Later this morning, at a launch event in New York City, Microsoft will introduce Windows 8 to the world. Tomorrow, Windows 8 will debut in stores. This is the biggest change in Microsoft operating systems since the move from MS-DOS to Windows more than 25 years ago, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for the Redmond company.

For better or worse, Microsoft’s future hinges on this thing.

The most significant part of Windows 8 is Microsoft’s introduction of a new tablet-friendly user interface, and the company’s decision to make that interface the default not only on tablets but also on traditional desktop computers and notebooks. It’s a gigantic risk, because the new tablet-friendly interface will require longtime Windows users to learn new ways of controlling and navigating their computers for the first time in decades.

With new devices taking the steam out of PC sales, Windows 8 comes at a pivotal moment in the history of Microsoft’s flagship product — the platform responsible for the company’s rise as a technology giant.

The success of Apple’s iPad has forced Microsoft’s hand and demonstrated that a tablet requires a unique interface — something Microsoft didn’t fully grasp when the first Windows XP tablets came out a decade ago. Microsoft has since learned that lesson, but in rolling out the new Windows 8 interface, the company is trying a one-size-fits-all approach across all types of machines. Satisfying the needs of tablet, notebook and desktop users is a big job for any single operating system.

Based on my experience using preliminary versions of Windows 8, particularly on desktop computers, I’m not convinced that the company has pulled it off. Many people disagree. Many others agree. The most important assessment will be made by end users starting tomorrow.

Microsoft has made the task more difficult for itself by removing the Start button from Windows 8’s traditional desktop view and, separately, insisting that the new tablet-friendly Start screen serve as the default starting spot for all machines, even traditional desktop computers. In my view, it would be better to give PC makers and end users the option to set the traditional desktop as their default starting point upon bootup, and better yet let them turn off the new Windows 8 Modern UI interface and commands completely if they choose.

Leading the charge: Windows President Steven Sinofsky (Microsoft image).

But the company wants to move everyone into this new world, and the fastest way to do that is in bulk. It’s the right thing for Microsoft’s business strategy. Is it right for users?

I am more optimistic about Windows 8 on tablets — enough to have spent $600 on a new Microsoft Surface tablet. The new Windows 8 commands (swipe from the edges to bring up menus and commands, etc.) feel intuitive to me on a touch screen.

But asking keyboard-and-mouse users to learn to point the mouse to invisible hot spots in the corners of a PC to bring up commands feels like a stretch. That out-of-box introductory on-screen walkthrough had better be one heck of a tutorial.

Here’s another way to put it: Using Windows 8 on a tablet is like moving into a new house, learning the floorplan and figuring out all the fancy knobs on the stove. You’re willing to do it, because it’s a completely new experience, and all the stuff inside is designed specifically for your new place.

However, on a desktop PC or notebook, using Windows 8 feels like somebody has come into your existing home and rearranged all the furniture for no good reason, leaving you to bruise your toe on the ottoman for a couple weeks until you figure things out.

Yes, more and more computers are coming with touch screens, and Microsoft’s Kinect for Windows is bringing gesture-based controls to Windows machines. But the good old keyboard and mouse aren’t going away anytime soon.

If Microsoft can get Windows 8 users past the painful part of the learning curve, while avoiding a major backlash, it will be a victory for the company and for CEO Steve Ballmer, extending the life of Windows for many years to come. If not, the Windows business is at risk of losing more traction as people choose the iPad and other tablets over Windows tablets and entry-level Windows notebooks.

Welcome to the world, Windows 8 — and good luck.

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  • Guest

    Thank you, Todd. Now is the time to be positive and hopeful about Microsoft’s future. The company is hardly in dire straits, owning 95% of the PC market (of which 350 million units will be sold this year alone) and tremendously popular. Windows 8 represents a furthering of this ideal, turning the world’s most popular PC OS — by far — into a cash cow like never before.

    Want to game? Click — boom! Xbox Live gaming, complete with monetisation and socialisation opportunities, awaits you with just a click or tap.

    Want to applicate? Click — boom! The Microsoft Store is the new home for instant digital distribution, or I.D.D., for the millions of Windows applications. Every Windows user will be able to enjoy I.D.D. for just a few dollars, pouring billions of dollars into Microsoft’s already flush balance sheet.

    Want to entertain? Click — boom! Windows 8 works with SmartGlass, connecting my Xbox 360 to my tablet and to my smartphones. Even my domestic partner, who chooses an alternative smartphone platform (A.S.P.) will be able to use SmartGlass once SmartGlass for A.S.P. comes out next week.

    In sum, Microsoft is basically the Barack Obama of the compuworld: far from perfect, but ubiquitous and accessible enough to be in power for years to come, particularly in the absence of any serious competition.

    The preceding comments were made by a person independent of Microsoft Corporation, its subsidiaries and advertising firms. No endorsement by Microsoft is stated or implied. This post is not affiliated with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This post is not affiliated with any political candidate nor with any Political Action Committee in any nation. This post is not guaranteed, conveys no rights, and may contain forward-looking statements. This post does not represent an offer to buy, sell, or trade any securities. Investing involves serious risks. Please contact your advisor before executing any trade.

    • Windows8CuresItchesFaster

      Applicate? This makes Windows 8 sound like a topical anti-itch salve (“Just applicate to the affected are for immediate relief”).

      I sure hope you were doing your best to imitate/mock MSFT-jargo. I hate to think you talk or write like that for real.

  • JimmyFal

    I was battered and bruised trying to find my way around my new house, then after I gave it some time, I now sit in the most comfortable chair in the house, and I control my online life with seamless ability across all my devices as I tell Netflix to please “pause” while I get up to release all the crap the tech media has been feeding me all this time.

  • Bryan Mistele

    I totally agree with you Todd. After playing with Win8 for a while, I think it’s fine for a touch-screen tablet (primarily a content consumption device), but it’s the wrong interface for a non-touch screen desktop (primarily a content creation device). I found myself really wanting to default back to the traditional desktop/start menu interface, not because I’m stuck in the past, but because I really want to multi-task and have multiple windows open at the same time rather than the Win8 interface of primarily having full-screen application experiences ala the iPad. Further, the idea of having hidden areas that I have to navigate my mouse to and pretend my mouse does swipe gestures is inconvenient if not kludgey.

    Hopefully enough people will give this feedback back to Microsoft and they’ll provide a way for users to default back to the traditional desktop experience which was optimized for mouse and keyboard rather than touch-screen hand gestures.

  • John W Baxter

    My oldish Dell tower will have its Windows 7 updated to WIn 8 Pro Friday (and the current Win 8 partition erased for other, future, uses).
    Note that everything you can do in the invisible corners, and more, can be done with the expanded set of Windows key plus shortcuts.
    Also, Enter key runs whatever is in the top left corner of the Start screen. Put desktop there and you’re one key away from the desktop. Mostly run Excel? Put Excel top left and you’re one key from a running Excel. Not so hard.
    My Sony laptop will follow later: I want to combine its partitions and install Win 8, replacing 7 and 8. Have to think out how to do that.
    Oh…and I may may the “Metro” (sorry) Skype that was released Thursday my normally-used skype.

  • Aaron Evans

    How will it be a victory for Microsoft even if every single user adapts to Windows 8 painlessly? They have gained nothing.

    Their only bet is that people will become so entrenched in the Windows 8 UI that they will be unwilling to try a different interface on their mobile devices — something already disproven — and Microsoft will be able to gain market share in that segment.

    • guest

      Good points! Internally, MS employees know that this won’t be a killer release.

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