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Windows 8 Could Make Or Break Microsoft

BUILD conference will give developers their first in-depth look at what may be Redmond's last chance to play in the tablet market.

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Microsoft this week is hoping to show that it is still relevant at a time when an increasing number of consumers and professionals are turning to non-Windows tablets and smartphones for their computing and communication needs.

The company plans to take the wraps off Windows 8 at its BUILD conference in Anaheim and demonstrate the software to application developers, who will have a key role in determining its fate in the market.

"BUILD is where the full spectrum of hardware and software developers, from startups and entrepreneurs to those who work for the world's biggest brands, come together to get a deeper understanding of Microsoft's roadmap," said Walid Abu-Hadba, corporate VP for Microsoft's developer and platform evangelism group.

But many developers are defecting to rival platforms, like Apple's iOS or Google Android, with an eye to quickly monetizing their wares through those vendors' online application warehouses, which are fast displacing traditional software distribution channels such as retail stores.

It's hard to blame developers for eyeing alternate platforms. Windows sales are lagging, down 2% in Microsoft's fiscal year ended June 30. Beyond competition from mobile devices, the decline is also due in part to the fact that, aside from some recent cosmetic changes, the operating system has changed little over the past several years. It continues to rely on a point-and-click, mouse-based interface at a time when computing is moving toward interactive touchscreens.

Microsoft says all that will change with Windows 8, which promises to be the most dramatic revamp the software has seen since the arrival of Windows 95. The main selling point? Windows 8 will give computer users the option of navigating through the kind of touch-based interface they've gotten used to on tablets and smartphones. It borrows the "Live Tiles" display from Windows Phone 7. Live Tiles show realtime feeds from social networking services, corporate inboxes, news sites, and other information sources directly on the home screen.

Continuing with the tablet-mimicking paradigm, Windows 8 also lets users run apps in full-screen mode. As a result of all the changes, Microsoft says Windows 8 will be equally at home either on traditional PCs and laptops or on tablets.

The strategy isn't without risk. Windows 8 for tablets is geared to run on so-called system-on-a-chip processors based on reference designs from U.K.-based ARM. The decision makes sense, as ARM has become the go-to architecture for the bulk of tablet and handset manufacturers, including HTC and Motorola. But it also means Microsoft will have to fork Windows across two very different foundations--Intel and AMD chips that represent the traditional x86 platform, and ARM's SoC design.

When it comes to launching new operating systems, Microsoft's track record is spotty at the best of times. The development of Windows Vista, for instance, was plagued by delays and technical foul ups. Porting Windows 8 to a brand new architecture while maintaining a separate version for older technology could mean more headaches for Redmond and its customers.

Microsoft has yet to announce a formal release date for Windows 8. Some pundits have pegged the launch for later this year, while others believe that early or even mid 2012 is a more likely arrival date. BUILD runs from September 13 to 16 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

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