With Windows 8 launch-a-palooza, October critical to future of Microsoft

With the gangbuster growth of Apple, and the relentless march of Google, we in Silicon Valley sometimes forget about that once-dominant company, Microsoft. They are by no means dead, as they are often portrayed. And yet, they no longer set the pace, and certainly the amount of time people here spend thinking about them has fallen considerably.

This month, Microsoft will attempt to change all of that. In the coming weeks, Microsoft will be all but impossible to ignore. They are planning an onslaught of announcements and releases surrounding the appearance — at last!- of Windows 8.

Tablets. Phones. Laptops. PCs. The company will be trying to regain momentum in mobile computing, cloud and Web services.

It is a lot of battles across many fronts. No matter your ultimate impression of these products, they will be everywhere. The bigger questions facing Microsoft in all this: Can this blitz reboot the company’s image as an innovation laggard? Can they lay a credible path toward remaining a major player in areas where the future of computing clearly lies?

Yes, they’ve had successes with the XBOX and the truly innovative Kinnect. But fairly or not, they have not been able to shake the reputation for being an innovation follower, rather than a leader. And we’ve seen in recent weeks just how urgent it’s become for Microsoft to change, and move faster.

A number of research firms recently reported that PC sales will likely decline this year for the first time in 11 years. In his annual letter to shareholders, CEO Steve Ballmer signaled that Microsoft had understood that the world had indeed shifted, calling it a “new era” and promised the company would aggressively adapt.

“There will be times when we build specific devices for specific purposes, as we have chosen to do with Xbox and the recently announced Microsoft Surface,” he wrote. “In all our work with partners and on our own devices, we will focus relentlessly on delivering delightful, seamless experiences across hardware, software and services.”

On Oct. 26, Windows 8 will officially become available, after we’ve been seeing and hearing about it for what feels like an eternity. Coming on both tablets and laptops, critics and users will be watching closely to see if Microsoft can begin to create the kind of seamless experience across platforms that Apple’s users have come to expect.

In anticipation, the Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft his weekend will begin a massive advertising campaign.

Then, three days after Windows 8, Microsoft will hold an event in San Francisco to unveil the Windows 8 phone. The company will provide greater detail on the features. They won’t go on sale, but it’s expected that people will be able to start pre-ordering them.

On top of all that, the company announced this week that it’s finally completed work on the new version of Office, scheduled now to be released in the first quarter of 2013. This version attempts to meld the traditional desktop experience with a more Web-based and cloud service:

“This is the most ambitious release of Office we’ve ever done. It spans the full family of Office applications, servers and cloud services. The new Office has a fresh, touch friendly design that works beautifully on Windows 8 and unlocks modern scenarios in social, reading, note-taking, meetings and communications. We are proud to achieve this milestone and are eager to deliver this exciting release to our customers.

Of course, Microsoft won’t have the whole month to itself. Apple is set to announce the Apple iPad Mini. And there will no doubt be other competitors who will try to squeeze in the odd announcement to try to grab some attention.

But no mistaking this will be Microsoft’s month. The risks, of course, are numerous. Expectations will be high. And this will be a lot for consumers to absorb. They will have a learning curve with the new Windows 8 interface. And most of them won’t be able to rush out and buy all the new products at once: a desktop or laptop, a tablet, a phone. It’s just too much money for the average consumer.

But on the whole, Microsoft is going to have a rare stretch in the spotlight. It comes with tremendous opportunity. A chance to shift the company’s image. A chance to introduce a slate of new products that could be the foundation for the company for years to come.

And, of course, on some level, this will be a giant referendum on Ballmer’s leadership. More than ever, this marks his moment to leave a decisive mark on the company and its products and its strategy. It’s a clear break with the past across the board.

“We see an unprecedented amount of opportunity for both this year and the long term,” Ballmer wrote to shareholders. “Although we still have a lot of hard work ahead, our products are generating excitement. And when I pause to reflect on how far we’ve come over the past few years and how much further we’ll go in the next one, I couldn’t be more excited and optimistic.”