Weak Touch-Based Laptop Sales Harming Windows 8′s Shot At Being The Next Big Platform

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Windows 8 is a bet on touch. Microsoft, in the pre-iPad era, made the call that touch was next and that its core platform would support it properly; touch in Windows 7 was abortive at best. However, according to IDC, Microsoft’s fortunes in the touch wars are unimpressive, and perhaps even slipping.

IDC estimated that in 2013, between 17 percent and 18 percent of laptops sold would sport a touch screen. The company, as reported by ComputerWorld, now expects the tally to be lower, with only 10 percent to 15 percent of laptops sold in 2013 being touch-capable.

This isn’t good for Microsoft or Windows 8 itself. The Metro experience of Windows 8, and 8.1, is predicated on touch input. If you lack touch, you will not, in my view – which is based on hands-on time and extensive third-party anecdotal evidence – spend much time in the Metro side of Windows 8. That means less time in the Windows Store, of course, which harms not only Windows 8 as a continuing revenue source for Microsoft, but also as a functional development platform.

The more touch-enabled machines that Microsoft sells through its OEM partners and its Surface project, the better it is for Windows 8 itself. To see IDC revise its estimates downward is the opposite of encouraging. Also perhaps of note is the increasing lack of confidence in IDC’s new estimate. Its previous range was a 1 percent differential. The gap between 10 percent and 15 percent is half.

At this year’s CES technology confab, Intel said that any laptop that wants to call itself an Ultrabook (the strain of Windows-based laptops that are thin, light, and resemble the Macbook Air) must contain a touchscreen by the end of the year. Because of that, and the fact that Windows 8 is so much better in a touch environment, I expected the percentage numbers regarding touch penetration to be higher.

However, as ComputerWorld notes, the price delta between touch laptops and non-touch machines might remain too large to attract many consumers. Or maybe this is predicated on a lack of consumer demand rather than OEMs not building enough touch machines.

The average person doesn’t know, I would posit, that by paying more for their next machine, they can have a far better daily computing experience. The gist of this is simple: If price differential keeps consumers on non-touch machines, Microsoft’s Windows 8 bet makes less sense. If consumers aren’t touch-first, building a touch-first operating system doesn’t jive with the market.

But the market, you might argue, is in fact going touch. Yes, but the laptop market? The larger computing market — tablets, desktops, laptops, and smartphones — may be trending toward a touch future. But that doesn’t mean that individual components of the market will move at the same pace as others. The tablet market is by default touch, for example. Desktops are almost the complete opposite.

Still, Microsoft has made its bet that Windows 8 will translate across screens, working well on all computing form factors, albeit on smartphones in a less literal sense through the Windows Phone effort.

Pesky Consumers

It’s almost ironic that Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system would be dragged down by budget-conscious consumers: Those are the same individuals Microsoft used as a platform to hawk its new OS to developers as something worth paying attention to. Hundreds of millions of copies will be sold! The PC market is huge! But if the consumers who make up the massive PC market don’t buy machines that encourage use of the parts of Windows 8 that Microsoft specifically hoped that they would, well, then, are the numbers meaningful?

I’d say that in time, Windows 8 will grow into itself. However, in the face of a sliding PC market (the unit volume declines are material, and should be monitored), it isn’t particularly good for Microsoft to have its chief light flicker and spurt.

At the same time, we can recount a few truths that put Windows 8 into a more positive light: It has sold copies in the nine figures, has six figures worth of applications in its marketplace, and will sell tens of millions of touch-based laptops this year, and the U.S. PC market fell only 1.9 percent in the second quarter (again, IDC data).

So, the picture isn’t too bleak for Microsoft, but it is also not as rosy as the story that the company told to developers, and the press, in the lead up to the Windows 8 launch cycle.

Here’s your takeaway: Microsoft needs to better explain to the PC buying masses that touch is an important input tool for Windows 8, and one that is worth paying extra for. Also, OEMs need to get the price gap between touch and non-touch laptops down to the smallest possible smidge. If both parts of the PC market can do that, Windows 8 and OEMs will enjoy better sales and margins. If they fail, many will miss out on the new tools that Windows 8 and 8.1 provide, which would be a waste.

We’ll have more figures as the year continues, but for now, the PC market remains a troubled place for its traditional players.

Top Image Credit: Dell Inc.