Mobile is killing Windows in the consumer space

Mobile is killing Windows in the consumer space

Summary: The challenges facing Microsoft Windows are many, but none so big as the casual PC user's changing habits.

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Microsoft has changed. In large part this is in response to the way computer users have changed. In this increasingly mobile world, how consumers use their PCs is much different than in the past. The popularity of mobile devices has fueled that change, as they've moved into the home. This may be the obstacle that proves to be too much for Microsoft and Windows.

Windows 8 was a major change for the biggest OS in the history of PCs. Microsoft engineers tried to bridge the gap between enterprise workers and regular PC users.

Regular PC users are typical consumers who have a PC at home that in the past was their only computing solution, so they used them all the time. Given the popularity of mobile devices, the PC now sits idle for long periods.

This has turned a big segment of formerly regular PC users into casual PC users. They only return to the Windows PC or the Mac infrequently. The rest of the time they pick up their smartphone or tablet to do the things they did on a PC not that long ago. The mobile device invaded the home, and the PC was set aside for the most part.

Former regular PC users are now mobile device users, and it will be difficult for Windows to bring them back into the fold.

Windows 8 is an attempt to bridge the gap between work functions and mobile usage. Microsoft did a decent job with this bridge, but it’s not resonating with the casual PC user. They’d rather pick up the tablet at home and do things than fire up Windows, no matter what type of device that's running it.

A big reason for this is that in spite of the changes in Windows 8, it falls short of what consumers want in a key area. Windows 8, like every version of the OS before, is not built for the casual PC user. As my colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes recently wrote, sitting down in front of a Windows PC that's been idle for a while often finds an update situation that doesn't exist on mobile devices.

The update process is better on Windows 8 than previous versions, but it’s still often the first thing a casual PC user has to deal with when the system has been sitting idle for a while. Even with updates applied automatically, the casual PC user is regularly faced with a system reboot to apply downloaded updates when they go back to the PC.

They can’t just sit down at the PC and do something quickly. They've heard horror stories about failing to apply security updates, so they can’t comfortably put off the reboot required to apply the updates. A quick session just became more involved with applying updates they missed due to the hiatus between system uses.


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I'm not a typical PC user, but I share this frustration with the casual PC user. I use several devices (and platforms) regularly, which means I pick up my Windows 8 hybrid about once every week or two.

I am often confronted with the update reboot, which prevents me from just picking up the system and doing things. I can’t bring myself to put off the reboot, as it is ingrained in me to get those security updates applied. This update process makes me hesitate grabbing the Windows PC before heading out the door.

This is a big challenge for Microsoft with Windows 8 and its attempt to appeal to all users. Former regular PC users are now mobile device users, and it will be difficult for Windows to bring them back into the fold.

It’s probably not intentional, but Windows is still designed for regular use to avoid the update interruption casual PC users are faced with. They put up with this in the past but they've seen it doesn't have to be this way, so they’ll continue to happily use their mobile devices when they get home.

This is Microsoft's biggest challenge with Windows. The size of the market means the company must crack the consumer space to stay relevant. That's why it is pushing tablets to the mainstream consumer.

This isn't going to work given the nature of Windows. Even those nifty Windows tablets rely on the update process like their bigger siblings. The thing that makes casual PC use a pain in the rear. The thing that mobile devices don't force on users.

Windows has never really been a consumer platform, but for decades it was the only choice for the most part. That's no longer the case, and mobile devices are largely to blame.

Consumers love mobile devices. They buy them and they use them constantly. This pushes Windows away from the home and more firmly into the workplace. Windows will continue to rule the enterprise, but Microsoft needs to tap the big consumer market to remain viable in the long term.

The soon-to-appear cheap Windows laptops won't appeal to consumers, nor will the smorgasbord of Windows tablets appearing regularly. Windows 8 has some advantages over other mobile platforms, but consumers have in large part already moved past Windows and they're not coming back. That's not something Microsoft can easily change, and it may be the end of Windows in the consumer space.

See also:

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Smartphones, Tablets, Windows 8

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    You're going to get 1000 comments from Windows fanboys telling how wrong you are, but personally I tend to agree that Windows as a consumer platform of choice is on life support and fading fast. Once it becomes simple to print from a tablet, many consumers will dump the one PC they still in their home (the one they for up when they need to print out an airline ticket).

    These are the people that Microsoft was hoping to snare with Windows RT. Sadly they only ended up muddying the waters by not making it clear just what Windows RT was and how it differed from full blown Windows. I also think the company could have done better in terms of form factors and compatibility. There may still be an opportunity for Microsoft, but it's a bit of a long shot. What they need to do is unify the Windows RT and Windows Phone OS. I can run just about and App on my Galaxy Tab 4 that I can run on my Galaxy S3. You should be able to do the same thing on RT. Next, Microsoft needs a decent store-within-a-store at Best Buy where they can showcase their devices. They need to be showing several models of Windows Phones, as well as an 8" Windows RT tablet that only runs Metro, and a $400.00 successor to the Surface RT that comes with keyboard included (and maybe a more hand-held friendly 16x10 aspect ratio). And they need to be showcasing this larger tablet not just in landscape mode with a keyboard running desktop mode, but also landscape mode without the keyboard.
    • Printing is already easy

      My Epson WF 3520 is seen and printed to by all the idevices on my network with zero configuration of either the printer or any devices, it just works. It's even less work than installing a printer on a desktop/laptop. Many brands and models work the same.
      • Printing

        Exactly, My Epson 4530 was the first printer that I have had no wireless issues with on any device, and set-up for any device was a snap.
    • Fanboys

      Long time readers will probably put me as one of the Windows fanboys you refer to. Right now, I see all platforms as equally unsuitable for consumers. I agree with you that the same software needs to run on tablets and phones, even desktops. In my my mind, a single software platform is the best possible solution for a consumer, and the only 2 platforms currently competing there are Android and Windows (iOS is far to restricted, ChromeOS doesn't offer anything on phones, Linux doesn't have the marketing muscle, and Java died when Oracle acquired Sun).

      Android still lacks vital applications, which will only be built once it makes a strong push for the desktop. The desktop with its hardware keyboard and high accuracy pointing device is something many people still need to be productive - productivity definitely matters to consumers too. As long as consumers who use Android for their computing still have to use a Windows machine, Windows can easily win consumers back by fixing its flaws.

      Speaking of Windows flaws, Windows requires about as much knowledge as Linux does nowadays to set it up correctly. The defaults are just all wrong. No, I don't want Windows to write Thumbs.db files everywhere. No, I want to see hidden files. No, I don't think Windows hiding the file extension is helping anyone. And nobody wants their device to automatically reboot after applying updates WHILE THEY ARE USING THE DEVICE. Yesterday I experienced how long it takes to apply updates to an old Dell from 2006 with Windows 7, which was last last updated in late 2011. It would have been 7 hours, except it was more than that, because the TrustedInstaller process crashed due to a known memory leak (I forgot that one must apply no more than 50 updates at a time and then reboot, repeat), and because 2 of the updates blocked the entire update chain while waiting for the user to press "ok" on a Window that popped up below the other Windows. Keep in mind, installing Windows 7 from scratch on the same machine takes 45 minutes.

      Now on Android, iOS, and many other Operating Systems, the update process of an 8 year old machine works as follows: "there are no updates, support stopped half a decade ago, get a new machine"
      I'll prefer the 7 hour update process, thanks.
      • 3 Things Microsoft Needs to Do

        Make the tablet and desktop interfaces more complimentary rather than unified, similar to Apple's upcoming OS X Yosemite.

        Create insane incentives in the enterprise space for the Surface Pro. If workers get used to using a Surface Pro connected to a dock and monitor at work, which they can also use as a tablet at home or when travelling, the effect will be much like the desktop revolution in the 80's/90's. People use what they're familiar with (i.e. Microsoft).

        Handle software updates like Apple does on the Mac and iOS devices. They rarely, if ever, get in your way.

        If Microsoft can do these 3 things, they have a chance (albeit a small one) of dominating like they did in the "good" old days.
      • Was that a Chevrolet or a Buick?

        I couldn't disagree more about the Grand Unified Operating System. In fact I think the decision to pursue "Windows everywhere" was the single largest mistake Microsoft made during the Ballmer era. That decision has already cost Microsoft any meaningful presence in mobile computing, and it has opened gaping holes in the 'shields' that were protecting the desktop Windows hegemony. Now it isn't a matter of if, but when, Android is going to leak back onto the desktop, if only in homes.

        It's a common enough decision... save development expense by unifying platforms. That idea almost killed General Motors in the 1970s; all their cars looked the same. They happened to make that terrible mistake just as the Japanese arrived with Hondas, Toyotas, Datsuns, etc., which is to say, "new choices."

        In mobile, consumers are seeing new choices while Microsoft is trying to sell them a Chevrolet with extra fins and calling it a Buick. It didn't work then and it won't work now.

        The right answer, which Microsoft =still= does not accept, is to spend more money to develop separate products for separate market segments, and tailor them. The alternative (see "The General Theory of Second Best") is to suboptimize everything about the experience, so that you don't have the best mobile OS or the best desktop OS.

        It is not going to be possible to create a client OS that satisfies security-conscious IT managers with three hundred 'standard configurations' and millions of dollars in legacy client-server applications while simultaneously being fast, light, power-stingy, and easy to use. Whoever told Ballmer, "yes we can" is hopefully working for Google now.
        Robert Hahn
        • I disagree

          Windows 8.1 is very fast, even on an Intel Atom Bay Trail processor and eMMC storage! It is very easy to use and the gestures are dead simple.
      • Really?

        I'm running Linux on several old machines that were never top-notch when they were new. When it's time to update, a simple "apt-get update && apt-get upgrade" takes care of it in a couple of minutes. My kids were administering their machines when they were ten and fourteen.
      • nope.. android update process is

        get cyanogenmod for your old device.

        Google keep releasing updated versions and most of the time they will run on old phones fine. I think Kitkat will run on any phone with 512 MB of ram and be usable.. Since every phone that came out in the last 4 years has 512mb ram, that means that as long as Cyanogenmod or one of the others fits your phone, you are set.

        As for windows phone.. show me the update path from WP7.x to WP8.x please... I've never been able to get it to work.
    • What they really need.. is to change windows so it doesnt' need reboots.

      Linux can already do this.. With windows, update anything significant and you have to reboot the machine.. update linux and unless it's a kernel update, you DON'T need to reboot. The update process just restarts the service related to the update.

      Heck even Kernel updates dont't have to be rebooted nowdays, SUSE and Oracle already have live kernel swapping and Redhat is working hard on theirs too. So pretty soon no update on linux will require a reboot while windows sits on the 85% of updates requiring a reboot.

      Despite Microsoft mentioning in an interview 10 years ago that patching reboots was one area they were behind on. Why has Microsoft not been able to fix that? Because if they could do it, they could be in the same boat as ChromeOS, where you don't need to know about updates and it all happens silently in the background. (course the updates for windows would be much bigger so you'd notice the patching in system speed and bandwidth, but still... My biggest annoyance with Windows is that I dont' shutdown my PC much so I'm constantly being asked to install patches and hitting ignore for 4 hours. When I finally do reboot.. I am presented with "windows has updates to install" and the circus begins again. On my Fedora boxes, I get the notice, but unless there is a kernel update involved, it doesn't require that I do anything.
  • Last Christmas we stopped

    Everybody got the Nexus 7 and migrated from the computer desks to the couch, floor, kitchen, outdoors. We hardly turn the old beasts on any more.
    • exactly

      but you cannot end with iPad otherwise you would need a PC (that is why schools are replacing iPads for Chrome OS) :)
      Nexus 7 is simply great for everything!
      Jiří Pavelec
  • Just not consumers, even techies stay away from Windows

    Every Windows laptop or server needs to be restarted to apply patches more frequently than any other OS out there. Maybe that is the reason you see more techies using MacBooks (Air and Pro) for their development work. At home too, a Windows touchscreen is not a very good experience. It is the nature of Windows. Launching an application from the tiles is one thing but going to a file in a folder and opening it is another thing, the latter just does not lend itself to touch no matter what. I regret buying one of those Yogas that is so well built but whose touch capabilities do not extend beyond launching an application.
    • yes, Windows is very dangerous platform

      yes, Windows is very dangerous platform almost without security >> one click >> one bank account wipe
      Jiří Pavelec
    • Lol, techies and their "mac"

      There are a couple of consultants here at our workplace that indeed do their coding on a mac pro.

      Guess which system it runs. Hint: they code in Visual Studio.

      As for your Yoga... you're not using it as it was intended to be used. There are two worlds in that device. A touch-first world and a keyb/mouse-first world. You can have any opinion you like on having 2 worlds in one system off course. But you knew this when you bought it. It's like complaining about having 4 wheels when bying a car. It's just how the product was built.

      I own a surface pro as my primary and only computing device. I take full advantage of both worlds. I use it as a touch tablet on the couch or during meetings. I use it as a desktop pc when docked and hooked up to several HD monitors, keyb and mouse.

      You bought a hybrid machine. It's what it is.
      • Not a good experience switching between touch and kbd/mouse

        That is the issue here. It is not a good experience. It is not uniform in any sense as you have to keep switching. We did a pilot project using iOS, Android and Yoga tablets for data gathering and file uploading for field workers. I did expect iOS to be the winner, but I was surprised that the users actually liked Android, perhaps because of the better file handling capabilities. The field test was conducted with 30 people and we interchanged the tablets every week for six weeks. I guess that is what people don't like - switching input modes for while performing tasks. You may argue that people do switch between keyboard and mouse, but the mouse is more of an accessory to the keyboard and people on laptops are used to the trackpad which is definitely adjacent to the keyboard. Perhaps in future users may find it OK to switch continuously between touch and keyboard, but I don't think the time is now.
        • I question the validity of that test

          The task being performed is done in an application. This has little to nothing to do with the platform the app runs on.

          If the users like the android tablet most, to me that would mean that they prefer the application on android.

          If the windows part of the test required users to switch between environments to accomplish their task, then it means the application or the application workflow they used to accomplish their task was flawed.

          This doesn't say anything about the viability of a hybrid system or indeed any type of hardware or OS. It says something about the application used and the flow it enforced.

          I can make an app for windows that is great at what it does while making the same app for iOs that sucks at what it does and vice versa. None of both would say anything about the platforms themselves. It would only point to a truth about the apps themselves.

          If you are going to evaluate the platforms, you require a deployment scope far bigger then just this single use case of gathering data and uploading it.

          Furthermore, I notice your use of the word "guess" when saying that what wasn't liked was switching between worlds. So you don't know this, it's just wishfull thinking.

          As a developer myself, I can only say that if this switching was needed, the app was badly designed.
          • Re: I question the validity

            You question the validity of the test based on the application. I question it based on the completely different form factor of the devices.
            The iPad is a tablet. The Yoga is far too heavy and too big for being a good a tablet, but it's a good laptop. The Android devices could be anything, we haven't been told.
          • windows.

            I develop on both a windows machine and a linux box. if I've developing something that I can do on Linux, I will do it on linux.. simply because once I get it all set up.. I don't want to change it until I'm completely finished the job. (which can sometimes take a month or so).

            I don't' want to get prompted for a reboot constantly half way though a job so I only use the windows box when for dev work if I need some tool that doesn't' run anywhere else. It isn't because windows is a bad dev OS, because it's not.. it's just the damn patching/reboot issue that bugs me.. I have 30 tabs open and tons of other apps and terminals and stuff, and nothing is more annoying than having to reboot and start getting yourself setup exactly as you were before. You'd think that if Microsoft cant' fix the update process, they'd at least setup some sort of "state resume" where you could reboot and the system would open all apps to the same places they were before with the same windows sizes etc, so you could just carry on working.. If they could do that or fix updating so reboots are not constantly needed. I might use it for dev work much more.
          • For example

            This laptop I am typing on now.. I had it all set up for some coding at home, and I hadn't used it for a couple of days because i've been coding at work.. so I sit down to do some coding today only to discover I'm not logged in anymore. Why? because Windows forced a reboot after installing updates and I wasn't here to postpone it.