After months of intensive ground-preparing activity, Microsoft has launched the consumer marketing campaign for the much-anticipated new edition of its OS platform, Windows 8. This is an unusually important launch for Microsoft, as Windows 8 is more than a mere new version; it is, in Microsoft’s own words, “Windows re-imagined”.
The widely familiar Windows user interface, which has followed essentially the same pattern over more than 20 years of evolution, has been radically altered in Windows 8 to make it more suitable for touch-screen devices. This encompasses tablets and smartphones, whose popularity is a proven fact, and also the new generation of touch-enabled PCs that are coming on to the market, and whose popularity Microsoft expects also to be strong.
I believe that Microsoft has two principal strategic aims for Windows 8.
Firstly, Microsoft aims to ride an anticipated wave of demand for computers with touch screens. Two decades ago, Microsoft risked heading towards marginalisation in the PC OS market, with its belated and initially rather tentative response to the transition in the hardware market from keyboard/command-line driven machines, to those based on the WIMP (windows/icon/mouse/pointer) paradigm. This time it seems that Microsoft is moving to anticipate, rather than react to, what it expects to be the next major transition in the hardware market: a migration to machines with touch screens.
Secondly, Microsoft aims to parlay its lead in the PC OS market into a stronger position in the market for smartphone and tablet OS. Despite several years of effort, Microsoft is still struggling to establish a widespread presence for Windows on those devices. Achieving that goal is crucial, because the market for smartphones and tablets is experiencing strong growth, whereas the market for PCs is mature and, at present, essentially flat.
With Windows 8, Microsoft becomes the first vendor to design and launch a new OS simultaneously across all three of the main general-purpose computing device types. A common look, feel and service set across the three device types could establish a major competitive differentiator for Microsoft against the smartphone/tablet OS leaders, Google and Apple.
There’s no doubting Microsoft’s grasp of the importance of Windows 8 to the company’s long-term prospects, and it’s clear that Microsoft is aiming to make a massive splash with this launch. The campaign for the new product is several times bigger than the one Microsoft ran for Windows 7 three years ago.
The company says that the Windows 8 advertising campaign is targeting three-quarters of a billion people and 39 billion impressions: the equivalent figures for Windows 7 were 179 million and 9.6 billion. In addition to heavy use of traditional media such as TV advertising, Microsoft will also be boosting the reach of its launch campaign through large-scale “event”-type advertising, such as projections onto the outsides of buildings in cities around the world.
The campaign also heavily features touch-screen computers, including some specific “hybrid” devices like Dell’s XPS-12 convertible with flip-over screen. This certainly helps to showcase the innovative nature of Windows 8, and is probably also intended to generate some additional demand for the touch-screen devices upon which Windows 8 shines brightest.
But this is a risky strategy, because hybrid PC form-factors, and touch-screen PCs generally, are more expensive than traditional PC types, and mass-market demand for them is far from proven. And by associating Windows 8 so strongly with touch screens, Microsoft also risks giving customers the impression that Windows 8 will provide an inferior experience on a traditional type of PC.
More generally, there’s also the risk of worrying existing Windows users by making big changes to an experience they’re accustomed to and comfortable with. That said, I acknowledge that you can’t make big changes without taking big risks.
The initial target for the Windows 8 campaign is the consumer market. Clearly, it will be important for Microsoft to target enterprises too, but the company is wise to wait a while for that. Windows 8 is a complex sell, and it’s crucial to keep the campaign messages simple and clear. Mixing up the “heart-focused” messages of the consumer campaign with the “head-focused” messages of an enterprise campaign could easily result in damaging confusion in both target markets.
Moreover, if the consumer campaign is as successful as Microsoft hopes, it could generate substantial user pull from those consumers who are also enterprise users, giving Windows 8 a boost in demand ahead of its enterprise campaign. In addition to using consumerisation of IT, whereby consumers bring their preferred devices into work, Microsoft’s approach to winning enterprises over to Windows 8 is to develop line-of-business apps that make use of Windows 8 features.
On the principle of keeping its messages focused, Microsoft is probably also wise not feature the smartphone (Windows Phone) and tablet (Windows RT) flavours of Windows 8 in the initial launch campaign. However, I believe that smartphones and tablets should soon feature more prominently in the marketing for Windows 8. These are the two proven growth markets for general-purpose devices, and it’s crucial that Microsoft should leverage the excitement generated by a fresh, new platform into an improved position for Windows on smartphones and tablets.