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Windows 8: Is Microsoft Scared Into Acting Like a Startup?

After a day at BUILD, we saw a Microsoft we barely recognized. One that's trying to act like a startup.

Is Windows 8 aiming to be a must-have upgrade along the lines of Windows 7?

After BYTE's first day at Microsoft's BUILD 2011 developer’s conference, we say no. On news analysis, this clearly is a long term play for a whole new generation of devices and the fight of Microsoft’s life.

Execs at MS BUILD 2011 revealed so much to the developers and even journalists present. That is not the Microsoft we know, with its NDAs and top secret plans. As for the keynote, it is an opus. Analysts told me they are having to watch the epic length two-hour plus keynote over and over -- just to get their heads around it.

Execs didn't even mention a release date or time frame or discuss how many iterations it would arrive in for enterprise, home and so on. With stakes this high, Microsoft can't again risk the humiliation it suffered when its Longhorn (aka the clunker Vista) took years to hit the market. It needs to act lean and move quickly again. And by all indications at BUILD, that’s the makeover Microsoft is trying for.

Business folks know that totally redesigned products are risky on first release. Microsoft's own record shows it often takes it three revs to get something right. So now Microsoft is making its revs in public -- not just privately for developers but in a way anyone can download with just a link -- and starting early with a pre-Beta product. It's an edgy thing to do.

Other signs point to a corporate reinvention. Microsoft risks irrelevance in the rapid-fire tablet market dominated by rivals Apple and Google. To immediately release an alpha level product to developers and not bar others is new behavior.

This is a startup mentality Microsoft hasn't exhibited in decades. And growing competition for marketshare, developers and talent seems to be scaring Microsoft into regaining that mentality.

At BUILD, execs emphasized long-term thinking without cease. Within a couple years, they said, all displays (regular computer monitors and tablets alike) will be touch-enabled.

From watching the execs and the fervor with which they preached the Windows 8 gospel, it is clear there is a lot on the line here. Microsoft can't miss the next revolution and remain king.

Execs talked and talked about tablets all day during BUILD day one. It was all tablets all the time. They talked a lot about the new tablet-ready features to support Metro apps. One exec said the new Visual Studio features were designed with Metro in mind.

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