Microsoft enters the Windows 'RT era'

I'm having one of those "duh" moments this afternoon, actually it started in the AM. Gartner analysts today profess the obvious: Windows 8 is a gamble, but one Microsoft must make to stay relevant. Really? Like we haven't said similarly here at BetaNews, and others elsewhere, for months. Given, the only good news today seems to be iPhone 5, and we're all so tired here of promoting Apple's Jesus Phone (could the Second Coming really get this much press), anything Windows 8 is welcome.

Something more: Gartner analysts finally go on record clearly stating that the post-PC era -- what I call the cloud-connected device era -- is here; not coming someday, but upon us now. Well, the transition phase anyway. That's worth putting on record for your reference and our future stories.

Sunny Cloud

"When the PC dominated personal computing by providing a single device for messaging, Internet access, gaming and productivity, Windows was a powerhouse for Microsoft". Michael Silver, Gartner vice president, says. "However, smartphones and tablets, led by the iPhone and iPad, have changed the way people work, making the PC just one of several devices people use. The PC is increasingly simply a peer with other devices". Damn it, I still can't escape iPhone-something.

In March, Gartner analysts called 2014 (if not sooner) end of the PC era, claiming that the cloud will replace the PC as the "center of users' digital lives". Once the hub, the PC will be among many devices connected to the cloud as primary digital lifestyle hub. I declared "The PC era is over" in February 2010 -- and not for the first time, since it is in fact a transition.

The PC isn't going away. Rather its role is changing as its relevance diminishes. There are three eras in the modern computing age: Mainframes, PCs and cloud-connected devices. In the 1980s computing and informational relevance shifted from the mainframe to the personal computer in part because of lower costs and greater availability. PCs cost much less than mainframes and made information more available, essentially more mobile, to more people. Similar transition is happening today, as cloud-connected mobile devices make more information available to more people in more places than do PCs. Computing and informational relevance shifts once again. The mainframe didn't go away because of the PC era, the mainframe's relevancy simply declined. The PC won't go away, but its relevancy is declining.

Silver's statement is no small one. Gartner targets enterprise customers, not consumers. So it's quite the big deal for one of its long-tenured analysts to say that cloud-connected devices "have changed the way people work" and to diminish the PC's role.

Microsoft executives and product managers aren't dumb about what's happening. If anything, Windows 8's revamped touch-friendly user interface and development of Windows RT for ARM processors show how much top brass has put aside their post-PC denial and embraced the inevitable. I see Windows 8 very much as Microsoft's effort to maintain the relevance of its hugely successful Office-Windows-Windows Server applications stack. Same can be said about Office 365 and 2013. Gartner analysts see similar trend, but emphasize something else.

New Dawn

"Windows 8 is not your normal low or even high impact major release of the OS" Steve Kleynhans, Gartner research vice president, says. "It's the start of a new era for Microsoft -- the RT era -- which follows the NT era, which began in 1993 and is just now starting to fade out. Microsoft eras seem to run about 20 years, so the technology underlying Windows 8 will last a long, long time".

The RT era is all about cloud-connected devices running on ARM, which also marks a fundamental platform shift away from Intel processors. From at least one perspective that shift changes the definition of what is a PC -- or has been one for more than three decades.

Still, "Microsoft's approach is very different from Apple's and Google's, where phones and tablets have much more commonality than PCs and tablets", Silver asserts. "This plays to Microsoft's strength in PCs, leveraging it not only to enter the tablet market, but also to improve its share of the smartphone market".

Perhaps, yes, but Microsoft still seeks to redefine the personal computer while seeking to keep its apps stack relevant. This is a point often lost in discussions about the post-PC era. Microsoft's apps stack has a place beyond the PC, with Office's long availability on Windows Mobile (and now its successor) being example, as are Azure and cloud-hosted server software.

For businesses heavily invested in Microsoft's platform, the RT era will bring many new form factors supporting it. This platform shift is a huge risk for Microsoft, and its enterprise customers, too. Is it a bet with big pay-off? That's the $640,000 question.

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