For better or worse, the upcoming week is shaping up as one of the most pivotal in Microsoft’s history.

Over the span of a few days, the company’s top executives will try to persuade some of their toughest and most important audiences — consumers, businesses, software developers and investors — that it has what it takes to remain at the center of the technology world for years and perhaps decades to come.

In short, Microsoft needs a little magic. So it’s appropriate that the stage for this all drama will be Anaheim, Calif., a few blocks from Disneyland. I’m headed to Southern California right now to report from the scene for GeekWire over the next few days.

It hinges on Windows 8, touted by Microsoft as the biggest upgrade to its flagship product since the landmark Windows 95 release. After showing previews this spring — including a new finger friendly interface for tablets — Microsoft is promising to lift the curtain and make the pitch for the next version of the operating system at two conferences this week.

[Follow-up: This is Windows 8: Hands-on with Microsoft's radically different operating system]

First, Microsoft will be huddling with hardware and software developers starting on Tuesday at its sold-out “Build” conference at the Anaheim Convention Center, led by Windows chief Steven Sinofsky. Then on Wednesday, at a nearby hotel, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and other executives will be holding the company’s annual meeting with financial analysts, delayed from its traditional summer date to allow the company to put its Windows 8 strategy in context for Wall Street.

Steven Sinofsky

It won’t be an easy pitch.

Microsoft Windows still dominates traditional PCs, but the rise of ever-powerful mobile devices and tablet computers is fueling rapid growth in areas outside the company’s traditional strongholds. It’s a new world, ruled so far by the likes of Apple and Google. Microsoft certainly won’t be able to knock those rivals from their perches this week. For now, it just needs to show that it’s worthy of being considered a credible rival in these areas, and particularly in the tablet market.

Although the Windows 8 interface will feature tiles similar to Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, the company has repeatedly asserted that it believes tablets should run full-fledged Windows, supporting USB ports, traditional drivers and other features that it believes people expect in personal computers. Apple and Google have instead adapted their mobile-friendly Android and iOS for tablets.

Microsoft’s current Windows 7 tablets — running on Intel and AMD x86 and x64 processors — have some interesting attributes, such as ink (when used with a stylus), but they’re often heavy and can’t run long enough on a single battery charge, says Michael Cherry, a former Microsoft engineer who is now an analyst at the independent Directions on Microsoft research firm in Kirkland.

The default Windows 8 start screen

With Windows 8, Microsoft is adding support for low-powered ARM processors to help enable Windows machines with longer battery life.

Says Cherry via email: “So the big question is: will Windows 8 running on x86, x64 and/or ARM processors, allow OEMs to build tablets that can compete with the then-current generation of Apple iPads and Android-OS based tablets in terms of touch, battery life, weight, and price.”

Another challenge for Microsoft will be getting software developers excited about writing Windows applications again, stealing some of the steam from iOS and Android. Microsoft says applications written in the web-native HTML5 and JavaScript languages will become a standard on Windows 8, with full access to the power of the operating system.

The question, Cherry says, is “whether Windows will again be seen as the platform where developers can write applications that exploit the hardware (and the form factor), better than they can write applications for the other platforms.”

One more complication for Microsoft is the current turmoil in the PC market, exemplified by HP’s decision to sell its personal-computer business, as well as slumping PC sales. To pull all this off, Microsoft needs PC vendors to be fully on board with its vision — coming up with innovative and high-quality designs that work seamlessly with Windows 8 to provide a compelling experience.

It’s not just tablets. Ars Technica’s Peter Bright received widespread attention this week for a revealing report on his struggle to find a credible alternative to the MacBook Air among Windows machines.

One important litmus test: The Windows 8 tablet that Samsung is reportedly unveiling at the conference this week. Rest assured, we’ll be taking a close look at that, assuming it proves to be real.

Update, Wednesday morning: Here’s a rundown of our coverage so far …

Comments

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HQJXVPEGZU3ZSTJKJMNNEV3MCA PTJ

    So what advantage does Win8 have over Win7 for desktop PCs?  Strangely enough, I don’t spend my day checking Facebook pages and sending tweets.  Why?  I’m not 14 years old and I have work to do.  How does Win8 improve things for me?

    If that’s also the “default start screen” for desktop PCs, I’m not getting anywhere near this thing.

    • Anonymous

      I agree. I hope they give you the option to boot to the traditional Windows UI when you first setup Windows. If I get Windows 8 (Which I might when Microsoft finally delivers the killshot to XP), there better be a setting that allows me to go to the traditional UI. I don’t like the tablet interface on a PC. If not, I stay far away from it.

      • Mike NavMail

        Don’t count on it.  During the design phase that was something I brought up as corporations very likely wanting, by GPO if nothing else.  The PMs for the feature weren’t very accepting.  Of course, it’s been a year and a half and I no longer work there, so who knows, maybe someone realized the corporate value to that.  {shrug}

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      Great questions, everybody. I’ll be asking them this week and reporting back.

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      Great questions, everybody. I’ll be asking them this week and reporting back.

    • http://profiles.google.com/israrkhan91 Israr Khan

      Faster boot, portable workspace, and ARM support. That’s what I can think of off the top of my mind. No one is forcing you to upgrade to Windows 8, if you don’t like it stick to Windows 7. Nothing wrong with that, or better, help Linux ‘kill’ Windows. Windows 7 didn’t offer much advantage over Windows XP/Vista, but most likely you still use it.

      • Pelle

        For me the major advantage with Vista/Windows7 over XP was 64 bit support (XP 64 bit I only considder a “test project” from MS)

    • Guest

      I’ve only been watching intermittently, but all the coverage I’ve seen has emphasized that Win8 is primarily intended for use on tablets, not desktops; wait for 9.

  • Anonymous

    I just hope that Microsoft allows you to use only the traditional UI for Windows ALWAYS. If it always boots with that Metro UI I will stay far away from this, even if I am a Microsoft fanboy.

  • Anonymous

    I’d still like to know what the binary compatibility is going to be like between x86/64 and ARM. There not much point putting Win8 on an ARM tablet and that tablet having little software to run on it.

    I’d assume there’s going to be some x86 emulation, but what’s that extra overhead going to do to battery life?

  • Guest

    From the competitor everyone feared a decade ago, to one who now has a tough act ahead just to pitch why they’re still relevant. Steve Ballmer is an embarrassment.

  • The Galaxy Minstrel

    ” a revealing report on his struggle to find a credible alternative to the MacBook Air”
    I read the article and concluded that, no, he’s not going to get a Mac running windows.  He’ll not find a cat barking, a two wheeled Ferrari or an apple growing on a pear tree.  If you set your expectations that only a Mac uniquely delivers then anything else will be a disappointment.  Go buy a Mac.

  • As990

    Looks like Windows 8 is just a web page on IE for Arm CPUs. Your desktop is an HTML page and IE is running in full screen mode.

    That’s nothing new. There are plenty websites that have done that.

  • Anonymous

    I do not like that Metro front-end, not at all.  If that’s where they’re headed I’m going to be sitting this out for awhile.  Win7 is excellent and iOS on my pocket devices is first-class, IMHO.  Fortunately I’m primarily a business intelligence developer (back end) so I’m not terribly concerned about the GUI stuff.  Anything I write with a GUI runs on a “classic” Windows desktop.  I just can’t imagine developing apps to that “tile” interface.  Yuck.

  • Michael Yeaney

    You know what’s great about all of these “hate Metro” posts? It’s probably the same reaction heard by every OS vendor when a paradigm changes. Will it suck? Maybe…maybe not. Will we as an industry ever welcome change?

  • julian.winter

    All the above conservative comments are about preserving the legacy Windows UI for corporate desktops.  But surely you all realise that in the age of declining Desktop sales and the emergence of Tablets for most users who simply consume information, Microsoft has to deliver a Tablet OS.  The choice is whether to adapt desktop Windows OS or scale up WP7.

    ‘I am sure that Microsoft  are not that stupid, as to not enable a legacy UI mode for desktops.’   If they transition between the legacy x86 Applications base ans ARM an HTML5 Applications base, and hence across into WP8 (Apollo) then they will have acheived credible all encompasing ecosystem.  Which will be as valuable to the future corporate as well as to the teenager market.  They have shown great promise with the WP7 metro UI.   

    Unfortunately I suspect they with both short fall on this expectation in both technology, design and poor marketing/ promotion, to enable cool Apple/ Google and their legions of media luvies to take swipes at them. We seem all to ready to lose patience with Microsoft to mature and deliver through upon their innovation, and to jump to platforms with no regards to supporting back legacy.   

  • julian.winter

    All the above conservative comments are about preserving the legacy Windows UI for corporate desktops.  But surely you all realise that in the age of declining Desktop sales and the emergence of Tablets for most users who simply consume information, Microsoft has to deliver a Tablet OS.  The choice is whether to adapt desktop Windows OS or scale up WP7.

    ‘I am sure that Microsoft  are not that stupid, as to not enable a legacy UI mode for desktops.’   If they transition between the legacy x86 Applications base ans ARM an HTML5 Applications base, and hence across into WP8 (Apollo) then they will have acheived credible all encompasing ecosystem.  Which will be as valuable to the future corporate as well as to the teenager market.  They have shown great promise with the WP7 metro UI.   

    Unfortunately I suspect they with both short fall on this expectation in both technology, design and poor marketing/ promotion, to enable cool Apple/ Google and their legions of media luvies to take swipes at them. We seem all to ready to lose patience with Microsoft to mature and deliver through upon their innovation, and to jump to platforms with no regards to supporting back legacy.   

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hassan-Ali/100000618971067 Hassan Ali

    Wait, I’m sure it’s been mentioned several times the metro-UI is for “tablet-centric versions of Windows 8 have an interface that is modeled after Windows Phone 7’s “Metro” UI”(1) and you can get the traditional desktop. ‘thisIsMyNext.com’ reported that ” there’s still the regular desktop, which you can get to by selecting the Desktop app on the Start screen”(2).  For a tablet, it really is a nice UI and will be much easier to use than the traditional desktop. 

    1:http://www.dailytech.com/Microsoft+Shows+Off+Metrothemed+Windows+8+for+Tablets/article21794.htm
    2:http://thisismynext.com/2011/09/13/windows-8-tablet-photos-video-preview/

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      You will be able to switch into the traditional desktop after booting up, but the new Metro UI and Start screen will be the default for all Windows 8 machines, not just tablets but also notebooks and desktops.

  • BlueCollarCritic

    Todd – Here’s a question for them. Why are they so determined to force interface changes on users? I get that the “Ribbon” i supposed to improve upon the older
    menu * toolbar set but why is it that the change is forced on users whether they like it or not? We’re not talking a few unhappy people either but many and I mean many Office users and soon to be Windows users have come to despise the Ribbon Microsoft has forced on users whether they wanted it or not.

    If there was a true Microsoft alternative, an OS that would still run all Windows software
    and look like Windows but come from another company, say one that licensed Windows name & look to d their own OS then Microsoft would stop treating its users like this. They know that its a major pain to switch not to mention the costs and so MS is able to get away with forced changes that other industries could not.

    Imagine if this approach were done with pointing devices like the mouse so that as of
    Windows XX and or Office XX it was decide that the mouse was old and outdated
    and that an Object Tracking interface with camera was the way to go and so you were no longer allowed to use a mouse with the newer software period.  That would tick off a lot of people. Some would be tickled about the change as they would love the idea of this kind of interface but not everyone.  This is what Microsoft has done with the interface to Windows apps with the Ribbon. They can get away with it now only because there isn’t a similar alternative. 

    Switching to Apple or any Linux flavor designed to mimic Windows is not the same.  A true alterative would be like how Blu-Ray players work.  You don’t have to buy one
    from Sony because they license the tech to other companies who then make products based on its core tech but with their own take on that tech.  If SONY decided that as of 2011 BluRay players needed to use an alternative to a Remote and so all new BluRay players form SONY stopped working with universal remotes but competitors who licensed BluRay did not take that approach and so their new BluRay players continued to work with remotes how many customers do you think Sony would lose for taking the “We are going to force the change on you” approach?

    The days of being able to take advantage of users inability to just switch is closing as
    the computer illiterate get fewer and fewer and the computer savvy grow in number.

  • Be Kind they’re trying

    Anyone care about the fact that Win 8 has approximately 6000 calls to the MinWin kernel! I’m a linux only user, and I’m excited about Win 8. Maybe now Windows will boot in a reasonable time and be stable. A UI is a UI you’ll get used to it. Hell if there’s enough MinWin in there you might even be able to replace it?!?

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