"For the first time, Windows also has first-rate tablets, in addition to desktops and notebooks," said Ballmer, during a keynote presentation at a Windows 8 launch event in New York City. Windows 8 devices, including Microsoft's own Surface tablet, go on sale in North America as early as 10 p.m. Thursday, although the products don't officially launch until Friday.
With the iPad and other mobile devices stealing market share from Windows PCs, Microsoft needed a way to extend its presence into the slate market, while maintaining its dominance of the desktop. Its answer: Windows 8. The operating systems overlay the traditional Windows interface with a touch-friendly Start screen centered around Live Tiles. The tiles can be used to launch files, applications, or online services like social networks.
[ Critics are concerned users won't understand the new interface. See Windows 8: You Can Handle The Learning Curve. ]
Microsoft's pitch is that Windows 8 unifies the tablet and PC worlds, in contrast to Apple, which uses one operating system for desktops and laptops, and another for the iPad. "Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC now really is," said Ballmer. "We've truly reimagined Windows, and kicked off a new era for Microsoft, and a new era for our partners."
Microsoft partners like Dell, Fujitsu, Acer, and others no doubt welcome the freshness that Windows 8 brings to the PC industry, but may also be wary of Microsoft's own ambitions. For the first time, Microsoft is entering the computer hardware business with the launch of its Surface tablet. The company is currently taking orders for Surface RT, while Surface Pro, which runs Windows 8 Professional, should hit stores in November.
But Ballmer, standing before a wide array of Windows 8 tablets, Ultrabooks, laptops, and desktops from a range of manufacturers, said the Windows 8 market will be big enough to accommodate all players. "Everybody should be able to find their perfect PC," said Ballmer. "Are these new designs PCs? Yes. Are these new designs tablets also? Yes."
Ballmer was preceded on stage at the event by Windows division head Steven Sinofsky. Sinofsky said Microsoft has sold more than 670 million Windows 7 licenses, and that all those machines are ready to be upgraded to Windows 8. That, along with the more than 400 million PCs that are expected to be sold next year, ensures that Windows 8 has a potential installed base of more than a billion devices in its first year.
"The potential market for apps is the largest for any platform," said Sinofsky, in a nod to developers, who will play a crucial role in Windows 8's fate. Windows 8 apps will be sold through Microsoft's new, online Windows Store.
"The next era of Windows begins," said Sinofsky.