NEW YORK -- When I last wrote about Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows 8, I described its Metro user interface as "one interface to rule them all," because it can be adapted to PCs, tablets, phones, and even game machines.
I suggested it might do for Microsoft what Linux did for IBM (IBM): unify disparate product lines. But it turns out it's more than that. Metro is making Microsoft the most interesting stock in the world.
That's because, according to former Apple (AAPL) and Palm executive Michael Mace, this is the most important rollout Microsoft has had since Windows 3.0 more than 20 years ago, and an entire industry is on the line.
There are three possible outcomes:
Microsoft wins and extends its desktop dominance into phones, online services, tablets and social networking.
Microsoft loses, and becomes vulnerable to desktops using other operating systems such as Apple's Macs and Google's (GOOG) Chromebooks.
Meh. Users resist upgrading, and we go on as we have been.
All three outcomes are possible, and investors don't know where to place their bets. Also, "meh" may be the worst outcome of all.
The main Metro screen will be filled with Microsoft products, Mace writes, and efforts by competitors to put their own brand identities on their "tiles," which replace icons, will tend to look shabby.
The old Start menu is disappearing -- users will be pressed to learn a new way of doing things. And forget about restarts -- even turning the thing off is going to be a trial.
It's true that the old Windows 7 interface will remain available, much as MS-DOS compatibility remained in Windows 3.0. (Don't remember DOS? Ask your dad.) But users, and developers, will be strongly pushed toward Metro. Either you like Metro or you don't.
I was already a tech reporter when Windows 3.0 came out. Although a version of Windows had been out for four years, this was the first one that worked.
Windows 3.0 basically forced IBM out of the PC business, made Apple marginal for a decade, and gave us Microsoft Office, pushing out older application vendors like Lotus, WordPerfect and Ashton-Tate.
You can see a version of Metro on the Lumia 900, which Nokia(NOK_) is advertising with the tag line "the smart phone beta test is over!"
It's a funny ad, and stars former Saturday Night Live funnyman Chris Parnell, best known these days for playing Dr. Leo Spaceman (pronounced "speh-che-min"), a walking malpractice suit of supreme self-confidence, even self-delusion. (An interesting choice.)
Why will "meh" be the worst possible outcome? Because it would leave Microsoft's biggest OEMs, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Dell (DELL), vulnerable to Chinese competitors such as Lenovo that can better handle today's value pricing.
It would prevent these American companies from gaining a toehold in the tablet market. Something has to change, in other words, or Microsoft's whole ecosystem, including Nokia, goes down in flames.
Mace wrote in his blog post that he did a search comparing "I hate Windows 8" and "I love Windows 8."
Hate outran love by 3-1.
10 Stocks for the Next 50 Years
Microsoft Becomes Most Interesting Stock in the World
10 Stocks to Buy, Hold and Prosper
Betting on companies that are not only profitable but also have a long history of increasing their dividend payments to shareholders is as good a strategy as you'll find for increasing wealth without exposing yourself to outsize risk.
Each of these 10 businesses has been issuing ever-higher checks to their investors for at least half a century, according to the dividend-tracking site The Dynamic Dividend.
1. Diebold (DBD). This maker of safes and other security equipment yields 3% and pays out 50% of its profits as dividends. Management has increased the average payout by 5.4% annually over the past five years.
2. American States Water (AWR). This company pays a 3.1% yield as of this writing, with 45% of profits committed to dividends. This California water utility was founded in 1929 and has increased its average payout by 3.9% annually over the past five years.
3. Dover (DOV). Shares of this industrial machinery supplier yield 2.1% as of this writing, paying out 26% of profits as dividends. Management has increased the average payment to shareholders by 11% annually over the past five years.
4. Northwest Natural Gas (NWN). It pays a 3.9% yield as of this writing, with 73% of profits earmarked for dividends. This Pacific Northwest gas utility celebrated its centennial two years ago and has increased its average payout by 4.7% annually over the past five years.
5. Emerson Electric (EMR). Another member of the 100-plus club, this supplier of industrial electronics yields 3.2% as of this writing. Roughly 46% of earnings are committed to dividends. Management has raised the payout 9.1% annually over the past five years.
6. Genuine Parts Company (GPC). Yielding 3.1% as of this writing, this auto parts wholesaler pays 50% of profits back to shareholders as dividends. Management has increased the payout by 6% annually over the past five years.
7. Procter & Gamble (PG).You already know P&G -- it's one of the world's most popular consumer products companies, maker of such items as Tide detergent and Pampers diapers. What you might have missed is the company's 3.3% yield, paid from 60% of annual earnings. Management has increased its spending on dividends by 11.2% annually over the past five years.
8. 3M (MMM). Originally known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing when founded in 1902, 3M -- the creator of Post-It Notes -- yields 2.7% as of this writing. Management pays out 37% of profits as dividends, and 3M has increased the per-share cut by 3.6% annually over the past five years.
9. Vectren (VVC). Founded in 1912, this central U.S. utility funds a 4.9% yield by paying 80% of earnings back to shareholders as dividends. Management has increased the payout by 2.4% annually over the past five years.
10. Cincinnati Financial (CINF). The riskiest bet in the lot, this property casualty insurer pays out more than 150% of its annual profits as dividends. So while the history and current yield -- 4.6% as of this writing -- are no doubt enticing, management may be forced to curtail payments to shareholders in the coming years.
Should you invest in any of these stocks? That depends on whether you have an interest in learning more about the underlying businesses. And again, don't invest with money you'll need in the next five years. Stocks are wonderful at creating long-term wealth, but they're as dangerous as dynamite over the short term.
But my own Googlefight on those same two terms showed love outrunning hate by nearly 30-1, and a straight comparison of the terms on Google.com had love outrunning hate 15-1. (Mace later wrote to say he got it wrong.)
But we don't really know. Microsoft is doing a slow, controlled rollout, and the current view may be down to PR -- it may all be marketing hype. We won't know the result of all this until the fall, after the software is officially released.
Microsoft has been a sort of widows-and-orphans stock for a decade, bouncing between $25 and $30 a share. Those days are ending. It will either rise or fall with Metro. Which way will it go? Your guess is as good as mine.
At the time of publication, Blankenhorn held shares of Microsoft, Apple and Google.