The one big fix that could save Windows 8

The one big fix that could save Windows 8

Summary: There’s one big move Microsoft could still make to salvage Windows 8. Whether it will have the courage to do it remains a question mark.


Microsoft Windows 8 has confused users and disappointed the PC industry. Windows chief Tami Reller all-but-admitted it last week. But, she also foreshadowed that help is on the way in Windows Blue. She confirmed that this Windows 8 update—which has now officially been dubbed Windows 8.1—will be previewed for users this summer and will go live in the fall.


While it's rumored that the Blue update will reinstate the much-missed Start menu and allow users to boot into the Desktop Mode, it's highly unlikely Microsoft will do the one thing that would best fix Windows 8: Separate the desktop and tablet versions. That would require a surgery equivalent of separating conjoined twins, but it would have a powerful effect on both Microsoft's upstart tablet business and its traditional desktop base.

We’ll talk more about why that would be such a great idea in a moment, but first let's take a quick look at the reality of where Windows 8 stands right now.

Reller tried to put a brave face on the Windows 8 debacle by reporting that Microsoft has sold 100 million licenses of the new operating system since its launch last October. That's a big number and it sounds impressive until you put it in perspective.

According to Gartner, the declining PC market for Q4 2012 plus Q1 2013 still added up to 170 million PCs sold worldwide. Windows holds a dominant position with about 90% market share, so that means about 150 million of those 170 million PCs were running Windows. If Microsoft’s numbers are correct, then that means two-thirds of the Windows PC purchased were running Windows 8.

Again, that sounds fairly impressive until you consider how much Microsoft and its hardware partners push Windows 8 on all new PCs. In fact, it's almost impossible to buy a consumer PC without Windows 8. So, you may rightfully ask if that means that it's the enterprise that has rejected Windows 8. That's certainly a big part of the story.

Gartner pegs the global PC market as 47% consumer and 53% business. So if we assume virtually 100% of the consumer PCs sold were running Windows 8 then that would be 71 million (47% of 150 million). That would leave just 29 million Windows 8 machines sold to the enterprise. That means that only one-third of the Windows PCs sold to businesses have been running Windows 8 since its launch last October.

That's fairly consistent with a recent TechRepublic poll of 4,000 IT professionals in which only 15% of them said they have deployed Windows 8 or plan to deploy it in the future. In fact, the lower percentage in the TechRepublic poll probably points to the fact that there are some organizations that have bought PCs with Windows 8 on them but wiped them clean and installed Windows 7 instead, based on their enterprise licensing options.

So why has the enterprise turned against Windows 8? The bottom line is that the radical user interface change is too confusing and not productive enough. Even many of the IT leaders and companies who are inclined to like Windows and support Microsoft are frustrated with Windows 8.

In the comments to the TechRepublic poll mentioned above, user PeterM42, an IT consultant in Great Britain, summed up the attitude that pervaded many of the Windows 8 naysayers when he wrote, "Windows 8 on the desktop will not take off until the Metro 'toy' interface becomes an option as provided by the superb 'Classic Shell' software (or gets ditched altogether). Corporates [sic] do not want to pay the MASSIVE bill for retraining users to use something which basically is rubbish."

That brings us back to our main point. Ultimately, the biggest problem with Windows 8 is that it was based on a fundamentally mistaken assumption.

The idea was that one device could best serve people for two very different experiences:
1.) A desktop experience where people typically sit down and do prolonged, intensive work
2.) A more restless experience where people stand, walk, lounge, or demonstrate, typically working in shorter bursts

Windows 8 made a big bet that it could unite those two experiences with one machine. It built a platform to consolidate the tablet and the PC into one device that would be the future of computing. It was a worthy goal worth since it could have simplified things for many users and potentially saved them money by replacing two devices with one.

Unfortunately, it has turned out to be an untenable concept because PCs and tablets have opposite trade-offs. PCs generally need more raw computing cycles for multi-tasking, but typically aren't quite as concerned about power efficiency or portability. Tablets care more about how mobile they are and how power-efficient they can be. And, they are happy to trade raw power and multi-tasking for longevity and the singular focus of a mobile app. PCs can benefit from some touchscreen controls, but are still far more efficient using a mouse and keyboard, while tablets are most easily used with multi-touch interfaces, with occasional help from a keyboard. In other words... opposites.

It has become so difficult for Microsoft and PC makers to attract users to Windows 8 that we've gotten silly ads like this one in an airline travel magazine.

So when Microsoft tried to combine the PC and the tablet in Windows 8 and forced the unified experience on all users, the result was that it compromised both the tablet and PC experiences.

If you were running an optimized Windows XP or Windows 7 desktop on a dual monitor setup and were accustomed to multitasking with a regular set of apps, then the tiled, touch-centric Modern UI made no sense as the default experience.

And, if you were running a touch-centric tablet powered by Windows 8, then it also made no sense that you had to jump into the traditional Desktop Mode environment to configure some of your settings, like starting a VPN connection. Try doing that with your finger as your pointing device. No fun.

In bridging the PC and tablet experiences, Microsoft was attempting to differentiate itself from Apple and Google, which have both tied their tablet experiences much closer to smartphones while keeping their PC experiences more traditional.

Apple has certainly suffered from similar delusions to Microsoft at times. It has gradually tried to bring more and more iOS features into Mac OS X, but with varying degrees of success. Some of the iOS stuff doesn't make much sense (like much of the full screen capabilities) while others have added a few nice touches (like gesture support on trackpads).

It appears that Apple would love to completely ditch the boring old desktop platform, if it could. The company is clearly much more excited about its fresh new mobile platform. But, it has realized that the stodgy old platform is still the one that most developers and business people do most of their work on. Ironically, that includes most of the development work to build the shiny new mobile platform as well. And remember we're just talking about Macs here. There are over 10 times as many people trying to use Windows PCs to do real work.

In other words, Microsoft has to come to a similar realization. It needs to swallow its pride and do what it should have done from the beginning with Windows 8 and separate the desktop and tablet platforms.

If it took some of the best Desktop Mode and under-the-hood improvements to Windows 8—security hardening, faster boot, smoother software updating, better recovery and reinstall options, new virtualization features, and cloud integration—then it would have an excellent set of features to offer those upgrading from Windows XP or Windows 7 on a standard PC. There's plenty there for enterprises to get excited about.

Then, it could take the "Modern" (Metro) interface and give it a dedicated tablet experience without the unnecessary complexity of having to carry Desktop Mode for legacy apps and configuration. The biggest thing holding back Metro is all of that legacy code and the additional computing power that it requires (and the fact that Microsoft still uses it as a crutch to not put all of its settings in Metro). If you take that away, it will allow Microsoft and its hardware partners to build devices that are much more mobile, less power-hungry, simpler to use, and much less expensive. These would still be Windows tablets, and if they could easily connect to Exchange and Active Directory (unlike Windows RT) and include a light version of Microsoft Office then they would be highly competitive in the enterprise.

However, as much as this move could save Windows 8, it's highly unlikely that Microsoft will do it. Just last week on CNBC, Bill Gates stubbornly defended Microsoft's failed tablet strategy. He even went so far as to call iPad users "frustrated" because they can't type or create documents.

Now, I will happily admit that Gates is a much smarter guy than I am. He just happens to be wrong on this issue.

And while Microsoft has done some useful things in Windows 8, the act of shoe-horning it all together into one product and forcing the multi-touch UI on users has created a mess. Separating the desktop and tablet pieces into two different platforms is the first place Microsoft should start in cleaning up that mess. Doing that kind of reboot would demand a lot of courage in leadership, and it still wouldn't solve all of Windows 8's problems. But, it would give Microsoft two much more competitive product lines, and it would give Windows users and enterprises a much better set of product choices.

Topics: Software, Microsoft, Windows 8

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  • not saving

    100 million and counting needs to be saved?
    teflon. don
    • Sure

      100 million maybe, actually used and not bought just for the cheap $40 price, another story. In terms of actual success, it is tanking. Ya know, Microsoft, there's some sayings, "Do it right the first time", and, "Insanity is the doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."
      D.J. 43
      • how many

        Chips has AMD sold that aren't actually in use? How many chips has Samsung produced are in devices nobody has bought? How many mexus 10's and ultrabooks have been sold? Why the double standard. So MS should count a sale not when their software ships but only when it moves beyond the point of sale? Did they do that with any other version of their software? Do component manufacturers do that?
        widow maker80012
        • There's no double standard.

          When someone buys an AMD based system it's very, very unlikely they're going to pull the processor and replace it with an Intel processor. The same cannot be said of Windows.

          Pointing to sales to demonstrate success is reasonable if those sales translate into use. However there appears to be reasonable evidence a significant number of sales have not translated into use. I am an example...I purchased two Windows 8 $40 I figured why not. Today both licenses sit on the shelf...none of them are in use today. In fact one still's never been opened or used.
          • I agree.

            I also have two Windows 8 upgrades sitting on the shelf, purchased for the same reason, that I haven't decided to use yet and I bet there are many more out there.
            Big Jim
          • So wrong

            You just admitted that their numbers are correct, you are a proud owner of windows 8 and a contributor to their number, who gives a s... if your not using it.
          • It depends on what you're discussing.

            If you're talking sales then their numbers are correct. If you're talking adoption then their numbers are incorrect.

            So did I buy Windows 8? I did...two copies. Have I adopted Windows 8? No.
          • It's never as simple as anyone attemmpts to report....

            A) I, like many others, ran a hookey copy of Windows 8 before I decided to take the plunge. It's not hard to do and I never got one problem or 'non genuine' message. On the strength of that I decided to purchase a copy of Win 8 BUT had I been cash strapped I'd still be on a hookey copy, and a now unused Vista licence. Many, many, many folk are running hookey copies of Win8 from AIO build DVDs quite happily. As ever there numbers will be huge but nobody likes to admit the scale of the issue.

            Mac OSX is the same to an extent except the hardware is too limited. Simple enough to recreate with a working MAC, Parallels to clone it, then VMFusion and run on any number of machines within VMWare. No realistic user numbers really except Apple at least make their product a whole lot more affordable (shame they make it nearly impossible to run on anything other than Apple kit, but that's why their share is dismal)

            B) Of the number of units sold to the enterprise... I would expect the vast majority to be blitzed and loaded with their enterprise standard. That could be XP, Vista, Win7.... You can't tell anything by these numbers.

            ps Windows8 is way faster than XP or Win7 was on my PC. I have no problem telling folk to get over it and actually use it so long as they have no incompatible hardware.
          • Re: So wrong

            Who gives a s*** if you're not using it?
            Microsoft should, that's who.

            If they're 'selling' stuff that users don't want, or in other words forcing it on them with preinstalls, it's not much of a long-term business plan is it?
            That way lies bankruptcy & oblivion...
          • Microsoft makes more money

            from preinstalls then they do from selling windows OEM or retail versions alone. Try getting an OEM to honor a warranty from a PC that you installed the retail version of windows.
          • They have to honor the warranty.

            The reason that the warranty only covers the hardware and not the software. They can not void your warranty for installing another OS.
          • Windows 8

            Some dealers have been told to tell clients that they void their warranty if they downgrade to Windows 7. I had users who purchased ACER laptops who were told this. When the store was confronted they denied telling clients anything of the sort.
            Desperate Dan
          • ....

            Didnt sound very much like he was proud. he did it thinking the price was a deal but after seeing it around has decided its not worth it so yeah he is a number but its not used, reccomended or even installed which means Microsoft may have lost a futue customer.
          • When it comes to sales

            A satisfied customer means repeat sales. If the customer buys it and it turns out not to be useful that is a failure. That customer is likely to spread the word to others not to buy. Simply making a sale is not good enough if the customer is not satisfied with the purchase.
          • Repeat customers

            Any competent marketer or salesperson will tell the loyal repeat customer is what will keep you in business. Once a customer decides you are not worth one's loyalty you have lost a sale. Also, loyal customers are free advertising because if you like something you are likely to tell friends and family. Likewise if you have a bad experience you will do the same.

            If Win8 has soured too many longtime MS customers on Windows specifically and MS in more generally that is not good long term news. You may not see a shift immediately but it will come eventually. There are other options available if people get annoyed enough at MS.
          • Some people just don't get it

            ... And won't get it. Me buying 8 and using it is night and day. It doesn't matter if the topic is income. It matters a LOT if the topic is marketing strategy and future product designs and decisions... So much in fact that the latter is at times far more important.

            I didn't even think of spending a dime on 8. I'll cross that bridge when my 7 no longer fits my needs or when the finally update 8 enough where I find it appealing enough to consider (increased security features, stability, etc., with a UI at I can stomach.
            Teila Day
          • One better here...

            When I got my custom built computer in January 2010, it came with Win7...what a catastrophe for a [retired] home user...after searching the internet for SOME guidance on how to use the damned thing, [to which there was NONE] I called my builder and said "Take this damned thing out...give me my XP."... and I'm like the bumper sticker: "They'll take WinXP from my cold dead hands!!"
            WTF is microsoft thinking????????? Too damned many Pakis smoking weed ..... the consumer/user be's all about bells & whistles now; they obviously don't give a S**t if anyone can use their computer, as long as it looks fancy.....
          • WinXP Pro

            I still have the license and disc for Win7 but if I have to resort to Win7, or 8, or whatever damned version they come up with, I'll turn to Apple......or just keep using WinXP until there is no computer needs.... F**k MS and their crap versions.....
          • define Windows 8 success

            It's not so much that MS isn't making money from 100 million win 8 license sales.

            It's that they can't compete with Apple, Amazon and google's app store if they don't have _active_ users. That was the key with Windows 8.

            Just selling licenses was always enough for MS before, they were the only game in town. Now they need to convert users into paying app customers, and it just isn't happening.

            Think about it this way: what value does the 2 decade old design of Windows have if it's not the most popular, relevant ecosystem anymore? It's not well-design, it's not the best OS at any single thing (cloud, desktop, mobile, server), it's not the most affordable. MS is losing this race, they'll make money from businesses for decades, that isn't the point.
          • Define Windows 8 success

            This is the same tired dire prediction I have heard about MS and Windows since the early 90s when Linux was going to swamp the PC world. Still waiting for the tsunami 20 plus years later.
            Woned B. Fooldagan