Let's say the rumors are true, and that Microsoft does in fact bring back the Start button and a boot-to-desktop option to address longstanding user complaints. Can that fix what's ailing Windows 8?
Perhaps, eventually — but Microsoft is still treating the symptom rather than the disease. The problem is the PC itself, not the operating system that runs it. And that's what Microsoft (and, secondarily, its Wintel partner Intel) really needs to transform.
At this point, it seems clear that the tiled, touch friendly Start screen and the lack of a boot option to the familiar "desktop" interface scared off some people who might otherwise have upgraded to Windows 8. Instead, those PC users stuck with their familiar Windows 7 or Windows XP interface, or powered down their PCs altogether and turned to their phones or tablets.
All of which has the onetime Wintel duopoly in a bit of a panic. Microsoft needs an OS that will delight consumers. It's so far failed in that, so it's apparently retrofitting Windows 8 for folks who need more handholding to move to the new OS. Similarly, Microsoft needs a robust apps environment, so it's looking to entice developers to its Windows Store. That's not going so well, either.
Intel, meanwhile, continues to push down the cost of its microprocessors to a point where Windows tablets running on its Core microprocessors can compete with the Android and iOS markets. By the holiday season, Intel executives said, we should see Core-based laptops at between $499 to $599, with new, more powerful Atom options in the $200 price range.
Put those together, and here's what needs to happen.
1. Downplay The Start Screen
If Microsoft brings back the boot-to-desktop option, the company faces an interesting marketing dilemma: Should it still promote the tiled Start screen that turns off at least some of its customers? No. That doesn't mean that Microsoft should change the Windows 8 interface — the Start screen was designed as a tablet interface, and should remain so. But Microsoft should make the Start screen the face of the Surface tablet, and make the Windows desktop the face of its Windows 8 advertising for PCs.
2. Gently Push New Users To The Desktop
Clearly, a portion of Microsoft's customer base has been traumatized by its initial reaction to Windows 8. There's a real risk that these users may never return to the Windows fold.
But gently managing a boot-to-desktop option may mitigate some of that. Boot-to-desktop should be presented as one of the first options in the Windows installation, perhaps accompanied by something like this: "Would you like Windows 8 to boot to the Windows Desktop? The Windows desktop provides a familiar environment for users of Windows XP and Windows 7."
From there, let them explore and do as they wish. If the Start Screen is as compelling as Microsoft seems to think, at least some users will eventually move over of their own volition.
3. Solve The Blah Windows Apps Problem
One of the bigger problems with the Start screen that Microsoft so far hasn't been able to address is that most of the applications featured there are basically uninspiring (Fresh Paint excluded). With Windows XP and Windows 7, those applications were tucked away behind the Start button, where users were free to ignore them. With the Windows 8 Start screen, they're out there for the world to see and grow disillusioned with. And it's not immediately clear how booting to the desktop's empty expanse will be much of an improvement.
But by making the Windows 8 Desktop the focus, Microsoft's advertising, at least, can encompass the broad expanse of Windows apps out there. Mix and match! Steal a page from Apple. Highlight the flashiest apps, whether they be from the Windows 8 world or even from Windows 7. Legacy OS support is a feature, too. And free advertising for Adobe, EA, or some other developer can only engender goodwill.
4. Make Windows Shine On Tablets — Cheaply
Microsoft also desperately needs a successful mobile strategy. And the only real way to to do that is to offer more for less.
In other words, if Microsoft wants to leverage Windows in the mobile space, it needs to really leverage Windows. The Windows RT version of Surface failed in part because it was a crippled version of Windows 8; it's time to retire it. The Surface with Windows Pro, by contrast, could be a hit if its price falls far enough. And if Microsoft pushes hard to convince buyers that they can accomplish a whole lot more with a full-fledged Windows tablet than they can with competing products.
Microsoft needs to show that a Windows tablet — derivative of the Surface, or one based on the new quad-core "Bay Trail" chips — can offer desktop PC-class performance at tablet prices. We know tablets are mobile. Microsoft Stores need to feature a Windows tablet or convertible running the flashiest piece of software it can, on a conventional desktop monitor, with the price tag prominently displayed. The message: all this for $299??!! Why would I ever want an Android tablet?
5. Find A Mobile Apps Tiger Team
Tucking your Android or iOS phone in your pocket is an unconscious decision. And as more game developers choosing to write for iOS and Android, fewer are around to focus on Windows. There's another key advantage for iOS and Android, too: chances are that you can play the same game on your iPad and iPhone, or your Android phone and tablet. You can't often say the same for Windows Phone and Surface.
If users can't share apps, files, and other documents between the PC, notebook, tablet and phone, they're going to start looking elsewhere. Microsoft's realized this with its core apps, including Office and the Xbox. Netflix traverses the range of Microsoft's platforms, but that's about it.
There is no easy fix here. If Microsoft can't develop the apps it needs itself, it's going to have to go out and buy them. This is the Nintendo problem, writ large. Without AAA third-party software, Microsoft will have to go it alone.
Delaying The Inevitable
IDC's right; the PC is dying. It's inevitable, and Microsoft is merely rearranging desk chairs on the Titanic. But in this case, there's a chance the ship could make harbor before it sinks.
Notebooks will eventually give way to tablets, whether or not they have a keyboard attached to them. Microsoft won the desktop, and it won the notebook. Now it needs to win tablets. If it shows weakness now, it will be buried.
Can Microsoft throw enough money at these problems to fix them? It may have to. It can patch Windows 8, and Intel can help keep prices falling. But the apps and mobile problems require more extensive surgery, and the time to act is now.