The Industry


Microsoft executives started a public relations blitz this week hoping to trumpet the success and momentum behind the company's new flagship operating system - Windows 8. That was their hope. Didn't work out that way.

NPR's Steve Henn joins us now to talk about what really happened. Hi, Steve.


INSKEEP: So what was it?

HENN: Well, the Financial Times landed an interview with the new head of Windows 8, Tami Reller. And the paper quoted her saying that "key elements" of the new flagship software were going to be rolled back when the company released an update - code named Blue - later this year.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

HENN: And the FT played this as sort of a major concession a - a U turn - and implied that Microsoft was backing away from the touch-centric user interface that really defined the new operating system. You may remember, this software was supposed to take the company toward the next generation of computing and help it compete in a world that's fallen in love with the tablets. Some analysts jumped on the story and started comparing the alleged turn around to the New Coke debacle in the '80s and within just a few hours, Microsoft stopped making Ms. Reller available for interviews and issued a statement basically saying the FT got the story wrong.

INSKEEP: Well, did the FT get the story wrong?

HENN: Not entirely. So clearly, this wasn't the story Microsoft was hoping to tell. They wanted to trumpet the fact that they've sold more than 100 million copies of this software. And that's a big impressive number - but it comes at a time when overall PC sales are falling. And some manufacturers within the industry are blaming Microsoft for that.

Windows 8 has been criticized by many who have found the software's touch interface difficult to navigate on - especially...

INSKEEP: This is where you're actually touching the screen...

HENN: The screen. Right.

INSKEEP: ...the way you would an iPad, for example. Go ahead.

HENN: Right. And Microsoft has been trying to respond to those critics who were used to using desktops. So it's hinted that some features like the start button are going to be coming back. And the new update would make it more familiar for people who are using it on a desktop. But Microsoft tried to say that it's not backing away from tablets - and in fact, these new tweaks should make, you know, smaller tablets easier to use - even if they also make a desktop easier to use.

INSKEEP: You know, this is reminding me, Steve Henn, we had an interview with Bill Gates a number of years ago and he spoke about the difficulty of updating Microsoft products - like Windows - because they had to adapt to new generations of users and still be compatible for the millions of people already using the product. He talked about how difficult that was. And it makes you wonder why they even tried to come up with a version of Windows that would work for both tablets and PCs?

HENN: Well, that's a great question. Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, famously compared this mission to try to merge a refrigerator and a toaster.


HENN: You know, I think Microsoft was hoping that its tables could find a niche with business customers who wanted to have a tablet, but also wanted to have all tools that they need to do real work. But I think a bigger problem for Microsoft right now - maybe for the industry - is I think more and more people are wondering why they need a conventional PC - or at least why they need to buy a new PC. I'm mean think what you use your PC for? I mean I use mine to write stories, answer email, surf the Web, and all of those things are things that I can do - if push comes to shove - with my phone.

The thing about PC's and laptops is, actually they're much more powerful than either of those little gadgets. I mean many of us have computers on our desktops right now, that 20 years ago could have passed for a supercomputer. But they're not necessarily being used for anything much more complicated than YouTube. So if you think about it, what's the killer app that would make you want to go out right now, and say I need to go out and buy a new computer because I want to do that? There really isn't one - and I think that might be Microsoft's biggest problem and the industry's biggest problem.

INSKEEP: Steve, thanks very much.

HENN: Oh, my pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Steve Henn.

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