Nikhil Kumar: Ailing Microsoft really should have taken the tablet a long time ago

US Outlook: It seems hours spent keying in computer code have failed to give this giant the shot in the arm it needs

It's been a busy couple of months for the folks up in Redmond. Many millions and untold hours went into the creation of the latest version of Microsoft's Windows operating system and the accompanying Surface Tablet, both of which, the twin pillars of the technology giant's assault on the world of touchscreen computing, were launched with what was one of the priciest ad campaigns in the history of American business.

How are they doing? It's been only a month, but from what we know, Microsoft has sold some 40 million Windows 8 licences in the month since the launch. That's from Tami Reller, one of the new co-heads of the Windows business, who made the disclosure at a recent conference. Without revealing how many of the licences represented sales of new computers running the revamped software, Ms Reller added that version 8 was already setting a faster pace in terms of upgrades than version 7. All of which is great. Kind of.

Shortly after Ms Reller's disclosure came figures from the sales-tracking firm NPD, which said unit sales of Windows PCs in the United States had dropped by 21 per cent in the four-week period to 17 November.

Though Windows 8 was only launched on 26 October, late in the first week, the figures do offer at least one clue: that the new version of Microsoft's OS did not provide even a temporary boost to PC sales, which have been lodged in the doldrums for a while.

There is a revealing difference in the data here, in that NPD counts sales to retail customers, whereas Microsoft's 40 million figure, as many have pointed out, reflects sales to everyone, including, more often than not, manufacturers who install the software on their machines before selling them on to consumers.

But whichever way you look at it, the impression you're left with is that Windows 8, at least at this early stage, has not lured droves of eager customers who have rushed out to their nearest Microsoft store (yes, they do exist) to snap up a Windows 8 PC.

Clues about the early fate of Surface appear to be yet more discouraging. We haven't had an official number, though Steve Ballmer has been quoted by a French daily as saying that the tablet had had a "modest" start, according to remarks translated by Reuters. Microsoft's CEO put this down to an initial lack of availability, which, he suggested, would change as the device is rolled out.

Moreover, to be fair to the company, the current version of Surface is a kind of Surface-lite, which doesn't, for instance, work with old Windows application. It will be supplemented by a more powerful version early next year and it's entirely possible that some customers are putting off buying the new device until then.

So, the tide may yet turn but, thus far, it seems that all those millions and all those hours spent keying in line after line of computer code have failed to give this giant the shot in the arm it needs.

And if you're wondering why, the answer was supplied by the boss. Replying to a question at the annual shareholder meeting last month, Mr Ballmer acknowledged that Microsoft shouldn't have waited so long before tip-toeing down the tablet and touchscreen path trailblazed so spectacularly by Apple. "Bill did hold up a tablet many years ago," Mr Ballmer said. "Maybe if we had started innovating then, which is what we really did with Surface, maybe we should have done that earlier."

There it is. A summation of the critical thing that's wrong with Microsoft. Put Mr Ballmer's quotes in context, read them in the light of all that's been achieved by Apple and the decline in PC sales, and it becomes clear that the once-nimble business that startled the world with its ability to take small and varied forays in silicon valley and turn them into pioneering products such as the early instalments of Windows, has become … well, slow and sluggish. No amount of advertising can turn that around. Sorry, Mr Ballmer, but when Mr Gates held up the tablet, you should have grabbed it with both hands. There simply isn't a question of maybe.

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