Microsoft hesitates to trumpet Windows 10; fears consumers will delay PC purchases

Microsoft has focused on how businesses will benefit from its next operating system, Windows 10, not only because corporate customers are its bread and butter, but to prevent consumers from balking at buying new PCs, an analyst said last week.

Microsoft has focused on how businesses will benefit from its next operating system, Windows 10, not only because corporate customers are its bread and butter, but to prevent consumers from balking at buying new PCs, an analyst said last week.

"Microsoft can't make a big bang and talk about a new version of Windows in September with the holidays coming and consumers deciding that 'if Windows 10 is coming, I'm just going to wait and not buy a PC,'" said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner.

"That's why last week's announcement was pretty quiet and enterprise focused," added Silver, speaking at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo on Oct. 6. "That's why the hype [about Windows 10] is so low."

Silver was referring to Microsoft's Sept. 30 unveiling of Windows 10, the upgrade slated to ship in mid-2015. At the invite-only news conference, Microsoft touted changes it said would benefit corporations, among them a de-emphasis of Windows 8's dual user interfaces (UI), which businesses had largely rejected for fear that it would confuse employees and require worker retraining.

The key message during the hour-long presentation was that Windows 10 will be familiar to users so that "whether they're coming from Windows 7 or Windows 8, the workers at these companies will be immediately productive," said Windows chief Terry Myerson.

Only after the end-of-year-holiday sales season will Microsoft expand its discussion of Windows 10 beyond enterprises. "Early in 2015 we'll introduce the consumer chapter and talk much more about other device types and more consumer features," said Myerson in a blog posted on the same day as the news conference.

Silver echoed Myerson. "The hype will significantly increase next year after the holidays pass, when Microsoft can really start talking about the benefit of Windows 10 and Cortana, and all the other things they're doing with consumer releases," Silver said.

Microsoft will release a more polished, more feature-filled consumer preview early in 2015, then follow that with discussions aimed at developers sometime in April at its Build conference.

Although the cadence will resemble that of Windows 8 -- whose first two previews were released in September 2011 and February 2012 -- Microsoft has taken a different tack with Windows 10.

For the first look at Windows 8, called Developer Preview, the company spent most of its more elaborate presentation talking about what executives then called the "Metro experience," the tile-style, full-screen interface borrowed from Windows Phone 7 that was intended to address the company's lack of a true touch-based operating system.

Questions about Windows 8 and the enterprise went largely unanswered at the Sept. 19, 2011, event, analysts said after the fact.

This cycle, Microsoft devoted its initial revelations to enterprise-oriented features, a smart move since corporate customers have shunned Windows 8.

But Silver's impression -- that continued PC sales are also on Microsoft's mind -- has merit, too: The personal computer business in general, those powered by Windows in particular, is different now than in 2011.

Then, sales were booming. In the quarter when Microsoft introduced Windows 8's Developer Preview, the PC industry shipped a record 96.1 million machines, what Computerworld has dubbed "Peak PC" because since then volumes have constantly contracted when measured against the same period of the prior year.

Now, PC sales are trying to climb out of a historic slump. In the third quarter of 2014, IDC estimated that computer makers shipped 78.5 million systems. If accurate, that would represent an 18% decline since the same quarter in 2011.

Another headwind for Microsoft is that more of the personal computers shipped in 2014 do not rely on Windows. Apple's Macs, for instance, accounted for 6.3% of the September quarter's estimated machines, half a percentage point more than the year before. And Chromebooks, which had been on sale only a few months when Microsoft delivered Windows 8 Developer Preview, now represent 3% to 5% of all personal computers sold in the U.S.

Bottom line: Sales of PCs running Windows will drop by more than 5% for the year.

Microsoft could soften any impact of the news of Windows 10 on this year's fourth quarter sales -- even if it made more noise about the new OS -- by pledging that PCs bought now will be eligible for a free or discounted upgrade to Windows 10. The company has regularly done that in the past, but has typically waited until about four months before the new operating system's release to do so.

Three years ago, Microsoft sold a $15 Windows 8 upgrade to customers who had purchased a Windows 7 PC starting June 2, 2011.

Most Microsoft watchers believe that Windows 10 will be a free upgrade from Windows 8.1, but Microsoft has not yet confirmed that.

Microsoft has said it will wrap up work on Windows 10 by mid-2015, but Silver was less optimistic about the timing. "We'll probably see Windows 10 pre-loaded on devices for the holidays next year, he said last week. "That would certainly make sense."

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