"Hi, I'm a Mac. Hi, I'm a PC."
The ads haven't run in years, but the image might be more significant than ever. Microsoft, which has become an also-ran in the mobile phone and tablet race, stands as the nerdy and frumpy guy in the suit. The Windows operating system he represents has become, well, boring--associated with work, and stuck in the past.
Apple, on the other hand, stands on the right: cool, hip and cocky. Its iPhone and iPad have become the most popular mobile devices in the world, almost always selling millions in just days.
It's not fair to say that Microsoft has lost in the post-PC war, dominated by the iPad, because it hasn't even stepped foot on the battlefield. It's been three years since the iPad has been introduced and Microsoft hasn't had even one soldier on the field. That is, until tomorrow morning when Windows 8 launches and Microsoft dramatically breaks with the past.
Leaving the 1990s Behind
"We started to look back and we said, wow, the user interface, the experience, the form factors, the kinds of PCs, were all developed in the mid 1990s," Steven Sinofsky, the father of Windows 8 (or more officially the president of the Windows Division), said in an interview on Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Wash. "We looked and we said things are so different, we need to envision a new kind of software for those scenarios because the world is a different place."
The world is a very different place than when Windows received its last serious makeover in 1995 when Windows 95 launched. Other than Joan Rivers, you'd be hard pressed to find anything that hasn't changed since 1995. And in the world of navigating computer interfaces the shift has been obvious.
"We all started using phones and touch. When you started to look around us – whether it was gas stations, ATMs, fitness machines—everywhere you went you touched the screen. The only screen you didn't touch, was the one you used the most, the one on your PC," Sinofsky explains.
But, of course, Microsoft had tried before to put a touchscreen on a PC. In fact, it pioneered the Tablet PC. Remember those computers with pens? In 2001, Bill Gates, then chief software architect at the company said, "The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I'm already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It's a PC that is virtually without limits–and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."
Gates was right, but it wasn't Microsoft's tablet that would become the most popular form of PC – it was Apple's. Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010. This week Apple said it had sold over 100 million iPads since it launched.
Yet according to Sinofsky and Julie Larson-Green, VP in charge of the Windows 8 user experience, Microsoft started building Windows 8 before the iPad was even announced.
"We had been thinking about Windows 8 before Windows 7 shipped. The iPad wasn't out, there was a rumor of something, but it [the iPad] wasn't out until after we had created our vision," Larson-Green tells me.
A Different Perspective Than Apple
We'll never know what route Microsoft might have taken had Apple not released the iPad. But Sinofsky doesn't speak of the iPad with jealousy. In fact, he points out how impressed he has been.
"You can't help but be impressed with the work that Apple did on developing the iPad. They took the iPod then they made it an amazing phone and then they made an amazing phone with a bigger screen with the iPad."
But he's quick to explain how Microsoft sees tablets differently than Apple.
"But we have a different perspective. A different reason why we would want to make a tablet computer and that is really rooted in PCs being a general-purpose device that works within a broad ecosystem, that connects to a lot of peripherals, and represents an open platform," he said.
Windows 8 tries to connect two worlds – the world of brand-new touch interfaces, like the ones on smartphones, and the older world of the desktop interface. The software has a new Start Screen, with a series of apps that are displayed as colorful squares and rectangles. It has an app store, the ability to swipe in open apps from the left hand side, and swipe from the right to bring up shortcuts. It's an entirely new user paradigm based on using touch, until you click on a Desktop app on the Start Screen. For the most part, there you can use Windows like you always.