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Why Microsoft deserves credit for Windows 8 innovations, even if people end up hating them

There’s no shortage of people criticizing Microsoft (MSFT) over the decisions it has made with Windows 8 and its Surface tablet, from analysts to OEMs to game developers. And to be fair, I think a good deal of the criticism has merit: the switch from the standard desktop UI to the UI Formerly Known as Metro might indeed be too jarring for many users — the UI may be great for tablets, but it seems to be a complete debacle as a desktop UI. Microsoft might have to do some serious kiss-and-make-up with disgruntled OEMs as well if its Surface tablet doesn’t create an instant market for Windows tablets. So why do I think the Microsoft deserves some applause for Windows 8 and the Surface despite all these potential issues? Because it’s the first time I can remember that the company has taken a significant risk to do something innovative.

For most of the last decade, Microsoft has been a lumbering cow that has been content to grow fat off of Bill Gates’s success in the 1990s at making Windows the default operating system for both home and work computers. While Microsoft happily lapped up Windows licensing fees from its OEMs, it completely gave up at making significant innovations and let Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) do much of the heavy lifting when it come to creating truly creative new technology.

Making things even worse was CEO Steve Ballmer’s dismissive attitude toward these two companies’ innovations. Who can forget Ballmer scoffing at the iPhone because it didn’t have a physical keyboard? Or his assertion that Android would flop because Google wasn’t slapping OEMs with any licensing fees to use it? For a good long while, Ballmer was the tech industry’s bizarro version of the prophetess Cassandra, in that everyone would pay attention to his predictions despite the fact that they were always disastrously wrong.

But while Ballmer was scoffing, Apple and Google were eating his lunch. I’ve already touched on the iPhone and Android, but consider how the MacBook Air completely changed consumers’ expectations of how a laptop should feel, or how Google’s Chrome browser ran roughshod over Internet Explorer in terms of speedy, efficient Web browsing. And how did Microsoft respond to all this? With the exception of the Xbox gaming console, it laid up one failure after another, both on the software side (Vista and Clippy) and the hardware side (the Zune and the KIN).

But recently something has woken Microsoft up. In particular, it seems that the success of the iPhone and the iPad in the enterprise has made the company realize the vital importance of mobility to the future of computing, and has forced it to understand that once people get hooked on Apple’s smartphones and tablets, they might get hooked on their desktop computers as well.

But rather than pulling a Samsung (005930) and madly firing off “Copy Apple!” memos for all its products — allegedly — the company is definitively going its own way as it tackles mobility. The tile-based user interface is a true departure from what we’ve come to expect from mobile UIs, while the Surface’s super-slim click-in keyboard is a nifty piece of engineering. Couple this with Microsoft’s ambition to make Windows tablets an integral part of the Xbox experience and you can see some real long-term vision that the company hasn’t displayed in years.

None of which is to say that Windows 8 will be a smash hit that will put Microsoft back on the map for top-notch innovative technology. But all the same, risk-taking is an important part of what makes markets work and consumers on the whole will benefit the more companies are willing to go out on a limb. And personally speaking, I’d rather have companies fail from trying too hard than fail from not trying at all.

Prior to joining BGR as News Editor, Brad Reed spent five years covering the wireless industry for Network World. His first smartphone was a BlackBerry but he has since become a loyal Android user.