Microsoft's Dilemma: Windows 8.1 May Not Be Enough

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer tells employees that Windows 8 has underwhelmed. A turnaround depends on Windows 8.1 and his reorg plan.
10 Hidden Benefits of Windows 8.1
10 Hidden Benefits of Windows 8.1
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Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer reportedly admitted at an internal town hall meeting that sales of Windows 8 and Windows RT devices, specifically the Surface RT, have disappointed.

In a sense, the candor is refreshing, given that Microsoft has repeatedly sidestepped hard questions about Windows 8's sluggish adoption. But the statements are only new in the sense that they come from Ballmer; others have been saying the same thing for months. It's noteworthy that Microsoft's CEO spoke so frankly -- but what really matters is whether his "one Microsoft" vision is the antidote to the problem.

Regarding the Surface RT, Ballmer said, "We built a few more devices than we could sell," according to The Verge, which cited "several sources" present at the meeting. The CEO reportedly confirmed that the company's recent $900 million writedown was to accommodate Surface RT price reductions, which Microsoft hopes will stimulate sales.

The website Neowin, which was the first to publish details about the meeting, reported that Ballmer said next-gen Surface models are in testing. Recent reports have suggested the next Surface RT will run on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 chip, which is substantially faster than the current edition's NVIDIA Tegra 3. The new processor could also enable LTE support, which today's Surface lacks.

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Ballmer also said, "We're not selling as many Windows devices as we want to," according to The Verge. The CEO reportedly stated that limited stocks of touch-enabled devices limited the Win8 launch, and that the company is working with OEMs to provide a variety of compelling hardware options for the upcoming back-to-school and holiday seasons.

Ballmer's frank tone is notable, but no one seriously doubted that Windows 8 hasn't lived up to Microsoft's hopes.

In the past, when company execs have been questioned about Win8's viability, they've typically pointed to its 100 million license sales. These figures don't necessarily represent the number of devices that have reached consumers, however, and it's become clear, following months of declining PC sales and bleak reports about Windows 8's market share, that Microsoft was spinning numbers. If Ballmer is admitting that Win8 has struggled, he's just conceding the obvious.

And his reported statements aren't that much different than comments he's made in the past. At Build, the company's conference for developers, Ballmer also blamed Windows 8's struggles on the dearth of touch-enabled inventory available at launch. His newest remarks are a bit more direct, but disappointing sales have been implicit in his statements for weeks.

Likewise, at this point, it would be difficult for Ballmer to ignore the $900 million charge. What the CEO said is less important than whether the new $349 price point is cheap enough to stimulate sales. With the Nexus 7 poised to disrupt the low-cost tablet scene, the success of Ballmer's strategy is not assured.

It's also strange that Ballmer implicated inventory shortcomings in Windows 8's trouble while also admitting that Microsoft has more unsold Surface RT stock than it wants. After all, if consumers were so hungry for Windows 8 touchscreens, why didn't a few more of them purchase a Surface RT, which was in high supply?

This odd dichotomy could merely indicate how little enthusiasm consumers have for Windows RT. But it also reiterates a point that Ballmer didn't make: Slow Windows 8 sales involve more than hardware.

The CEO reportedly touched on this topic in only a roundabout way. According to Neowin, he said that Windows 8.1 was guided by user feedback, which obliquely references divisive reactions to the OS's current UI. It's good that Microsoft is focused on producing better devices, both internally and with OEMs. If Win8 sales take off, new tablets, convertible laptops and all-in-one desktops will be part of the equation.

But again, Ballmer still didn't address the bigger question: Is Windows 8.1 good enough? There are many reasons to think that it is, including a more polished UI, the ability to boot directly to the desktop, and deeper connections to the cloud. Then again, some users probably don't feel their feedback has been heard; Windows 8.1 brings back Windows 7's Start button, for example, but not the much-requested Start menu.

In recently reorganizing the company, Steve Ballmer has painted a compelling vision, in which Microsoft's diverse assets connect to and enhance one another, all via the cloud. In the meantime, it's interesting to hear Microsoft executives reflect on the company's struggles. More important, though, is whether the company is making the right moves to stay on top.

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