Microsoft and the challenge of the conservative mainstream

Microsoft's changes to Windows 8 in the forthcoming Windows 8.1 have some suggesting that they're failing. But have they found the right strategy for selling to customers who don't like change?

It seems to be accepted to mock Microsoft right now, but I can’t help feeling that they deserve a little more leeway. They’re trying something difficult, brave and something that will ultimately decide the future of the company: finding a future for Windows in the era of the iPad.

I travelled into London by train today, and saw not a single Microsoft device in the hour’s journey. Umpteen iPads and iPhones, a good chunk of Android phones and Kindles, but not a single Windows machine of any kind. This is a stark contrast to the commute during the week, when the desk space is fought over by work PC laptops and iPads. Outside the hegemony of corporate IT buying decisions, Windows is losing its grip on people after over a decade of dominance. Something clearly needs to be done.

Well, that something was meant to be Windows 8, with its massively revamped interface and its ability to power both tablets and traditional computers. So far, a year into its life, the results are not encouraging. As news emerges about Windows 8.1, there seems to be plenty of backtracking in evidence. The Start menu is returning in some form. You can ignore the new interface entirely. This is not the brave, new no-compromise future they talked about only a few months back.

But Microsoft is caught in a variation of the same bind that is afflicting Yahoo! with Flickr. Flickr has users who have got used to no change. Microsoft has users who prefer things not to change. A huge part of its customer base are still corporate users, and a lot of senior people in big businesses are in those sorts of roles because they like the certainties and rules of those environments. And one of their expectations is that their working life won’t suddenly be completely up-ended by a change in technology. And that’s exactly what Windows 8 looks like to them

I was once involved with a project at a large corporate to start replacing Microsoft Office with Google Docs. It stumbled, partially because some of the most senior members of the company just couldn’t image life without (specifically) Excel and Outlook. Whatever notional gains might come from switching were just not worth it for them. No wonder that corporate IT departments aren’t rushing to certify Windows 8 for use in the office. No head of IT wants to deal with a furious board director who can no longer work his computer.

And so Microsoft finds itself in a horrible place. On one side, they have the danger of being rendered irrelevant to a generation of technology users, who plump straight for tablet devices. On the other, they run the risk of alienating their existing customer base quicker then they acquire new customers.

In that context, the gradual return of familiar elements to the Windows interface seems like a sensible move. Push forward, and then gently unwind from that position until they find the point that corporate buyers will accept.And build forwards from there. It might not be the revolution that the Apple-centric innovation-loving crowd want to see – but it might just be the best way of bringing a sceptical and conservative client base with you into the future.