Windows 10: Microsoft's realistic answer to changing times

Microsoft’s new operating system lacks the razzmatazz attached to earlier versions of Windows

When Microsoft officially launches Windows 10 tomorrow it might be more with a whimper than a bang, at least compared to the glory days of its operating system franchise. There was a time when a new Windows poured money into the coffers of PC, chip, accessory and software makers as well as other less likely recipients. Windows 95 injected cash into the Rolling Stones, for example, when their song Start Me Up was used to promote the new Start button and the Financial Times was given away free on the day of release.

Even the tag line for Windows 10 sounds apologetic: “It’s the Windows you know, only better.” Still there will be many drinks and canapés consumed as Microsoft strikes up the band for Windows 10 with parties all over the world. This is an important release for the company of course but the way that software deployment has changed makes it less of a red-letter day than Windows versions of yore. There was always an element of marketing hype and artifice about these releases as many buyers had access to pre-release code and few would deploy on the very day that Microsoft made software available. But now more than ever releases hove into view rather than leap into the spotlight. Operating systems constantly evolve, accrete features and are patched - the phenomenon of the .1 release has gone.

Still, Windows 10 is a mark in the sand. The name itself hints at a certain amount of gamesmanship. Windows 9 was passed over, Windows 8 airbrushed from history and Microsoft clearly wants to say that this is a generational shift, a Great Leap Forward if you’re familiar with Chinese communist propaganda. Doubtless there will be those that use the Windows 10 launch to write obituaries of Microsoft and suggest the operating system is no longer the hub of the computing experience but Windows remains ubiquitous. The key thing about Windows 10 is there are 1.5 billion Windows users. Think: 1.5 billion! Over one in five people on the planet. That’s a huge addressable market.

Against that there is the undeniable fact that PC sales are declining and recently the descent has been precipitous – a fall of about 10 per cent for the most recent quarter when compared to a year-ago. But the rump remains large and about 289 million PCs will be bought in 2015, according to IDC. Smartphones, phablets and tablets have changed the way we consume compute cycles but the PC remains the workhorse of most office workers and a wonderfully flexible device for creating and consuming content of all types. Prices today offer unprecedented value, acting almost as an advertisement for the virtues of capitalism.

In his highly influential book The Innovator’s Dilemma the business academic Clayton M. Christensen described a crossroads where technology companies must decide to continue to pursue the same strategies that made them successful or make an abrupt change in line with market shifts. Credit Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella for having taken the latter road. Since taking over from Steve Ballmer, Nadella has embarked on a radically different strategy that veers well away from the Windows/Office hegemony on which Microsoft built its fortune. Of course he will not want to forego the gusher of cash Windows provides for Microsoft but he has shown a willingness to bend, even to the extent of providing free upgrades for many users to keep them, and hence software developers, onside.

Windows 10 looks slick, beautiful even. New features such as the Cortana online aide, facial recognition for security and the powerful looking Edge web browser are likely to prompt some users to upgrade hardware. Not many expect this new version of Windows to create the domino effect that earlier versions once did but then Microsoft is not trying to kid anybody. It’s a very different world to the one Microsoft did so much to create.