Fasten Your Seatbelt, It's Windows 8 Day

Today will be one of the most important days in Microsoft's nearly 40-year history. The company that ruled the PC era rolls out a long-awaited new version of its flagship operating system that could determine whether Microsoft can regain its standing in the computer industry and carve out a place for itself in the post-PC era.

Windows 8 is not just another OS update. It's a radical overhaul of the world's most widely-used operating system, with a new user interface that some people find sexy and forward-looking - and others find incredibly annoying.

This is a huge and risky bet. If Windows 8 succeeds, Microsoft will be seen as a daring leader and innovator. If it's a flop - well, after a decade of drifting and missing out on new markets, Microsoft can't really afford any more flops.

No wonder then that Microsoft is pulling out all the stops, with a splashy event in New York and a global ad blitz that will cover more than 40 countries at a cost of $1 billion, by some estimates.

You can watch a live stream of today's keynote at 11:15 EDT on the Microsoft website. And we'll be covering the event throughout the day here on ReadWrite.

Is This Vista 2.0?

I've used Windows 8, and liked it well enough, though I can't say it convinced me to switch away from my Mac. Then again, Mac users like me aren't Microsoft's target audience. 

The people Microsoft really needs to please are the millions of PC users in businesses and homes around the world. And that's the scary part, because Windows is really different from Windows 7 (much less the still widely used Windows XP), and the kind of people who use Windows are not usually the kind of people who enjoy change.

The biggest difference - and it's a huge one - is a colorful tile-based user interface that used to be called Metro but now, suddenly, at the last minute, is just called "the Windows 8 style." 

Some people are going to love it, but even more are going to find it baffling. The first time I looked at Windows 8 I could already hear the sound of thousands of frustrated Windows veterans leaning over their laptops, swiping at their screens and shouting. 

It's so different that Samsung has actually created a program that replicates the old Start button to make it more familiar to people. That's nice and all, but when you spend years designing a shiny new operating system, and your hardware partners start crafting workarounds to it before it even ships, well, that's not a good sign.

Many consumers will have no choice but to accept Windows 8 since new PCs will come with Windows 8 pre-loaded. The guys at Geek Squad must be drooling over this.

Big corporate customers are a different story. What CIO in his or her right mind would rush to roll out Windows 8 across thousands of people?  Gartner predicts 90% of enterprises will stay away from Windows 8 through 2015.

Corporate Customers

No doubt Microsoft will have some corporate customers on hand tomorrow, standing up on stage and talking about how excited they are that Microsoft is paying them to take arrows in the back to be early adopters of this bold new operating system that offers so many compelling new features.

Truth is, any company rolling out Windows 8 will have to endure all of the usual migration headaches - bugs, patches, glitches, apps breaking - but on top of that will get hit with a tidal wave of incoming support calls from baffled users asking, "Hey, where's the Start button?"

So in addition to the huge bill from Microsoft, you'll need to dish out millions more for training and extra tech support to move to Windows 8. Why bother, when Windows 7 works great?

Microsoft claims Windows 8 is super stable, thanks in part to the 16 million people who have been hammering away at the pre-release version for months now. Nevertheless, history tells us that the first version of any big Microsoft product is usually a nightmare. The rule of thumb has been that Microsoft needs three cranks of the wheel to work out the kinks. 

In the case of Vista and Windows 7, they got it right on the second try, and that, for Microsoft, was almost a miracle. 

So let's imagine Windows 8 ends up having some issues but that Windows 9 gets everything straightened out. Based on the tempo of past releases -- Vista in January 2007, Windows 7 in July 2009, Windows 8 in October 2012 -- we might not see Windows 9 until 2015.

Can Microsoft hang on that long? Certainly. This is a wildly profitable company doing $80 billion a year in revenues. Microsoft isn't going away anytime soon.

What Really Matters Is Mobile

The real question is whether it can remain relevant. Yes, Microsoft dominates the PC market, but (a) PCs don't matter anymore and (b) even in that market Apple has been gaining share in recent years. 

In mobile, the only market that really matters, Apple and Google dominate and Microsoft is so far behind as to be almost negligible.

One product that's supposed to turn that around is the new Surface device that Microsoft is also showing off today. It's a kind of tablet-laptop hybrid that runs a different version of Windows 8 called Windows RT. Unfortunately it has been getting pretty tepid reviews, with consensus being that the software is still half-baked.

The same complaint was made about Windows Phone 7, the last version of Microsoft's smartphone operating system. Windows Phone 8 will be better, but, sad to say, it's not generating a lot of excitement either.

Not so very long ago Microsoft was so powerful and so dominant that everyone in the industry lived in fear of the team from Redmond. Over the past 10 years it has fallen so far, so fast, that you almost feel bad for the people working there. Today is the day when they can start to turn things around. Stay tuned.