Dec 14, 2012 · 3 minutes

The warning signs started to appear on Black Friday. A YouTube video comparing a Apple Store with an Microsoft Store on the most crazed shopping day of the year showed the former jam-packed, the latter sparsely populated with quiet shoppers. It dramatized Microsoft's worst fear – that the company's big bets on bold new products like Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and the Surface tablet weren't resonating early on with consumers. Not like Apple's products.

After Microsoft defenders argued that the video comparison wasn't accurate, a Wall Street analyst issued a note with more bad news. Piper Jaffray spent eight hours at the Mall of America's Apple Store and the Microsoft store across the way. Traffic was nearly twice as heavy at the Apple Store, where shoppers bought 17 items an hour on average, 11 of them iPads. At Microsoft, they bought 3.5 items an hour – all but two of them were X-Box games.

It's easy to read too much into a few hours of shopping, but in the three weeks since Black Friday more evidence is emerging that Microsoft's brave new era of computing software is off to a soft start. In a report today, Barclays analyst Raimo Lenschow said he is seeing slack demand early on for Windows 8.

"So far, it appears Windows 8 has not been the major catalyst many expected... Although user reviews of Windows 8 have been mixed, data points from the PC supply chain remain negative, with no reversal in sight."
Microsoft began selling Windows 8 in late October. After a month, the company boasted that 40 million licenses had been sold – slightly better than the 30 million monthly rate that Windows 7 saw in its first two months after launch. But skepticism quickly emerged. Nomura analyst Rick Sherlund called the Windows 8 launch "awkward", noting concern that PC makers were slow to support Windows 8 with new tablets and Ultrabooks. That was causing Windows 8's launch to be weaker than Microsoft's own internal projections.

Meanwhile, initial reports that the Nokia Lumia, a model running Windows Phone 8, was selling out quickly may have been driven less by surging demand than by supply shortages, according to Pacific Crest analyst James Faucette, who observed “very small” shipments of Nokia 920 units to retailers.

Does this mean Steve Ballmer's effort to reinvent Microsoft as a maker of software for multi-screen devices is already flagging? Microsoft's stock seems to suggest concern on that front among investors. Microsoft shares are down 10 percent since their high point in early November.

But this may be a case of jittery investors jumping the gun. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have product cycles that will endure for years, giving longtime Microsoft customers plenty time to upgrade. And Windows 8's early adoption is hampered by a steep learning curve as well as Microsoft's decision to manufacture its own tablet, potentially alienating its longtime manufacturers.

Others are confident that, despite a slow start, Microsoft's future has promise. IDC recently estimated Microsoft's share of the tablet market to grow from 2.9 percent this year to 10.3 percent in 2016. And as Windows Phone 7 transitions to Windows Phone 8, Microsoft's share of the smartphone market will increase from 2.6 percent to 11.4 percent, the firm estimates. While these analyst estimates always involve a good portion of guessing, they do reflect an broader expectation that Microsoft's future in mobile is only getting started.

Even so, Microsoft's launch of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have been clumsy, with low initial support from device manufacturers. Microsoft has launched a major marketing blitz to push its new software, as anyone who has come near a TV screen in recent weeks must already be aware.

Unfortunately, a ubiquitous ad campaign isn't enough these days. Word of mouth is essential in the era of micropublishing and social networks. Microsoft hasn't derailed its future with the launch of its new Windows wares, but neither did it do itself any favors.