The software maker is taking the wraps off Windows 8 today at a conference for developers in Anaheim, California, following a preview of the design in June. The product is an attempt to vault Microsoft into a fast-growing market controlled by Apple and Google Inc.'s Android software.
Microsoft is under pressure to put out a new version of Windows capable of running smaller, thinner tablet computers with battery life to rival that of the iPad. In the meantime, Windows sales have missed analysts' estimates for three straight quarters and personal-computer sales have stalled as consumers favor tablets over notebook computers running the software.
"It's very important for them to get this right," said Sid Parakh, an analyst at McAdams Wright Ragen, who suggests buying Microsoft shares. "They can't compete with what's out there today in tablets."
Companies will ship 60 million media tablets in 2011, and 74 percent of those will be Apple's iPads, according to an August forecast by IHS Inc. The global market is expected to rise to 275.3 million units in 2015, with Apple forecast to claim 43.6 percent of the market at that point.
In the quarter that ended in June, Apple sold 9.3 million iPads. About 20 percent of them went to customers who would have otherwise bought a Windows PC, estimated Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Partners LP in New York.
Need to Compete
The need to compete has led Microsoft for the first time to offer a Windows computer operating system that runs on chip technology from ARM Holdings Plc. The program is the biggest operating-system change Microsoft has made since Windows 95, Microsoft Vice President Julie Larson-Green said in June.
Windows 8's design resembles Microsoft's software for mobile phones in its use of digital tiles instead of icons to help users move between programs, according to the June demonstration by Windows President Steven Sinofsky on a 10.6- inch tablet computer.
Sinofsky at the time declined to say when the software would be available, except to note it "won't be this fall."
The design of the software is similar to the tile interface on Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 mobile-handset software. Like that program, Windows 8's tiles can be automatically updated to display information from applications on the computer's start screen. For example, a weather application can tell users that it is forecast to be sunny without requiring them to open the app.
The software also will run on desktop and laptop computers via a touch screen, mouse or keyboard. Windows 8 will run existing Windows applications, the company said.
Microsoft first released a version of Windows for tablet computers in 2002, though the devices used a stylus and had few programs tailored to the new form. Many were as large as regular notebooks and had similar battery life.
Tablets caught on in 2010 when Apple released the iPad, promising 10 hours of battery life. Since then, companies including Samsung Electronics Co. and Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. have started selling touch-screen tablets running Google's Android software.