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Microsoft Windows 8 makes lukewarm debut

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Bill Rigby

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The "live tile" interface on Windows 8 has been labelled a poor choice for desktop computers.

The "live tile" interface on Windows 8 has been labelled a poor choice for desktop computers.

Consumer sales of Windows-powered personal computers fell 21 per cent overall last month, figures released by a leading retail research firm show, indicating a lacklustre debut for Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system.

Many in the industry said Windows 8 might revive slack PC sales, but a report by NPD Group, which tracks computer sales weekly using data supplied by retailers, dampened those hopes.

On the same day, Microsoft announced pricing for its latest device designed to break Apple's stranglehold on the tablet and lightweight laptop market. It is offering the Surface tablet running Windows 8 Pro from $US899, pitching it somewhere between Apple's latest iPad and MacBook Air laptop. Australian pricing has not yet been announced.

Since the launch of Windows 8 on October 26, Windows laptop sales are down 24 per cent, while desktop sales are down 9 per cent compared with the same period last year, making an overall 21 per cent dip, NPD said.

Usually, a Microsoft release boosts PC sales because many consumers hold off purchases for several months so they can obtain the latest software immediately.

If the NPD's sales trends are borne out over the rest of the holiday shopping season, it would be a huge disappointment for Microsoft and PC makers such as Dell, HP and Lenovo.

"After just four weeks on the market, it's still early to place blame on Windows 8 for the ongoing weakness in the PC market," said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD. "We still have the whole holiday selling season ahead of us, but clearly Windows 8 did not prove to be the impetus for a sales turnaround some had hoped for."

NPD's data neither includes Microsoft's first Surface tablet, which is only available in its own stores, nor takes account of sales of PCs to businesses, which has recently been a much stronger market.

Since Microsoft introduced Windows 8, it has accounted for only 58 per cent of Windows computing device unit sales, compared to the 83 per cent Windows 7 accounted for at the same point after its launch in 2009, NPD said.

That was partly caused by poor back-to-school sales that left many Windows 7 PCs on retailers' shelves, NPD said.

One patch of light for Microsoft is strong sales of touch-screen Windows 8 laptops, which accounted for 6 per cent of Windows laptop sales, according to NPD.

It is still unclear how successful Microsoft's Windows 8 will be in the long term. The touch-optimised, tablet-friendly system was designed to appeal to younger users with a colourful, app-based interface, but has confused some traditional Windows customers more used to keyboard and mouse commands. Beneath the new interface design, it does not offer any radical new computing power.

On Monday, a top Windows executive said Microsoft had sold 40 million Windows 8 licences in the month since the launch. That is ahead of Windows 7 at the same stage, but it was not clear how many of those were pre-orders, discounted upgrades, or bulk sales to PC makers.

According to tech research firm StatCounter, about 1 per cent of the world's 1.5 billion or so personal computers - making a total of about 15 million - are actually running Windows 8.

The launch of Windows 8 is heralded as the biggest change to the industry's dominant operating system in at least 17 years. It attempts to bridge the gap between personal computers and fast-growing tablets with its touch-enabled interface. Here's a look at events surrounding Microsoft's new system:

- October 28: Microsoft holds launch events for Windows 8, a major overhaul of its ubiquitous computer operating system. Not much new is revealed, as many of the details had been announced before, and the software had been available for testing.

- October 30: Microsoft launches phone version of new operating system, Windows Phone 8. Windows 8 phones begin shipping that week.

- October 30: SurfCast, a small technology company based in Portland, Maine, files a patent infringement lawsuit against Microsoft over an element in Windows 8 — rectangular icons, or tiles, linked to websites, apps and other items. SurfCast says it developed that in the 1990s. Microsoft says it's confident it can prove the claims are without merit.

- November 12: In a management shake-up, Microsoft says Steven Sinofsky, the president of its Windows and Windows Live operations, is leaving the company. The company does not give a reason. Company veteran Julie Larson-Green is promoted to lead all Windows software and hardware engineering. Tami Reller takes over responsibility for the Windows business while retaining duties as chief financial officer and chief marketing officer.

- November 13: Microsoft releases its redesigned browser, Internet Explorer 10, for computers running the older Windows 7 system. Although Microsoft designed Internet Explorer 10 with Windows 8's touch interface in mind, the company is hoping people will see the browser's potential on their Windows 7 machines.

- November 28: Microsoft says about 40 million licences to Windows 8 were sold in its first month on the market, though that number includes licences bought by PC manufacturers for machines built but not yet sold. Microsoft didn't provide further details beyond saying Windows 8 is being embraced by a list of companies that include Johnson & Johnson, British Telecom and Bank of America.

- November 29: NPD says sales of personal computers in the US didn't get any boost from the launch of Windows 8. There's no sign that Windows 8 made things worse for PC makers. Rather, NPD says the weak sales are a continuation of a trend seen throughout this year.

Reuters/AP

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