How Microsoft blew its Windows 8 launch keynote

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Microsoft's Windows 8 launch event Thursday could have been a barn burner. The locale, Pier 57 in New York City, is grand, if cavernous. And the occasion itself came preloaded with import: Microsoft would be publicly unveiling its most important operating system since Windows 95.

And yet, Microsoft's big day to shine—one year in the making—fell flat.

That's not a reflection on Windows 8, Microsoft's biggest OS refresh since 1995. Nor is it a referendum on Surface RT, the first piece of computing hardware that Microsoft has ever developed, manufactured, and branded on its own. No, the launch party fell flat because Microsoft shared so little new information about Windows 8 and its greater, sweeping ecosystem.

We saw hardware, but no hardware surprises. We saw apps, but no new titles. We came for drama, but received something more akin to an infomercial.

Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft
Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft

Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft, opened the launch event, positively giddy that the new Windows era was finally upon us. The dramatic changes inside Windows 8—with its live-tile, touch-friendly interface—make the new OS a very different computing experience. And the gravity of up-ending the basic Windows experience wasn't lost on Sinofsky. “So many rely on Windows in so many ways," he said. "We're humbled by that responsibility.”

The changes are so dramatic that later in the event, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer noted that “Windows 8 should leave no doubt that we've shattered your perception of what a PC is, and how alive they all are with activity.”

That's a heady statement. But Thursday's event was short on data that could add fresh perspective to the same-old, same-old we've been hearing about Windows 8 since Microsoft showed off the consumer preview in February at Mobile World Congress. This time around, we needed to see less splashy video, and more details about how Microsoft expects consumers to adapt to the sweeping changes introduced in Windows 8. We needed to see evidence of how Microsoft plans to educate consumers on the new touch gestures, and, most important, what we should reasonably expect from the new Windows Store, the single purchasing point for new Windows 8 apps.

The event was full of self-congratulatatory statistical data, that embarrassing staple of all Apple keynotes. We heard, for example, how more than half of enterprises have deployed Windows 7. But we were given no insight on how quickly Microsoft's business base plans to embrace Windows 8. Traditionally, business is slow to adopt a new Microsoft operating system. But even so, given the radical change that Windows 8 represents, this is a question that you'd think Microsoft would want to get ahead of.

During the event, Sinofsky emphasized that “Windows 8 was designed to work equally as well with existing PCs and new PCs with touch.” That's been an oft-repeated promise ever since Windows 8 was first revealed. And Sinofsky may be right, but demos during the keynote didn't go far enough in showing the world exactly how touch and mouse-and-keyboard navigation peacefully coexist in the same OS.

Julie Larson-Green, left, and Michael Angiulo delivered a virtual infomercial for new Windows 8 hardware

Microsoft's Julie Larson-Green and Michael Angiulo demonstrated Windows 8's operation, but most of what was shown seemed familiar. In fact, the most useful information dispensed at the event wasn't part of any of the presentations at all: Microsoft supplied attending media with a handy guide to gestures, keyboard shortcuts, and basic Windows 8 navigation. Want to snap an app to the left using your keyboard? No problem: Tap the Windows key + Shift +, and you'll have two apps on your screen, side-by-side.

Open for business

One of the most critical questions that's been hanging over Windows 8 concerns Windows Store apps—and the lack thereof. Apps have been integral to the success of Apple's iPad, and they're a primary reason why the iPad continues to gain momentum while Android tablets receive relatively little consumer love.

So we wanted to hear a big story about apps during Microsoft's keynote. We wanted to hear announcements about new app partnerships. Which critical, popular apps already available in other tablet ecosystems will consumers be able to download at launch? And how quickly will that selection grow?

Microsoft, sadly, glossed right over all of that. In fact, all we heard was a de-emphasis on the number of available apps. Ballmer said, "Some might rush to count apps or look for their favorite apps to arrive in the store" in a dismissal of critics who assign apps too much importance. Microsoft's head honcho also told a tale of developers flocking to Windows 8, but gave no word on big new titles (we already knew Netflix was coming, and the same with Hulu Plus).

Gaming apps? We were told that there's been much activity among developers, but received no specifics. And this from Microsoft, the same company that makes Xbox.

Perhaps more news about apps will be forthcoming at BUILD, Microsoft's developer event that's being held in Seattle next week. But this Thursday was Microsoft's huge opportunity to get the word out that the apps are here, with more coming soon. This news would be especially relevant to would-be buyers of Windows-based tablets. Without a clearer view of the app story, consumers may be reticent to open their wallets to Microsoft's new OS.

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