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Microsoft just can’t win on Windows 8 whatever 8.1 update brings

15 Aug 2013
V3's Dan Robinson

After the last opinion piece I penned on Microsoft and Windows 8 back in March, I vowed that I would not write another one. So here it is.

Really, you have to feel sorry for Microsoft over the car crash that Windows 8 and Windows RT seem to be turning into. The company tried so hard to deliver what everyone asked of it, but has ended up with a product that few people want, while PC sales continue to slump – at least in the consumer market.

It seems to me that there is a lesson here for vendors; listen to your customers, but be careful about taking what they tell you they want too seriously. I say this because Windows 8 was the end product of feedback from users, if Microsoft can be believed.

Unfortunately, I'm not privy to exactly what Microsoft customers were telling the software giant while Windows 8 was under development, or whether Microsoft was asking them the right questions about the future direction of the platform.

However, I do recall that the media was full of "experts" telling Microsoft that it needed to compete with Apple by coming up with a more touch-oriented platform to compete against the iPad, and do something about the poor battery life of existing Windows laptops and tablets.

"Windows tablets can't match the battery life of the iPad. Microsoft needs to get Windows onto the ARM architecture if it hopes to compete," was the kind of thing people were writing on blogs, along with, "Where is Microsoft's gesture-based user interface to compete with the simplicity of iOS?"

Well, Microsoft created a platform with a touch-based user interface, and ported it to ARM as Windows RT. And what has been the reaction of these same experts? "Whaaaat? It doesn't run my existing Windows applications?? What is Microsoft thinking of????"

Of course, the iPad doesn't run Windows applications either, but this has been portrayed in the media as a strength rather than a weakness. Instead, the iPad runs iOS apps designed for the iPad's larger screen, effectively making them glorified smartphone apps.

Microsoft has also attempted to copy Apple's success somewhat by introducing a new app-development model based around its Windows Runtime (WinRT) APIs, and making these available via an online store integrated into Windows 8 and Windows RT.

A criticism levelled at Microsoft is that there are just not enough apps in the Windows Store, but the same thing was true of Apple's App Store when it launched, not to mention every other app store that exists. Another criticism is that many of the available apps are fairly low quality, but again that applies equally to Apple's app store, with Apple even having to tell its developers directly that "we don't need any more fart-generator apps".

So it seems like Microsoft simply can't win; it was damned for trying to introduce a new platform designed to work better on tablets, and would have been equally damned if it hadn't and simply pushed out a less radical overhaul of the existing Windows desktop and APIs.

Imagine what all those internet "experts" would have said if Microsoft had released Windows 8 as a revamp of Windows 7, but with a few tweaks and features to make it a bit more touch friendly?

Now, Microsoft is attempting to make changes to the platform in its Windows 8.1 update, due for release on October 17, in order to address many of the criticisms that customers have been making since the launch.

Is this likely to turn the tide of negative opinion against Windows 8? Not much, if the preview release is anything to judge by. Microsoft has added some much-needed tweaks, such as the ability to "snap" up to four Metro-style apps side by side on a single screen, the ability to customise the appearance of the Start screen, and the option to boot straight to the traditional desktop, for those who want it.

But Microsoft's problem is that the Windows 8.1 update does not substantially alter Windows 8 and its new-style user interface, and a great many people have by now decided they are completely against it.

Another factor in the Windows 8 debacle is that Microsoft has tried to make the platform all things to all people. An operating system that tries to cover everything from high-end workstations down to pocket-sized tablets with touchscreens is inevitably going to end up as a compromise.

So how could Microsoft have avoided this situation? Perhaps if the Metro-style environment wasn't so stark and downright ugly, it might help. Microsoft said it wanted to cut out "unnecessary chrome" in Windows 8, but such things make for a more pleasant user experience. I don't hear Mac users griping about "unnecessary chrome" in OS X, for example.

Then there is the fact that users are forced to use the new user interface, even if they only run "legacy" Windows apps. Windows 8.1 won't fix this, which I believe is a big mistake on Microsoft's part.

Imagine if, instead, the legacy desktop still had the Start button and menu system, and you could swipe between this environment and the new-style user interface with a single gesture, allowing you to choose whether you used one or the other, or both.

Or, imagine if the whole Metro-style interface had been implemented like the Dashboard in OS X, with the Windows 8 apps taking the place of Apple's Widgets? Again, users could choose to use the new environment or not, without losing the traditional desktop functionality that everyone seems to want.

But it's no use railing against Microsoft now. The firm has bet the farm on Windows 8 and its new-style user interface, and to back out now is unthinkable. The best we can hope for is that Microsoft will gradually refine Windows 8 until it is something that existing Windows users aren't too uncomfortable using.

Of course, Windows 9 could turn out to be a complete reboot of the Windows platform. Anyone want to place any bets?

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Daniel Robinson

Daniel Robinson is technology editor at V3, and has been working as a technology journalist for over two decades. Dan has served on a number of publications including PC Direct and enterprise news publication IT Week. Areas of coverage include desktops, laptops, smartphones, enterprise mobility, storage, networks, servers, microprocessors, virtualisation and cloud computing.

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