The company's fate has always been deeply intertwined with Windows, but next year's upgrade carries unusual weight. Like Windows 7 did in 2009, Windows 10 needs to undo the damage done by its predecessor, Windows 8. It's no exaggeration to say that Microsoft can't afford to screw this one up.
Sure, Microsoft still makes heaps of money from its software that runs on PCs and servers in thousands of businesses — big and small — worldwide, and most of those computers aren't running the latest version of Windows, or anything even close. Windows 10 won't have any immediate impact on that dominating footprint.
But in the long term, a second flawed Windows release would be crippling. Only now are many businesses adopting Windows 7 en masse (thanks mainly to the retiring of Windows XP), and you can bet few will ever upgrade to Windows 8/8.1, given its many criticisms. The market will give one bad release a pass, but two in a row would accelerate the company's decline in both relevance and market share.
Counting down to Windows 10
Windows 10, which will get a grand unveiling on Jan. 21, could change that. The new OS is intended to fully unite Microsoft's multiple platforms, with phones, tablets, PCs and even the Xbox all based on the same code. That potentially will make it easier than ever for developers to build apps that work on all kinds of devices, and for those devices to work together to keep experiences seamless (e.g., relaying a video across multiple screens).
But hold on for just one second. Isn't that unified vision basically what Microsoft promised with Windows 8? After all, Windows 8 was supposed to give PC users a device-agnostic experience, one with strong cloud integration. Microsoft even re-engineered Windows Phone from scratch to bring its mobile OS in line with PCs and tablets (which were often one in the same).
Judging from PC sales, which have been declining ever since the debut of Windows 8, and the anemic market share of Windows tablets, which stands at 1.6% based on usage, that didn't work out so well. Windows 10 needs to deliver on promises that Windows 8 left unfulfilled.
"The one thing they've got to hit out of the park is Windows 10," says Richard Hay, who operates Windows Observer. "It's got to address all the issues [with Windows 8]. It has to be almost perfect."
There's at least one reason to be optimistic: the transparent way Microsoft is handling the release. The company is launching Windows 10 with unprecedented collaboration with its customers, particularly enterprise customers. There are clear ways to send feedback, and it looks like the company is actually responding.
Windows Phone and mobile
If there's a weak spot in Microsoft's arsenal, it's certainly mobile, where Windows Phone still languishes at 2.9% market share. Some commentators have given up on the platform, pointing out that a large "app gap" still exists for Windows Phone — many apps never arrive on it, and those that do are under-featured compared to their iOS and Android counterparts.
"This is the unfortunate effect of not being the first mover," says Wes Miller, a research VP at Directions on Microsoft. "Today, if you're building an app, you build it for iOS first. And if you think you can get some money out of them, you might build it for Android users. And if you've got some spare time, you might build for Windows."
In 2014, we saw Microsoft, under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, finally address this problem, and abandon any "home team first" philosophy with its software products. Fully featured versions of Office, OneDrive and more apps came to iOS and Android, even going further than what had been done on Windows Phone.
Windows in 2015
Still, even if the mobile war is winding down, there are new frontiers to conquer. Microsoft may have already lost in mobile, but if cross-platform context and collaboration is the next battlefield, Windows 10 could give the company an edge.
That all depends on whether Nadella and Microsoft can do two things at once: First, it must address the complaints of longtime Windows users to ensure upgrading to Windows 10 proceeds as smoothly and quickly as possible. No one wants another Windows 8, figuratively and literally.
"The generic consumer is very happy with their existing systems," says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. "I'm not convinced Windows 10 will drive any strong refresh. That was the original goal of Windows 8 — to force people to buy more systems. It failed badly."
There are signs of innovative spirit, however. Skype Translator, the digital storytelling app Sway and the Microsoft Band smartwatch/fitness tracker (complete with iPhone compatibility!) are all signs that the company is moving in the right direction.
Windows 10 needs to build on that foundation and not just be an adequate successor to Windows 7. It has to give customers — whether they're considering a Chromebook, a MacBook or even an entirely mobile experience — a reason to stop and look at what Microsoft is offering, show them why Windows will improve their lives, and perhaps even amaze them a little.