Microsoft's mea culpa? Five things that Windows Blue should do

Summary:The tech media, and unlikely mainstream outlets, have given Microsoft a beating over the past year. But in recognizing the difficulties with Windows 8 (and Windows RT), the software giant is eating humble pie. Here are the next steps Microsoft should take with the Windows Blue update.

Microsoft has taken a kicking over Windows 8 long before it was released in October last year.

But the software giant is taking steps — albeit with precaution — to remedy a number of complaints it has received over its next-generation operating system. 

Microsoft corporate communications chief Frank Shaw addressed such issues in a blog post on Friday, describing some voices that "want to stand out opt for sensationalism and hyperbole over nuanced analysis." 

Even "a couple of unlikely sources" seemingly notched up the angry, critical rhetoric. The Financial Times compared the upcoming Windows update — dubbed Windows Blue  — as a "reverse course" that likened it as the "most prominent admissions of failure" since Coca-Cola's New Coke "fiasco" nearly 30 years ago. 

Not to be outdone, the Economist stated: "Restoring the start button will not restore Microsoft to its former glory."

ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley makes some good points  about Windows 8's progress and Windows Blue, the next. Everyone is a critic. Everyone has a voice. But now that former Windows president Steven Sinofsky is out of the picture, even non-Microsoft watchers like myself can 'feel' something different coming out of Redmond.

How does this feel? In a word: refreshing. It feels like a weight has been lifted from Microsoft's shoulders. It feels as though the Windows team has been liberated. Like a new government — a surprisingly apt example in this case — which can accept the good, the bad and the wrong, but ultimately move on with a more positive air of mind.

People are starting to talk somewhat honestly, though still with an air of negativity, about the previous Windows regime rather than just the software itself. The Windows division for a long time was closed and secluded. Now, it's open and people are beginning to find their voices again.

Windows Blue — a series of updates, not a service pack , and not an upgrade that signifies new features altogether — will seek to rectify a number of difficulties, lets say — rather than "problems" — that a significant proportion of Windows users seem to be having with Windows 8.

As Shaw says: "We are going to keep improving Windows 8, as we do with all our products, making what’s good even better. There will be new devices, new use cases, new data that makes us think, 'Hey, we should do more of this, or less of that.' And we will."

With that, there are a few things Microsoft can do to swallow what has been a widely-considered bitter pill for Microsoft. 

1. Metro isn't going away any time soon, so help developers embrace it

The train has left the station on Metro, the codename and still commonly used moniker of the new user interface in Windows 8 . Composed of a Start "screen" and a tiled display, Microsoft still has yet to fully pitch its new 'window into Windows' to the mainstream.

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer will never be able to forget, "developers, developers, developers!" And that message has never been more true than it is today. If Microsoft truly believes that the Metro application model is the future for Windows — which it does  — any rollback on Metro (which isn't going to happen) would push back the release cycle by months if not years. The software giant should start to push it, promote it, and incentivize it with every established developer it has.

Microsoft needs to work more closely and intensely with independent software vendors (ISVs) that already have traditional Windows apps and assist them in porting them to Metro.

There's a reason why Windows 8 and Windows Phone look so similar : the two working to gether replicates the Apple desktop-mobile model. Apple has more iOS apps than OS X apps in its respective app stores. Microsoft has more traditional desktop apps than it has in both its Metro and mobile app stores. 

While Microsoft is converging the two mobile and desktop platforms (and everyone seems to be hating on the software giant for it), Apple will likely face the same, albeit lesser rebuke when it eventually does this in the coming years. It likely won't be as a significant issue for Apple because it has fewer desktop users than Microsoft, and its mobile ecosystem is already very mature.

2. Door is ajar on Windows Blue, now throw it open

In recent weeks and months, more has been detailed on Blue. The occasional leak here, the slip-up there, and then once it reached a tipping point where denial was no longer an option, the door creaked open on the occasional mention by Microsoft executives.

Windows engineering chief Julie Larson-Green has already confirmed that Windows Blue will go to anyone already with Windows 8 , via the Windows Store, at the end of June. This is likely going to be a consumer preview that may help begin easing the transition between disliked "features" and more palatable compromises. 

During this process, Microsoft should throw open the virtual suggestion box — a dedicated drop-box of feature requests and changes, either from trusted partners, select power users, major enterprise customers — or everyone. 

Telemetry and system data feedback aside, nothing beats honest, truthful structured feedback from the public, where users can pull their thoughts from certain areas: the user interface, what's good and bad in their workflow, features "x, y and z" and so on. 

We already have reason to believe that the Start button will make a return to Windows Blue in some form, as well as a boot-to-desktop, bypassing the Start "screen" altogether. The two features have long been on the request list, even before the software was released. But these have yet to be confirmed by the software giant. If the consistent criticism remains as thick and as flowing as it has been, Microsoft should start alleviating the pressure on its hardcore user base sooner rather than later.

3. If ARM is the future, Windows RT needs a makeover

"Education, education, education," or as it should in fact be: "marketing, marketing, marketing." What is Windows RT? So few actually know it stands for "RunTime," and even then with that factoid, exactly what does it mean? It has little public resemblance to the product and it alienates those who might benefit from the slimmed-down Windows version.

Windows RT runs on ARM-based tablets, but between Intel, AMD and ARM, the general public has no idea what the difference is or why it should matter. ARM does differ, and with Intel holding on as a result of declining PC sales and AMD revenues falling at each earnings call for much of the same reasons, ARM continues to power ahead as the up-and-coming star in the chip-designing world.

ARM is the future, and Microsoft recognized this long ago, and should be applauded for doing so. ARM's low-power yet high-performance chips are designed with tablets in mind. But Windows RT has a marketing problem nonetheless. A Toshiba executive, speaking in a personal capacity, recently said Microsoft had caused a "lot of confusion" with its two versions of Windows 8 for Intel-based and ARM-based machines.

Yes, the two versions differ for good reason, and it's good that Microsoft kept its "Windows 8" marketing away from "Windows RT," because many Windows 8 apps do not run on Windows RT. This led Microsoft to develop a separate in-house version of Office for the tablet operating system.

Microsoft could alleviate a lot of troubles for consumers by calling Windows RT something more to the point and less developer-oriented. After all, it's the consumer that needs to understand what the product is. Calling it "Windows Tablet" won't win any awards for originality, but "Windows Lite" may do. Either way, it's better than two letters that mean nothing to anyone off Microsoft's campus.

4. PC's aren't tablets: Don't treat the two the same, because they're not

Windows 8 was designed with both PCs and tablets in mind. Global PC shipments have suffered their worst decline in a generation, according to IDC , while tablet shipments are through the roof, offsetting much of the plunge in the PC market.

Microsoft wasn't late to the game as such — Windows 7 aimed to bridge the gap (sans hardware availability) in the already iPad-dominated market — but Windows 8 was designed first and foremost to provide a consistent user interface across the board of both PCs and tablets, and also its Windows Phone platform.

The trouble is, not everyone likes it. The software giant's Windows Phone market share is low, and its app store additions appear to be plateauing out.

Microsoft could, with Windows Blue, begin to separate out — at least temporarily — the touch and non-touch markets again. It makes sense to have an enlarged, touch-enabled Start "screen" on tablets. But it also makes more sense to have a Start "menu" on desktops and non-touch laptops where the primary input device isn't a fancy trackpad or a multi-touch mouse. It's a regular optical mouse. 

Bring back the Start menu for desktops; remove the gestures from ordinary PCs, while retaining these additional features in touch-based machines. The drawback is that some will have to relearn how to access certain functions — it would make sense to make these across the board and it could arguably add to confusion — but there's also an argument that the touch-based gestures are confusing to begin with.

This is — sorry to bring Apple up again — similar to how the iOS works similarly yet separately from OS X. You have the Dock on both OS X and iPhones and iPads, but you can optionally bring up the iOS-like Launchpad , which displays your apps just as you can on your Apple smartphone or tablet. Launchpad is there as a gimmick, rather than a necessity.

There are convergences. All-in-one PCs that have touch-screen displays, and those who do have the fancy trackpads. As Shaw said: "Stark black-and-white caricatures are sometimes more valued than shades-of-gray reality." The PC-tablet market is the same. It's no longer black-and-white with PCs and tablets. There are many shades of gray. So, give people the choice of what they want to use, and how they want to use it.

5. Windows Blue, above all else, should be free — with limitations

Microsoft's recent rhetoric has walked the line between understanding, empathy and apologetic — though it's a tight line to walk. The Windows maker cannot and should not apologize for something that it believes it has good intentions in doing .

But if Windows Blue is set to roll-back a few of the more controversial changes that Windows 8 brought, the nearest thing Microsoft can do by way of apologizing is offering the software update for free — albeit for a limited time. 

There's past precedence with this. Windows 8 has for some time been seen comparably to how Windows 7 was to Vista. It was a major update that didn't roll back per se, but instead improved the software to such an extent that it seemingly made up for its misgivings. 

For six months ended June 2009 through the end of January 2010, many major PC makers offered free upgrades from Vista to Windows 7. It was enough to alleviate the pressure on existing customers, but not enough for Microsoft to suffer a financial ding or two at its then following quarterly earnings. By missing out on basic Vista versions and existing Windows XP users, it was a clear sign that Microsoft was opening up the upgrade paths to those that weren't happy with Vista.

With Microsoft's emphasis on Windows Blue being an "update" rather than a "service pack" — the latter traditionally being free — talk remains over whether or not the software will be free or not

Either the software giant can make Blue free for existing Windows 8 users or it can charge a nominal fee for the update, à la OS X iterations, which seem to be the nearest comparison to what Windows Blue is to Windows 8, particularly if it is ultimately called Windows 8.1 .

Windows Blue should be free, but it should be an addition that plugs into Windows 8, meaning new users who want the changes must buy Windows 8 first. Given that Windows Blue is expected to be released around a year after Windows 8 was first launched in October 2012, Microsoft could give all existing users of Windows 8 a copy of Blue for free.

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, Microsoft Surface, Windows Phone

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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