Hi, I'm a PC: How Microsoft Is Setting Itself Apart With Windows 8

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"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 Start Screen.

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.

But Not Leaving Everything

"We had this great foundation of people who knew how to use the desktop, but we wanted to make Windows more touch first," Larson-Green says. "We wanted to embrace that, but we didn't want to throw away the past and all the familiarity with the way Windows has worked before. We wanted to provide that best of both."

It's a starkly different approach than Apple, which has a mobile operating system called iOS for the iPhone and iPad and then its OS X software for MacBook laptops and desktops. Apple has started to bring the two together in some ways by adding features of iOS to OS X, but they are still in their own silos.

Where Apple stands is clear: "You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those aren't going to be pleasing to the user," Apple CEO Tim Cook quipped about Microsoft's plans in April.

"People expected we would start with the phone and build it up, but there are so many things the PC can do that we knew people wanted to do. We wanted to start with the PC and the capabilities of the PC and not make people choose," Larson-Green said.

Sinofsky said the same thing: creating just a tablet operating system for Microsoft wasn't an option.

"We always envisioned a tablet that could do more than be a tablet. All the tablets you get with Windows 8 come with USB ports. USB ports can be used for storage, but you can also plug a keyboard or mouse. You cannot take that power and flexibility out of Windows. That is a huge advantage. That's why when you use a Windows tablet it has Microsoft Office on it; you have the full power to use Office."

The iPad, on the other hand, lacks some of that flexibility. It requires iTunes to sync and special adapters for hooking up a camera.

Work is Cool, Too

This isn't the first time Office was mentioned at my visit to the campus. Sinofsky and Larson-Green stressed the importance of Office as a differentiator for the new software since it allows Windows 8 to bridge work and play.

"It goes back to the difference in the 1990s when Windows came about. When PCs were from that era, you went to work and used your PC and then you watched TV and DVDs. Entertainment didn't really cross into those very often," Sinofsky said. "Those boundaries aren't part of the generation we are in now. Those boundaries don't really exist anymore."

That's the thinking behind the software, but also so much of the hardware coming out with Windows 8. Most of the tablets come with keyboards and most of the laptops come with touchscreens. Some screens pull out of the keyboard, some flip around, and then some regular laptops and monitors have touchscreens. It's all about what Microsoft calls its "no compromise" solution.

I asked Sinofsky about the image of Windows as uncool – the meme from those Mac vs. PC commercials. Wearing a blue sweater, jeans, and sneakers, he certainly isn't the nerdy guy in the suit or a Bill Gates doppelganger. He answers the question not denying the notion, but embracing part of it.

Steven Sinofsky.

"One of the things that I found interesting over the last couple of years is that work is cool too. There was a famous picture of the situation room in the White House with all Windows PCs running. I think that is super cool," he says. "PCs are as much about fun as they are about work. With every generation of new products we have an opportunity to broaden the common view of what is going on."

Changing the User

It's all about change. That's the message in Redmond over the last couple of months since Microsoft has reinvented its logo, the design of its key services, and now the most popular operating system in the world.

But one piece of that change Microsoft can't control is its users. Over one billion people use Windows PCs today, Sinofsky notes. For those that choose to upgrade or buy a new Windows 8 PC, an entirely new experience awaits -- one that will force changes they might not want.

Microsoft has braced for the change with educational tools, including videos, animations when you boot up a new Windows computer, and even pamphlets included in new computers box. It's another striking difference between Apple and the company. But Sinofsky doesn't see it as a risk and is confident that we will adapt, just like Microsoft has had to.

"Any time you change something there are always going to be people who take a minute and want to adjust," he says. "Over the history of PCs and technology we have undergone a plethora of changes and the best part about the PC world is that the most flexible, most adaptable, the element of the system that is most likely to be able to change is the person in front of it."

Finally, I asked Sinofsky how Microsoft can ensure it won't continue to trail behind Apple.

"There are always times when you might not be first, but you can be better. We are always going to be first when we can be first, but when we are not first we want to be better."

Better is hard to say at this point. But different – different than Apple, different than what it has stood for in the past, and different than the frumpy and nerdy guy in the suit – that is what Microsoft is betting on in the post-PC world.