This week, Microsoft launched the eighth version of Windows, which, like all the versions of the operating system since the epochal launch of 3.1 two decades ago, reflects and marks the changing landscape of personal computing. This version, Windows 8, is Microsoft's most powerful attempt to expand the once-ubiquitous operating system's reach beyond desktop and notebook systems to smartphones and tablets. While Windows has survived the challenge from open-source Linux and Apple Computer's iOS and maintained its lockdown on standalone computers, more than two-thirds of all computing devices now run non-Windows operating systems - if, that is, computing devices include smartphones and tablets. For Microsoft, the time available to convert its advantage in desktops and notebooks into a viable presence on portable, touch-screen devices is running low - and that is precisely what Windows 8 attempts to do.
Microsoft's major challengers continue to be Google and Apple. The former's Android operating system, which is free and easy to adapt for applications or app developers, has taken a commanding lead in the portable computing space; Apple, while its innovation has notably suffered after the passing of its iconic founder Steve Jobs, continues to dominate thanks to the legions of fans who trust its hardware design. Clearly, Microsoft intends to take on both its rivals squarely. The challenge to Apple is best summarised by the launch, simultaneous with Windows 8, of Surface, a tablet computer that runs a version of Windows 8. This is Microsoft's first-ever computer - a major step forward for a company that has traditionally focussed on software. Its previous ventures into hardware were both successful - the gaming console Xbox, and disappointing - the music player Zune.
In putting its reputation on the line with its new tablet, the software giant has finally recognised that the Apple model, with control of the entire ecosystem - hardware, operating system, applications and online search and content - is essential to ensure sustainable revenue. Its challenge to Google is more subtle. Android users are more likely to switch to a portable Windows machine than Apple users are. And unless Microsoft's proprietorial search engine, Bing, preloaded onto Windows 8, can take away significant market share from Google, it will not have access to revenue from the big growth area of online and mobile advertising.
It is possible, however, that Microsoft is repeating some mistakes that it has made in the past. In particular, there have been concerns that it exerts too tight a control over the development of applications for Windows 8. A well-stocked application ecosystem is crucial to inducing users to switch operating systems, and Microsoft's well-known disdain for independent developers is likely to hurt it. However, the initial responses to both Windows 8 and the Surface tablet will give it hope. Surface runs a full-featured Office suite and can be propped up easily, with a cover that doubles as a keyboard - essentially combining the features of a tablet and a laptop. This is likely to draw those, including business users, who earlier were not certain whether a tablet was right for them. And Windows 8 has received accolades from reviewers mildly surprised that Microsoft could produce anything that looks better than Apple software. On Monday, the smartphones running Windows 8 will be announced. The race to dominate mobile computing is hotting up.