July 25, 2014, 3:52 PM — As talk of the next Windows begins to build and some details of what most are calling for now either Windows 9 or Threshold come into focus, it's worthwhile to take a moment to remember Windows 8.
Because Microsoft will want everyone to forget it. And we will.
Unless the Redmond, Wash. technology company radically changes its habits, it will throw Windows 8 down a memory hole even before the successor ships. Just like it made Vista persona non grata in its official messaging in 2009, it will shove Windows 8 so far into the background that we'll need the Hubble telescope to find it.
Not that that's unusual. All companies fake amnesia to a stunning degree, even when what they want to forget -- more importantly, what they want customers to forget -- was once trumpeted with Joshua's band. Ford tossed the Edsel into the don't-mention file, Coca-Cola did the same with New Coke, Apple erased the Performa and Ping from its corporate memory, and IBM would be hard pressed to admit it ever knew the PCjr or OS/2.
It's always about next year's shiny object, not last year's.
To see the future for Windows 8, look at how Microsoft treated Windows Vista -- the 2007 edition that launched late and quickly garnered negative reviews that painted a reputation from which it never recovered.
In the months leading up to the launch of Windows 7, Vista's successor -- and a wildly successful one at that -- Microsoft came close to banning the word "Vista" from press releases, its most official line of communications to the media, investors, partners and customers.
From January through October 2009 -- the latter was Windows 7's launch month -- Microsoft mentioned "Vista" in just one press release headline or the single-line synopsis accompanying a headline. During the same stretch, Microsoft used "Windows 7" 16 times.
In comparison, three years later, during the January through October 2012 run-up to Windows 8's debut, Microsoft mentioned "Windows 7" in 6 press release headlines or summaries, and used "Windows 8" 14 times.
So while a failure, as judged by Microsoft, was outnumbered 16:1 in mentions, a success, also as implicitly labeled by Microsoft, was bested by only about 2:1.
Expect the former for Windows 8. In fact, it may already have started as Microsoft preps for 8's successor, called "Threshold" by long-time Windows watchers: Since the first of the year, Microsoft has mentioned "Windows 8" in its press release headlines or summaries just 6 times, on pace for 11. During all of 2013, Microsoft referenced the edition 16 times.
The second half of the year will be especially telling if, as often-in-the-know bloggers like ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley have contended, Threshold is to launch in the spring of 2015. With just over seven months until the start of March 2015, eight to April, it's coming up on the time that Microsoft changes messaging from the past to the future.
Time to go silent on Windows 8
There is evidence that Microsoft has begun deemphasizing Windows 8.
In his mission statement of July 10, CEO Satya Nadella mentioned no specific edition of Windows on the desktop, using simply "Windows" when he wasn't talking about "Windows Phone" or "Windows Server," or relegating Windows to secondary status in the newly-minted Microsoft he envisions. Windows 8 was also AWOL among the speeches Nadella and other Microsoft executives made the following week at the company's Worldwide Partners Conference, and was the subject of just three sessions out of more than 450 offered to attendees.
During this week's earnings call, Nadella referenced "Windows 8.1" just twice, both with the past tense. " In April, we released an update to Windows 8.1," he said of the refresh aimed to mollify enterprise users.
That's no surprise: Not only has Microsoft acknowledged that its share of all computing devices -- smartphones, tablets, personal computers -- now hovers at 14%, a far cry from its near monopoly as late as 2010, but the company certainly understands how poorly Windows 8 has performed even within the small segment composed of desktop and notebook computers.
The newer OS has outsold Vista, certainly, about 31% better according to calculations based on stated sales milestones that were then turned into per-month figures for Windows 8's first 16 months and Vista's first 19. But Windows 8 has lagged far behind its predecessor, Windows 7. The latter bested Windows 8 by 113% on a per-month basis calculated for its first 15 months.
Estimates from analytics firm Net Applications confirm that disparity between Windows 7 and Windows 8. When both have been judged at the same points in their respective post-release timelines, Windows 7 consistently accounted for more than twice the total active Windows user share of Windows 8.
Windows 8 has led in percentage of total Windows user share over Vista, but not by much: Last month, in fact, Windows 8's lead over Vista at the same point in each editions' career was the smallest ever, only two-tenths of one percent.
Putting an end to Windows 8
To ease Windows 8 into the past, Microsoft will likely make little, if any, noise about the edition's final update, slated for Aug. 12, reports say. That bump-up, probably to "Windows 8.1 Update 2," will be released with little fanfare and few noticeable changes, certainly not with the modified Start menu Microsoft previewed this spring at its Build developers conference. From all indications, that -- as well as other features to restore an emphasis on mouse and keyboard -- will take place with Threshold to let the company tout that edition as a clean break from its predecessor.
Rather than belabor Windows 8, which is dead to Microsoft, it will beat the drum on the next name for its Windows client.
For that, Microsoft could re-run the post-Vista play, but turn it on its head. After Vista, the company declined to continue names as its naming convention ("XP" and "Vista" for the two consecutive releases) and instead went with the numerical "Windows 7." The smart move this cycle would be to quit numerals, tainted after Windows 8, and distance Threshold from its predecessor with a word as name. "Windows Threshold" has little ring, but Microsoft has legions of marketers who could come up with something much better. "Windows Redemption" is probably off the table -- too literal for what the company thinks, or better put, hopes.
From the Vista experience, too, Microsoft can assume that Windows 8 will slide toward, but not into, insignificance -- assuming Threshold is a better stab at what customers want -- as users upgrade and replace devices.
Much of Windows 7's success was ascribed to customers abandoning Vista or leaving the even-older XP, which they'd clung to because of wariness about Vista. It was actually more about Vista, which lost 30% of its user share in the first year after Windows 7's release. Windows XP shed just 15% of its share in the same 12 months.
Windows 8 (which includes Windows 8.1) will top out at around 16% to 16.5% of all personal computer operating systems in March and April 2015 -- the assumption is that Threshold will ship then -- according to the upwards tempo reported by Net Applications. Under the Vista-Windows 7 model, then, Windows 8's user share will fall to 11.2% to 11.5% in a year.
But if Microsoft offers Threshold free of charge to current Windows 8 users, as many anticipate, 8's decline should be much steeper. Using Windows 8.1's manhandling of Windows 8 -- the former was a free upgrade that reduced the latter's user share by 50% in just seven months -- as a guide, Microsoft could drive down Windows 8's share to about 8% by October or November 2015.
It took Microsoft nearly two years to cut Vista's share in half.
Let's see: 22 months with Windows 8 hanging around, most of that time with double-digit share? Or just seven months? Which will Microsoft choose?
No contest: If Microsoft wants to air out the stink of 8 from the Windows domicile as quickly as possible, it must give away the Threshold upgrade. It would simply be the smart thing to do.
In fact, the decision to make Threshold free to Windows 8 customers will be the sign that Microsoft needs the 2012 OS to just go away. Microsoft won't do it out of largess, it will do it to promptly draw the curtain on Windows 8.
Because the faster it can make everyone forget Windows 8, the better.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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