an extent that might not have been allowed under Steve Ballmer’s leadership, when the corporate motto worn on T-shirts was literally, “I’m a PC.”

“For many years, Microsoft has said it wanted to develop more of a services revenue stream on the desktop,” said Rubin. “By getting people onto Windows 10, they put them on the platform that will help build that. Where Microsoft is being most aggressive on that front, I would say, is Office 365.”

Yet if the Office 365 footprint remains as firmly planted in Apple and Google territory as in Microsoft’s home turf, what will be the “value-add” that makes users prefer to run Office on Windows?

“A year ago, [Microsoft CEOSatya Nadella used a phrase quite a bit about ‘loving’ Windows,” noted Jackdaw’s Jan Dawson. “He said, ‘We want to go from users needing Windows, to choosing Windows, to loving Windows.’

“That’s a pretty tall order, but the point of it was that for a long time, you’ve needed Windows if you wanted to run certain kinds of applications, especially in a business environment. And you no longer do, so what you need to do is get people to choose to use Windows when they start to have a choice, and when they do choose Windows, to actually love the experience that they have, then fall in love with Windows, and then stick with it.”

This goal is not out of Microsoft’s reach. Viewed in this context, it’s arguable that Windows’ prior obligations to the PC market may have handicapped it in the past, with respect to blazing new trails for functionality outside the traditional PC framework.

From that perspective, no, Windows 10 has certainly not yet failed. It may yet serve as the bridge between devices, enabling productivity platforms to extend from the mobile device to the PC and then to the cloud.

After it’s finished cleaning up from Windows 8, perhaps it can begin that mission in earnest.

Yet failure at this point — with apologies to my hero, Gene Kranz — remains a foreseeable option.

Failure is when you put yourself and your institution forward before the public as dedicated to the improvement of everyday work and the betterment of society, and then find yourself retroactively adopting a much smaller goal, clearing a much shorter bar and congratulating yourself to shallow, canned applause.

That last paragraph was directed at more than just Microsoft.

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