Why Can’t Microsoft Afford a Failure with Windows 8?

Okay, that’s enough.

After reading this analysis on InfoWorld (Why Microsoft can afford to lose with Windows 8), I just had to set the record straight. The bottom line? Windows ain’t as important as it used to be, and Microsoft knows it. At least, I hope key people at Microsoft take that into consideration before the Windows brand is further relegated.

Microsoft can’t afford to wait to fix Windows 8’s mistakes in a Windows 9; it needs to address a massive “Consumer Preview” problem before the final version ships.

Contrary with what apologists might suggest, I want Windows 8 to succeed. So, like many consumers, I’ve tried the Windows 8 Consumer Preview – because I’m a consumer, their target market. Microsoft has always been explicit with their naming conventions (to a severe fault). On the desktop, it was a maddening experience. “Metro” just didn’t seem to fit in – at least, in the way it was implemented. Why is a classic desktop experience (formerly known as “Aero”) sandwiched in almost as an afterthought? Why are there two environments? Why are there two experiences? What the hell is Microsoft thinking?

Consider this: Windows 8 with Metro (alone) works very well on a touch-driven computer screen. I’ve always been a Metro fan (albeit, for separate apps). It’s definitely a bit unpolished, but the promise with Metro on a touch screen is absolutely there. If you have a chance to try it for yourself, you’ll see exactly what I mean. I’d actually want to buy a PC with nothing but Windows 8’s Metro on it… but…

The moment the classic Windows desktop rears its ugly head, you’re sent spinning back to another usability paradigm without the proper tools. A finger or stylus doesn’t work well as an input device with the traditional Windows desktop environment – a major reason why Tablet PCs failed to take off (exorbitant prices notwithstanding), and another reason Apple never imagined porting OS X to any one of its iOS devices.

And therein lies the rub.

There is seemingly no perfect UX scenario for the current implementation of Windows 8, since the user cannot truly choose between Metro or Aero. It’s schizophrenic. Metro fails with traditional desktop usability paradigms (keyboard, mouse, no touch), and Aero is a kludge on a touchscreen PC. You get all of it, no matter what kind of PC you’re using. The best option might be to have a slate PC with a docking station, but (even then) the OS doesn’t auto-optimize its UX for the most relevant input methods.

You can’t necessarily control when you’re in Metro or when you’re on the classic desktop. The app decides for you. Either Microsoft needs to use Metro 100% or the classic Windows desktop 100% in any particular Windows deployment. There’s no such thing as being partially pregnant, folks.

After playing with Windows 8 on the desktop for less than an hour, my dad didn’t really understand how this would be any better than Windows XP (his current OS of choice). He tried the same “Consumer Preview” version of Windows on a tablet PC at the local Microsoft Store and was taken aback at how much better it was. Still, feeling Windows 8 on a tablet wasn’t enough to drive him to abandon the traditional PC desktop environment. More importantly, perhaps, was how he explained to me what I’m explaining to you: Windows 8 is trying to be all things to all people in all environments.

Dad, by the way, is a canary in the coal mine.

Every disappointed Windows 8 user will either stick with what they have, or find an alternative to Windows 8. It’s been difficult enough to move people from XP to Windows 7, how do you think they’ll take to a version of Windows that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up?

“Trying to make everybody happy will make nobody happy.”

So, What Should Microsoft Do?

Microsoft needs to move the ball forward – but in order to do so, it needs to either (a) break Windows – a classic version for non-touch computers, and a new version for touch computers; (b) hide Metro on desktop computers, and hide the classic desktop on touch computers; OR (c) surface both classic desktop and Metro experiences only when Windows 8 is running on a touchscreen computer with a keyboard and cursor-driving device present.

“Milestone lets users explore a re-imagined, no-compromises Windows experience.” – so says Microsoft. No compromises? Oh, man… that’s not accurate. The major compromise is usability on just about every PC (save convertible slates / tablets, which are currently a fraction of the PC market).

Sometimes, it’s okay to make compromises. Maybe Microsoft is trying to build The Homer?

Instead of trying to jam unambiguous familiarity down the user’s throat full-bore, Microsoft would be better off using key elements of Metro in the classic Windows desktop experience (on non-touch PCs). It’s possible to maintain a consistent design ethos without sacrificing usability. Well, it’s not just possible – it’s imperative.

Backwards compatibility? That might just be the albatross around Microsoft’s neck that’ll sink the Windows ship. And Microsoft still has time to turn this ship around. We’re not in the days of DOS & Windows 3.1 – where touch wasn’t involved at all, and each PC had a mouse and keyboard. Yes, we had two completely different user experiences (CLI and GUI) on the same computer, but if you didn’t want to boot into Windows, you didn’t.

The company is clearly stuck between a rock and hard place, but they’re handling their situation with the “Consumer Preview” about as poorly as it could be handled. It’s smart to move the ball forward, but you can’t keep your foot behind the line of scrimmage:

The all-too-familiar Start button is missing from an all-too-familiar desktop. Even if Microsoft recanted and added some kind of always-visible button, they would still not have solved the problem of a bifurcated user experience.

“Users will learn to understand.” That suggestion doesn’t come close to an excuse for a poor UX – and a company like Microsoft definitely has the resources to do better (they’ve just never had the culture for “beyond good enough” in place). It’s an engineer’s mentality, and the consumer world is 99% full of non-engineers who have (or SHOULD have) little-to-no patience for sub-standard experiences.

Example? You can run programs on the classic desktop or in Metro. Flash doesn’t work in Metro’s IE (nor do other plugins like Silverlight), but Flash will work fine in the classic desktop IE. Is it the same app or a different one with the same name? That’s sure to throw people for a loop. Something works fine sometimes but not other times? How does Microsoft expect the consumer to understand why, when, where, or how?! There are clearly two separate environments sewn into a single UX.

“But this is beta software! It’s not the final version!” Yeah, that’s what they told me when Windows Vista Beta 2 was released to the masses for testing. We all know how that played out, don’t we?

These types of problems, if thrown into the marketplace, will make Vista look like a raging success. Confusing the consumer at this stage in the game will only drive them to other options (of which there are PLENTY).

Once you lose a customer, getting them back is next to impossible.

So, is that Why Can’t Microsoft Afford Windows 8 to Be a Failure?

To reiterate: the average user doesn’t necessarily need Windows anymore. We have a lot more choices than we did when Vista was unleashed – and many users have begun to rely more on their smartphones or tablet computers to do 90% of what they could only previously do on a desktop or laptop computer. Email, web surfing, Facebooking, YouTubing… you don’t need Windows for that.

Traditional, “personal computer” operating systems still have their place – but unless their place is sewn into a series of seamless experiences, they’ll be the odd man out (and the first to be replaced when an upgrade is warranted). Apple’s cards are already on the table; we are absolutely living in a post-PC world – and if you have a smartphone in your hand or sitting nearby, you’re a part of it.

Maybe Microsoft is hoping consumers will eschew their legacy applications for possible new WinRT-driven Metro versions? That’s quite a gamble. Maybe Microsoft believes that people will love how a tablet PC looks exactly like their new desktop or laptop PC? Consumers certainly might. Or, maybe Microsoft is hoping that people will just buy new tablet PCs because they’re available? Yes, Microsoft has definitely optimized Windows 8 for tablet (touch) experiences, but when people think about getting a tablet computer, what’s the first product that comes to mind?


So, This is All About the iPad?

Damn right it is. When you use Windows 8 on a touch PC, it’s obvious that Microsoft has serious iPad envy. These numbers are telling. Apple sold more iPads in Q4 than any single PC manufacturer. That’s not a fluke – it’s a trend that’s not even close to buckling. Within two days of Apple’s new iPad announcement, its online store was sold out. People want iPads, new or old – and the old ones are still spectacular tablet computing devices that are now even more of a bargain for consumers.

If usable (not slow by today’s experience standards) Windows 8 PCs don’t match the $499 price that Apple’s set, they’ll tank – just like every other Android tablet over $499 has tanked. Sure, you’ll have people buying Windows 8 PCs – but why? Why buy something that’s trying to be like another leading product, doing a poor job at it, and costs more money? Features…

Virtually indistinguishable from leading 1080p video displays in both sharpness and color reproduction, iPad’s retina screen (alone) makes a formidable opponent. What PC manufacturer could match that quality at the same price? It’s possible, but will we see it happen?

Don’t forget enterprise, either – since according to a qualified survey, 84% of companies polled plan to buy tablets in the next quarter. Those tablets? iPads. Will they hold out for Windows 8 tablets? Not if the Windows 8 PC vendors can’t match the quality, features, battery life, weight, size, resolution, and price of Apple’s iPad. The iPad hits a sweet spot on nearly all fronts. It’s not that they necessarily have an extreme love for Apple (probably far from it), but iPad is the product against which every single tablet computer is compared.

Consumers will likely begin to look at Windows 8 tablets like they do Android tablets – which, if anything, will hurt Google (not Apple). “You can get whatever you want versus what Apple says you get.” Well, there’s a reason Apple’s selling more products, people – and it ain’t because of a lack of options or a good marketing slogan. An iPad is affordable, accessible, and (in countless scenarios) compatible. There’s no muss or fuss. It just works. Hardware is sewn together with software is sewn together services.

Pray to the marketplace gods that OEMs will price Windows 8 tablet PCs competitively (to iPads). I don’t think ANY consumer would argue with that.

Just remember: iOS devices are “gateway drugs” to other Apple products.

But What If Users Don’t Want a Tablet Computer?

Well, then there’s Windows 8 on the desktop… that’s set to be completely not optimized for the desktop. Or they stick with Windows XP. Or they stick with Windows 7. Or they forget that their iPad happens to be a tablet computer? Or they switch to a Mac computer (that works very well with the iPad they might already own) when it’s time to upgrade.

People just don’t need Windows as much as we used to – Windows needs us more. God willing, Microsoft (and its strongest supporters) will understand that I want to see them succeed. I have no horse in this race, but I was right about Millennium Edition and I was right about Windows Vista. I still believe Microsoft can do this – and do it very well. While they have time.

Something like a Windows 8 Metro experience on tablets is long overdue. Windows 9? Yeah, by the time you get around to addressing customer confusion and/or ambivalence towards Windows 8, more iPads will have sold. More iPhones will have sold. More Macs will have sold purely on the idea that Apple is providing what you failed to provide consumers: a cohesive experience with little sacrifice. Rest assured, Apple would lose its place quickly should it abandon its ethos and bring traditional desktop computing paradigms to touch screens (or vice versa).

Windows 8 desktop and laptop systems will certainly sell (perhaps as well as Vista did), but will they be just as usable when compared to other contemporary options? My dad has an iPad, and he loves how well it works for most of what he needs a computer or gaming system to do. Will he be more inclined to: (a) buy a new Windows 8 PC that doesn’t look like his tried-and-true Windows XP; or (b) get a Mac that has familiar icons and services like those on his iPad?

The funniest arguments coming from this “is Windows 8 going to fail” discussion are from Microsoft supporters themselves, with many of them claiming that the iPad isn’t a “real computer” and you can’t get any work done on tablets. They might wanna take a hard look at Microsoft’s strategy and touch-computing optimization for Windows 8.

Why Do You Hate Microsoft and Windows?

If I hated Microsoft and/or Windows, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this article.

Article Written by

Chris has consistently expressed his convictions and visions outright, supplying practical information to targeted audiences: media agencies, business owners, technology consumers, software and hardware professionals, et al. He remains a passionate personality in the tech community-at-large. He's a geek.