A firm date for a Windows Blue preview release and a new approach to computing by Acer add up to a new window of opportunity for Microsoft, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
A 4% hop in Microsoft’s share price last week was attributed by many to a $2-billion bet on the stock by hedge fund ValueAct. But it was no flash in the pan. The share price has climbed more than 20% since the beginning of the year. In the same breath as the latest rise, however, new hope has arrived for long-suffering investors and users of Microsoft products.
At the Wired 2013 Business Conference in New York last week, Microsoft Windows Division corporate vice president Julie Larson-Green confirmed long-rumoured release plans for a new version of the Windows 8 operating system . To be called Windows Blue, a public preview will be unveiled on 26 June.
It’s expected to fix some of the most maddening flaws in Windows 8, such as the absence of a Start bar that made Windows 7 so much more user-friendly. A minor industry emerged around that void, producing apps that inserted an equivalent of the Start bar into Windows 8. That was enough to send a loud message to the software giant, but it would have been more useful had they listened to early criticism from the start.
The other big flaw lies in the way the tile-style interface is geared towards touch-screen devices, and makes conventional machines feel positively clunky. That’s not the greatest message to send to a massive business user base that has remained loyal to Windows machines. Expect Windows Blue to play a lot nicer with this market.
That said, the launch of a range of new products in New York a few days earlier provided evidence that Windows 8 was not dead in the water. Acer, which sells one in every ten computers globally, and one in three in South Africa, unveiled two new flagship devices running Windows 8.
The new Aspire V7 is the company’s most powerful yet in the Ultrabook format, a standard developed by Intel for ultra-thin, ultra-light laptop computers that boot up in seconds. Inspired by Apple’s MacBook Air, until now the format had not yet produced a true equivalent until the V7. It comes in a choice of 15.6‚” or 14‚” display, touchscreen or non-touch, with the larger model having a high-definition LCD monitor.
Their stand-out feature? Price. Until now, a key reason the MacBook Air had no competition was that equivalent devices were no match in the pricetag often adding a further 25% to 50%. Considering the MacBook Air starts at $999 in the USA, the V7’s dollar prices announced last week represents a seismic shift: starting at $799.
A less powerful alternative, the V5, was also announced, offering screens from 11.6‚” in size, playing in the same space as the entry-level MacBook Air but at half the price.
The new devices are expected to give both Acer and Microsoft a boost when they come to market in June, just in time for a Windows Blue upgrade. Acer also unveiled its new premium notebook, the ‚”four-in-one‚” Aspire R7 notebook. As with the V7, it has a full HD 15.6‚” touchscreen, but that’s where any resemblance rushes out the back door.
It features an ‚”Ezel Hinge‚” that allows the monitor to be folded all the way to the back of the notebook, turning it into a pad or slate computer, with tablet functionality but notebook power. The monitor can also be moved forward, covering a trackpad that is set behind the keyboard rather than in the conventional position at the front. This makes it easier to combine typing and touching, as opposed to typing and ‚”mousing‚”.
Finally, it can be raised horizontally above the keyboard, ‚”floating‚” in mid-air, to allow for several people to use it at the same time. Oh, and the screen can be flipped round into ‚”display mode‚”, for showing photos, presentations or movies.
It may not be the future of computing. It may not even be the future of Windows 8. But it underlines how much live is still left in the operating system. For Microsoft, the window of opportunity remains wide open.
* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee