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Microsoft needs to decide if Windows is for PCs or tablets

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Microsoft's last two operating systems were called Windows 7 and Windows 8, so you might have expected that the next one would be called Windows 9. You would be wrong. In a bold move, the company is calling the next OS Windows 10 instead.

But that seems to be about the boldest thing about the new OS. Instead, the AP reports, Microsoft seems determined to mollify Windows stalwarts who found the changes between Windows 7 and Windows 8 too jarring:

Microsoft is restoring some of the more traditional ways of doing things and promises that Windows 10 will be familiar for users regardless of which version of Windows they are now using.

For instance, the start menu in Windows 10 will appear similar to what's found in Windows 7, but tiles opening to the side will resemble what's found in Windows 8.

The background to this is that Microsoft is facing a disruptive threat from tablet and smartphone computing platforms. These mobile devices have dramatically different user interfaces optimized for taps and gestures rather than keyboards and mice. With Windows 8, Microsoft tried to create an operating system that could be all things to all people. A new generation of Windows 8 applications were supposed to work well with a keyboard and mouse the way PC software always has. And they were also supposed to work well on a new generation of Windows-based tablets.

But the result was a mess. Old users found the new interface confusing. New users found it clunky. No one was as excited about it as people are about iPads and Android phones.

Steve Jobs faced the same issue when he started working on the iPhone and then the iPad. But he took a different approach that, in retrospect, looks a lot smarter. Rather than trying to retrofit the Mac OS X user interface for the iPhone, he had Apple's engineers build a totally new interface specifically designed for smartphones. The result: Macs still work basically the same way they did a decade ago, but iPhones and iPads have an interface that's specifically designed for multi-touch screens.

This was relatively easy for Jobs to do because in 2007 Macs had a single-digit share of the PC market. Jobs didn't have much reason to care about preserving the viability of Macs as a platform — if iPads cannibalized the PC business, most of the losses would come out of Microsoft's bottom line, not Apple's.

In contrast, Microsoft desperately want to create a tablet that doubles as a PC so they can hold on to the hundreds of millions of Windows customers they already have. And, conversely, they hope to leverage the popularity of classic Windows to promote their tablets and smartphones.

But so far, there hasn't been much sign that consumers want a PC-tablet hybrid. Attempts to create one seems to be alienating core Microsoft customers without giving Microsoft much traction in the mobile computing market.

Microsoft doesn't need to skip a number. They need to choose a side.

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