Windows 8 update: Microsoft crisis or business as usual?

Steve Ballmer
Image caption Steve Ballmer said people had been "blown away" by early Windows 8 devices

If you want an object lesson in how journalists can spin a story different ways, look no further than the coverage of Microsoft's plans to update Windows 8.

A front-page splash in the Financial Times screams the software giant is preparing for a humiliating U-turn on key aspects of its operating system as it grapples with customer discontent on a par with Coca-Cola's launch of New Coke 30 years ago - widely considered as one of the greatest marketing disasters of all time.

Meanwhile, the closely watched tech website AllThingsD merely observes Microsoft has confirmed rumours it will update its software later this year but so far has given away little about what the changes will be.

Other media coverage is somewhere between those extremes.

So which view is right? Is Microsoft changing course in a bid to fend off catastrophe as its flagship product threatens to crash and burn just six months after its release, or is it simply getting ready for a routine update that includes a few tweaks made in the light of customer feedback?

All we know for sure is a woman called Tami Reller, Microsoft's chief marketing and financial officer, has clearly had a busy time briefing journalists in the past day or two - and some of those journalists have seized on this contact as an opportunity to repeat and amplify already widely reported whispers that Windows 8 has got off to a less than stratospheric start.

There's no doubting the pressures on Microsoft. Windows 8 was designed with touchscreens and tablet computers in mind, in an attempt to keep the company relevant and boost its presence in software for highly portable devices - the most rapidly growing segment of the market, which is dominated by Google's Android and Apple's iOS platforms.

Image caption Microsoft has not confirmed or denied reports it will reintroduce the Start Menu button in its software update

But there was always a risk that too radical a break with what went before would alienate legions of existing core customers - people who have invested time and effort in getting familiar with earlier versions of Windows for use on their laptops and PCs.

They have yet to leave the world of the mouse and keyboard and are reluctant to spend time learning what amounts to an almost new system.

The lightning rod for criticism was Microsoft's decision to do away with the Start Menu button in the bottom left hand corner of the desktop screen, a venerated feature of successive versions of Windows since the mid-1990s.

So far, the signs are the new snazzier touchscreen-optimised Microsoft software has failed to hit the spot.

A drastic slump in sales of personal computers at the start of this year - down 14%, according to figures from IDC, a consultancy - was attributed partly to consumers' doubts about Windows 8.

Meanwhile, sales of Microsoft's Surface tablet and other highly portable devices loaded with various versions of the latest Windows also appear to have gained little traction.

With all that going on, it's maybe not surprising that plenty of commentators were looking out for a "New Coke" moment, an opportunity to brand Windows 8 as a fiasco that could only be reversed by a change of strategy.

For anyone who wasn't buying fizzy drinks three decades ago, it's worth recalling that Coca-Cola ran into trouble when it abruptly changed the taste of its flagship beverage.

Consumers preferred the new taste in blind tests but rose in revolt when the changed drink hit the supermarket shelves, causing the company to bring back the "classic" taste three months later.

But it is far from clear that Microsoft is preparing for a climbdown on this scale.

Image caption Some users have called for an option to let them boot directly into the traditional desktop environment

Careful reading of a Q&A on Microsoft's official blog suggests the aforementioned Ms Reller intended to impart three bits of information in her media briefings:

  • In the first six months since its release, 100 million licences to use Windows 8 were issued - on the face of it, this isn't a disastrous performance, although licences issued doesn't necessarily translate directly into copies of Windows 8 sold
  • Microsoft has confirmed it will issue a software update, codenamed Windows Blue, later this year - she was very careful not to give away any details about what the update would contain but said further information would follow in the next few weeks
  • Any changes would take account of what Microsoft had learned from customer feedback - signalling, perhaps, some significant moves

Clearly, Microsoft has a lot to be worried about with the lacklustre reception so far to Windows 8 but it doesn't appear to contemplating Armageddon, at least not yet.

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