Five ways to save Windows 8

Five ways to save Windows 8

Summary: Windows 8, like Vista before it, is on its way to the trash heap of PC history unless Microsoft makes some big changes as soon as possible.


Can the Windows 8 operating system be saved? In all seriousness, Microsoft should be asking itself this question.

If Microsoft radically reworks Windows 8, this doesn't have to be its fate.
(Image: Screenshot by Steven J Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet)

The numbers don't lie. Windows 8's market acceptance is continuing to fall behind Microsoft's last desktop operating system failure, Vista. Asus, which had been a big Windows 8 booster, is now reporting poor sales and Samsung has decided not to bother with launching a Windows 8 tablet in the lucrative German market.

Simply chopping prices drastically for Windows 8 and Office 2013 for mini-tablets isn't going to cut it. Neither Windows 8 nor its close relatives, Windows RT and Windows Phone 8, even appear on NetApplication's mobile and tablet usage reports for February 2013. Nor, do I think discount prices on Windows 8 for PCs would help much. There are also lots of cheap Windows 8 PCs and they're not selling well.

So what can Microsoft do to give Windows 8 a shot? Here are my proposals.

1. Dump Metro

The Windows 8 main interface is officially called "Microsoft Design Language" — but whatever its name, it is a failure on the desktop. Hard-core Windows fans will insist that it's not that hard to learn. My response is why should anyone have to learn something new to do the same old things? Metro, like other half-baked "innovative" interfaces, such as Linux's GNOME 3.x, is a solution in search of a problem.

Repeat after me Microsoft user interface designers: "The desktop is not the same thing as a tablet or a smartphone." Metro may work on the latter two, but it has no place on the former.

2. Bring back the Windows 7 Aero interface

Unlike Vista or Windows 8, people loved Windows 7. Why? While Aero was different from the XP interface, it was still familiar enough for users to be comfortable with, and, at the same time, it incorporated improvements. The Windows 8's Windows Explorer desktop just doesn't cut it.

While it doesn't have the radical changes of Metro, it's different enough to be annoying and, like Metro, it doesn't really add any improvements to the user experience. Why do you think programs like Stardock's Star8, which gives users a Start menu again, are so popular? I'll give you a hint: It's not because they love the old interface, it's because people are more comfortable with the Aero style desktop.

3. One desktop

So long as we're at it, let's make this new-model Windows 8 Aero desktop the one-and-only interface. I mean, seriously, why do we need two interfaces for one operating system? Is there some reason why we need to have the Internet Explorer (IE) 10 navigation bar on the Metro interface and on top in the desktop model?

It's not just the looks, though. Different applications work differently. For example, IE 10 comes with Adobe Flash built in. So you'd think you'd be able to see the same sites with IE no matter where you started it, wouldn't you? Wrong!

It turns out that IE 10, if you started IE 10 from Metro, will only show Flash if its site is on Microsoft's Compatibility View (CV) list. The same Flash-enabled web pages, however, will show up just fine if you started IE 10 from the desktop mode! Does Microsoft want to confuse the heck out of its users or what?

To quote IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell, "There were certain decisions that Microsoft made that were in retrospect flawed. Notably not allowing people to boot into desktop mode and taking away the start button. Those two things have come up consistently."

It's not like this is surprising news. Back when Windows 8 was brand new, interface guru Jakob Nielsen said that having two desktop available on one device was "a prescription for usability problems". That was not only because users have to remember where to go for which features, but because switching between two interfaces was more trouble than it was worth.

Exactly! To sum up, give us one interface and give it to us now!

4. Fix Windows' marketing

Repeat after me: Windows 8 is not Windows RT. Surface Pro is not Surface RT. Techie people already know that. You know who doesn't know that? Ordinary people. If I had a dime for every time I heard from my non-geeky friends about how Windows RT or Surface RT can't run their desktop apps, I'd be a rich man.

Windows RT, and Microsoft's hardware platform of choice for it, the Surface RT, is a limited subset of Windows. You can't run "normal" Windows applications on RT. You can only run some Metro apps on it. You can't use RT in Windows-centric businesses that rely on Active Directory.

RT, in short, is not really Windows. Give the operating system another name, paste another label on the Surface RT. Stop confusing your users!

5. Improve Windows 8 native apps

It's not like we expect Office 2013 for free on every Windows 8 PC, but have you really looked at Windows 8's native apps? There's Mail, which doesn't support Post Office Protocol (POP) or threaded messaging. The photo app doesn't include basic editing tools. And if Dropbox can automatically sync everything in a folder from my PC to the cloud and vice versa, why can't the SkyDrive app do the same thing?

Microsoft does seem to be working on improving Windows 8's native apps. And we might see some of them as soon as this month.

While that would be nice, it won't be enough. Microsoft must fundamentally change and improve Windows 8's look and feel — or watch Windows 8's market share continue to lag.

I have no love for Windows, but there actually is a lot to like in Windows 8. Microsoft's promises of better security may be hollow as ever, but Windows 8 is faster and more stable than Windows 7.

Two out of those three should have made Windows 8 the next "go to" Windows upgrade. If Microsoft swallows its pride and gives users a single, old-style interface that they can actually enjoy and use, Windows 8 may yet prove a winner.

If they don't? Well, they'd better plan on making Windows 7 easily available again — until they can get Windows Blue out the door, because they're not going to be selling a lot of Windows 8.

Related stories

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, PCs, Windows, Microsoft Surface

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  • I agree.

    I totally agree, and wish that Microsoft had got it right from the start.
    • I think the way to save it is to stay the course ...

      ... and ignore nonsense like this.

      More troll bait, of course.
      Schoolboy Bob
      • OOohh... Stay The Course...

        What a great piece of advice. I recommend that MS takes your que here.

        That plan worked out great in Gallipoli, and for the Light Brigade...
        Lightning Joe
        • In a constructive commnet

          what would you have MS do? Considering that neither you, Steven nor anyone posting on this board know what MS success criteria is, comments like yours are just like Steven's.

          Uninformed, lame, and pointless.
          • Also spelt incorrectly

            Que ≠ cue
      • Ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away

        People are buying Ipads, Android tables and Chromebooks that's the problem.
    • Another sad Windows 8 article from Steven

      Does anyone recall ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley or Ed Bott trashing the the GNU/Linux desktop regarding its UI disasters: KDE 4.x (early versions), Gnome 3 and Unity? I certainly can't.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • This acticle does mention

        The gnome 3.0 disaster.

        One reason you won't hear as much about the pain of Linux window server management systems, is that maybe 1%, if that, of home users/business users actually use Linux as their primary OS. Whereas some 90% of us use MS Windows. It make sense to report more on what folks are using, and it also makes sense to review more harshly a product 100% of us use rather than bag on obscurities on a few egghead nerds know about.
        • You miss the point

          wiseoldbird wrote:
          "This acticle does mention The gnome 3.0 disaster."

          So what? Steven has covered the KDE 4.x (early versions), Gnome 3 and Unity desktop environments in great detail on his own blogs. After all, these are open-source desktop environments for the GNU/Linux desktop.

          If Steven wants to help with Windows 8, he should make a positive suggestion based on GNU/Linux desktop environments. For example, allowing Windows 8 and RT users to select either the Metro or desktop UI from a drop-down list on the login screen and make one or the other the default UI when logging into the system. This would be a positive suggestion based on the GNU/Linux experience with multiple desktop environments. There's no reason for Microsoft to "dump Metro".

          And as for the Windows start menu, can you think of any GNU/Linux desktop environments or window managers that don't have a start menu? I can.

          Instead, Steven chose to write yet another Windows 8 troll blog.
          Rabid Howler Monkey
          • FVWM

            Had a Win 95 like start menu for running X on Linux.

            Not sure what your point is.

            And I doubt MS is going to start taking hints about what is on Linux. Besides the X11 platform so so archaic, even Apple abandoned it and rewrote the windowing engine for Mac when they switched to a FreeBSD based platform.

            Linux is not the panacea for all that ails the world, and the only time you see it in non-nerd uses, is when the Linux / Linux windowing part is well hidden. Like in Android for example - does the user have any inkling about the Linux core?
          • This is old news

            ZDnet's Mary Jo Foley, who's beat is Microsoft, covered the Windows 8 UI issues in an article dated August 6, 2012. In this article, she addresses both the start button and boot to desktop issues. In addition, she provided the link to Stardock's tool to restore these features on Windows 8. (Look it up.)

            Steven, ZDNet's sole remaining Linux and Open-source blogger, missed an opportunity in this article to discuss the Classic Shell open-source tool (MIT open-source license) to restore the Windows 8 start button and boot to desktop in Windows 8:


            Again, shouldn't an open-source blogger be pushing open-source solutions to Windows issues? One of my enduring criticisms of Steven is that he completely ignores open-source software written exclusively for Windows.
            Rabid Howler Monkey
          • But, but, but...

            "In addition, she provided the link to Stardock's tool to restore these features on Windows 8. (Look it up.)"

            I think you are missing the point. When MS sells you something, you shouldn't have to go shop for the missing pieces somewhere. It should be a complete, ready-to-use product, easy to understand and use.

            The fact that W8 ships at pieces of a whole means that it WILL lose many of its historic users. MOST of us are NOT nerds, and DON'T WANT TO BE FORCED TO BECOME NERDS, JUST TO USE THE TOASTER.

            Yes, I said toaster. Toasters do not ship with missing knobs, and neither should W8.
            Lightning Joe
          • So microsoft sold you everything?

            Wow! And all your apps too! Gosh! Just like apple.
            I'm sure glad you have never had to shop elsewhere. So it's a turnkey system, huh?

            Toaster... hmm wasn't that an Apple product? Or was it something on an Amiga?
            Claude Balloune
          • A toaster without the knobs

            That's one of the best descriptions I've heard to date about Windows 8, it's like an appliance that is shipped with the knobs missing. It's up to the customer to install their own knobs, or improvise some other way of operating the thing without any knobs. The Windows 8 desktop is a stripped-out disaster, and the other interface is foreign and strange and also hard to control for the average joe user. Customers who buy computers don't want to have to study to learn how to do the simple things they've always done so easily. If someone started shipping a new model of vacuum cleaner with no obvious controls, where the buyer has to take a course to learn how to use the thing, would anybody buy this piece of weirdness? No, it will be a total flop, and deservedly so.
          • Portability is a good thing

            OSS that's exclusively for Windows is operating at a major disadvantage (even if portability is disparaged as "least common denominator by those with a financial incentive to do so). Most open source stuff is written to be portable and should be.
            John L. Ries
          • "X11 is hopelessly archaic"

            And yet some of us run it every day and appreciate the fact that one can run a single X client remotely without having to bring up a whole remote desktop (which might be slow).
            John L. Ries
          • Actually...

            ...I thought he had some good suggestions here.

            The wise take good advice even from their enemies.
            John L. Ries
          • Time IS precious!

            >>> either the Metro or desktop UI from a drop-down list on the login screen and make one or the other the default UI when logging into the system. ...
            Claude Balloune
          • Yeah, make Windows like Linux...

            Make Windows more like Linux? Great idea! That way Windows will drop down to 1% desktop market share, too. We'll all buy Apple stock and get rich!

            Oh wait, Microsoft DID do things like Linux. They now have two user interfaces for one OS. Look around and notice how much everybody likes that idea.

            Using desktop Linux as an example of how to properly do things is a joke. The vast majority (99%) of people have avoided desktop Linux for decades, specifically because multiple user interfaces and multiple fragmented forks is a bad idea for the vast majority of people who use computers to get work done. That's exactly why most of us can't stand Windows 8 on the desktop compared to Windows 7. Even those few using Windows 8 are bypassing the Windows 8 interface to use the old Windows 7 interface (while it's still available, anyway.)

            Microsoft needs to abandon the two interface concept on the desktop by getting rid of Metro. Sadly, their future plan is to get rid of the desktop interface, instead. Then, Windows will have no usable interface whatsoever on the desktop.
          • Not quite "Linux Way" though

            The "Linux Way" (and indeed, that of even propietary UNIXes) is to give the user a choice on user interface, something you select at logon (and can set any of those as default) and *stays that way*.

            MS did an incredibly stupid thing: they put both interfaces, but made both mandatory depending on the stuff you need. Nowhere in Linux will you have a situation where you're using KDE and have your desktop switch to GNOME just because you fired up gcalc; on W8 running any Metro app, and even some critical OS stuff will switch you to Metro.

            So in fact, MS did stuff *worse* than Linux!