The Windows 10 challenge: Making people care about Windows again

There's much more to getting Windows 10 right than just perfecting the code. Microsoft needs to make us enthusiastic about Windows once again.

For Windows 10 to be a success, Microsoft only has to make a great operating system, right?

Wrong.

I used to be a Windows guy, but then I moved to Mac for my day to day computing, and that made me much happier and productive. However, the more I use the Windows 10 preview, the more I like it. To me, it is proof positive that Microsoft has it within itself to build on what Windows 7 had to offer and deliver an operating system that can combine traditional keyboard and mouse inputs with the modern touch idea in a meaningful - not to mention productivity-boosting - way.

But Microsoft has a bigger challenge to address than just making Windows 10 an operating system that combines the old and the new. Microsoft has to make people enthusiastic about operating systems once again.

Cast your mind back to the launch of Windows 95 - if you can remember that far back - and recall the excitement and enthusiasm that surrounded that release. Microsoft spent hundreds of millions of dollars on building up hype around that operating system, and while it was unquestionably flawed, it got people who had never heard of "Windows" talking about Windows 95. The excitement was palpable.

People were fervently passionate about Windows, and most didn't really know why. They bought PCs with Windows 95 on them, read magazines about Windows 95, and even watched VHS tapes of their favorite TV stars using Windows 95.

It was the iPhone of its day.

Following the insane success of Windows 95 we were treated to a few releases that tried to fix the flaws present in the operating system, but which introduced just as many - if not more - into the mix. But passions were still high. I couldn't believe how people were lapping up the likes of Windows ME despite what I saw as show-stopping bugs and stability issues Windows ME was so bad that is earned the nickname "Mistake Edition").

Then came Windows XP.

I, along with millions of others, remember Windows XP with a great deal of fondness and no small measure of nostalgia (however, unlike some people out there, I stopped using it almost a decade ago). The release brought much-needed security and stability to the Windows platform.

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The last major version of Microsoft's Windows client operating system will have a common core that works across all platforms, from PCs and tablets to Windows Phones, Xbox and the Internet of things

If, like me, you came to Windows XP from a Windows NT/2000 background, then stability was something you took for granted. I remember with no small measure of love having an old Windows NT 4.0 system that could go for months without needing a reboot. That said, if you were coming to it from the Windows 9x camp then Windows XP was an entirely transformative experience.

People were jazzed about Windows XP either because it offered a simple way into computing for those new to the PC scene, or because they were told it would make the lives of existing PC users better in some way.

Windows XP also happened to coincide with the consumer PC revolution. People who'd never owned a PC now wanted one, and for tens of millions of those first-time PC buyers, Windows XP was the first - and last - operating system they'd ever need. Many seemed oblivious that there had ever been a Windows before Windows XP, and many didn't see the need for there to ever be another new version in the future.

Since then enthusiasm for new releases has been on a downward trajectory. Windows Vista was almost universally abhorred, even though there really wasn't that bad after the first service pack landed. And while Windows 7 seemed like it might turn things around, it wasn't long before Windows 8 replaced it, and the downward spiral resumed.

It's easy to pile all the blame at the door of Microsoft's Windows team, but this is more than a little unfair. While there's little doubt that Microsoft dropped the ball on multiple occasions over the past decade, another factor that has changed is consumer interest in operating systems. Windows Vista was flawed, but what was even more flawed was consumer expectation. There was only so much that Windows Vista could offer, but users had lost sight of the fact that an operating system is a platform on which to run other software. It wasn't realistic to expect that it would make an existing PC faster, or solve stability problems with third-party software and drivers. And yet this is what many expected from it, and Microsoft did nothing to direct user expectations in more rational directions. Instead, they sat back and made the mistake of allowing PC OEMs to do too much of the marketing.

Times have now changed considerably.

We now live in an era not only where devices get new operating systems for free, but most of the apps people use are also free. People just don't seem that enthusiastic about updates, and even when they are - over things like iOS releases - it is short-lived. Operating systems are like browsers or an updated app in that they're just part of the furniture of computing, and not something to get worked up about.

Not only does Microsoft have to come out with a winning version of Windows, but it also has to work to foster renewed interest in the platform, and in the Windows ecosystem as a whole. This is going to mean working closely with the hardware OEMs - who themselves desperately want to see PC sales improve - to get the message out there as to what Windows 10 has to offer for both for enterprise users and consumers. Microsoft needs to educate buyers on how PCs have changed from a beige box sitting on a desk into new and exciting form factors.

Also, I want to see Redmond go to work explaining how apps opens up new and exciting possibilities for Windows 10 users to get the work they need to do done faster, rather than just relying on that word "app" to do the selling. Right now, Microsoft is pretty much allowing Apple and Android to shape this ecosystem by not putting serious dollars into marketing campaigns.

Even if Windows 10 ends up being a free upgrade for some/all consumers, it's still important to get the message out as to what this release means. Not only does it need to convince enterprise users to upgrade, it needs to get developers on board creating must-have software for the platform, b because the long-term success of Windows 10 will need more than a few weeks of buzz following its release.

Finally, Microsoft needs to reach out to people who have turned their backs on Windows to find out why. These people have a lot of insights to offer as to what they want from an operating system, and why Windows doesn't deliver that for them any more. It might not be pleasant, and it might mean a lot of pride swallowing, but the days of taking Windows in crazy directions, and hoping that users will be up for the wild rides, are over.

Microsoft has a chance for a new start with Windows 10. The company is under new management, and things are moving in new and exciting directions, and the PC could once again take center stage.

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