Windows 8: An exceptional OS undone by dreadful marketing

Windows 8: An exceptional OS undone by dreadful marketing

Summary: Given that Microsoft has left so much other traditional functionality in Windows 8, the removal of the Start menu is a marketing decision only. It's not like it's hard to code.

TOPICS: Windows

There are a lot of words we're no longer supposed to use in polite company. For example, the words idiot, moron, even delusional aren't appropriate -- and for good reason. There are challenged, struggling people out there and using slang words about their condition as pejoratives is more than impolite, it's hurtful.

Likewise, there are many wonderful words of profanity we're definitely not allowed to use on a family show. The more flowery among us have learned to tone down our expressions, often using phrases like "the F word," "effin'", or even the one made famous by the pilots of Galactica, that last, great battlestar: "frak!"

As you might imagine, then, I find myself challenged when describing the decision to remove the Start menu from Windows 8. Good taste and compassion for my fellow man prevents me from using many words derived from the mental health community. Standards and practice prevents me from using words that would occur 20 to 30 times in a typical Saturday night, drunken TechCrunch rant.

But we're not TechCrunch. Here at ZDNet, we're analysts.

And that's why, in pure analytical terms, one has to wonder what went through the (fill-in-the-blank) (fill-in-the-blank) misguided brains of Microsoft's managers, analysts, and strategists when they decided to ditch the Start menu.

I finally decided to load the preview edition of Windows 8 and use it. And, despite the operating itself being a marvel of engineering, ease of use, speed, and underlyng functionality -- I'm forced to say that it's unusable for desktops out of the box. Un-frakin'-usable.

Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to side with @sjvn on this one? He's been naysaying Windows 8 all this time -- I even did a webcast opposite him -- and it turns out, at least from a UI perspective, that he's right. Bleeeeeep!

In the annals (anals?) of product design, this has to be one of the (fill-in-the-blank) poorest decisions ever foisted upon an enormous customer base.

The reasons, we've heard, are clear. The tablet market is eclipsing the desktop market -- at least for consumers. So, if a next-generation OS is going to be introduced, it has to work with tablets.

No problem. I'm with you there.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that many commuters decided that instead of buying new cars, they were going to buy new motorcycles. In days of rising fuel prices, it's not that hard to imagine. Oh, sure, riding a bike is a far different exercise than driving in a cage, but many of us have learned to do both.

The problem is that on a motorcycle the right pedal isn't the gas pedal, it's the rear brake. The left pedal is the shifter. The gas (throttle) is the right handlebar itself. Making things more fun, the front and rear brake control separately (don't brake too hard with the front brake, or you tumble. In any case, the brake isn't on the left pedal, the front brake is attached to the right handlebar, along with the throttle.

A motorcycle controls like a motorcycle, and is a completely different beast than a car.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has decided that -- rather than make some very minor interface nods to the billion or so users it has -- it's going to force everyone to change how they use their machines.

This is not change in a good way. It'd be as if Ford decided to yank out the typical comfortable interior of a car, and replace it with a motorcycle seat, handlebars, and control interface. One day, grandma would get up to go to work, get in her trusty Ford (which she's been happily driving for decades) -- and not know how to do anything!

Worse, since the motorcycle UI isn't designed for the inside of a car, using it there would suck. People have tried it, and it's amusing as an exercise, but it doesn't really work.

Windows 8's change to the Start menu is not amusing as an exercise. It's an insult to all the billions of Windows users the world wide.

Here's the thing. You get into Windows and it's Metro. You click the desktop tile because you have real work to do -- and you're stuck. How do you launch apps? There's no launcher or Start menu. If you don't know to click in the corner of the screen, you ain't doin' nothin'. There's no hint, no cue, no application, no Start menu. There's nothing there, there.

It's almost incomprehensible that this was allowed to happen.

As it turns out, if you do manage to click in the very small region at the corner of the screen, you'll get slammed back into the Metro interface. Well, at least it's something. I know this is confusing, but it's how you launch applications from the desktop now. You have to hunt for an unlabeled zone of the screen, click it very carefully, slam back into Metro, find what you want to launch, rinse, wash, and repeat.

Even Metro, though, sucks. As I said, there are no visual cues. If you click (again, in what appears to be an 8-pixel square region), you get a zoom out menu called "charms," and from there you might get to something useful. The real control panel isn't available from charms, but there's a sad replacement for it that will allow for some minor control.

When I first started a demo Metro app, I found myself in a blank screen, with no icons, visual cues, or menu items. Now, I've been using computers since the time of wooden ships, so I know to tap around and if something bad happens, I can always undo it. Besides, this was on a VM.

But many desktop users have been told, over and over again, not to click on things they don't understand. They've been educated to use what they've been told to use, and not go exploring into that folder marked System32.

These users will get Windows 8 and immediately experience brain freeze. "Upgrading" from any other Windows OS to Windows 8 will generate an immediate failure condition among experienced traditional users. The retraining at the corporate level will be astonishingly time-consuming and expensive.

What's worse, this new approach isn't better. We're all for better UIs that save us time and improve our flow. Even though some of us didn't like the Ribbon when it showed up, it was undeniable that many users responded well to it. It was a win.

Windows 8 is the opposite of the Ribbon. Instead of laying out everything users need, where they need it, Windows 8 takes away a lot of functions and a lot of visual clues.

Users will be lost.

I know, I know. The Microsoft product manager reading this will tell you that the Metro (we're not supposed to call it Metro anymore, in another feat of smart marketing) -- anyway, the Microsoft product manager will tell you that we'll eventually be using Metro-only apps and we'll love them.

No. No we won't.

Some users will, but there are many of us who need more than two Windows open, who do real work, who jump back and forth between five and even ten applications, who often have to do more than one complete job description at once, who need a real computer for real work, and chose Windows because it's up for the task.

We real-work users will undoubtedly forgo Metro like we skipped on Bob, and never really used the desktop gadgets Microsoft thought were going to be all the rage back in the early Windows 98 days.

The difference, though, between all those misguided attempts and this is that those attempts left essential functionality in the system.

With Windows 8, Microsoft purposely pulled out the Start menu, in a vindictive effort to force everyone into Metro. That's not going to fly. We'll all find replacements (I'll discuss that in a future article).

Given that Microsoft has left so much other traditional functionality in Windows 8, the removal of the Start menu is a marketing decision only. It's not like it's hard to code.

Windows 8 will probably still have some success. I'm less convinced now that I see how completely unusable it is for desktop users out of the box. This wasn't necessary and -- as such -- was a very, very bad decision.

Not all users and not all organizations will put up with "it can't be used" and buy thousands of copies. Many will just stick with Windows 7. Many more will just stay with Windows XP. Eventually, everyone will learn the right downloads to make Windows 8 usuable, but by then, the damage will have been done.

Microsoft better get Windows 9 out the door really fast -- and this time, better put UI design in the hands of usability experts rather than the marketing department. If you really envy Apple so much that you're going to try to force your users to do something, that something better actually be better.

Bleep! Expletive deleted. Bleepity-bleep-bleep. Frak!

Topic: Windows


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • What? Someone disliking Windows 8 so close to launch?

    How on Earth was this allowed to happen?

    Unleash The Trolls!
    • Such a self fulfilling statement

      "Unleash The Trolls".

      William Farrel
      • wait, you only just installed windows 8???

        Then what the *bleep* has all the windows 8 bashing you have been doing up until now been about? I have been using Windows 8 for months now and it is IMHO just as good as Win7 once you get over the learning curve, which only took me about 2 days to get over.

        This sounds like you have used the new OS for about 15 minutes and then started this Rant.

        PS. I do believe that the start menu should be brought back as the first pinned Application on the Start Menu after the lower left Hot Corner which launches Metro. Problem solved, everyone is happy! This can be as simple as Patch Tuesday Update (or a Service Pack).
        • You're you not everyone

          So it took you two days to learn how to use Win8. Good for you. How do you think that the help desk workers at a mid sized corporation are going to feel about having to help 500 to 1000 computer users get to where you are. Some may take considerably longer to catch on, others not so much, others will keep calling with questions for months.
          • Not months YEARS...

            I still get questions regarding XP and Windows 7. I don't see why supporting Windows 8 will be any different: some people will just never completely get it. I remember my company upgrading to XP on my previous life, and having to install Windows 3.x tools on manager's workstations because they didn't like the "new” ones...
        • Two days multiplied by how many users.....

          So, if we take your two days as an average and multiply that by the thousands of users in the average enterprise company, how many millions of dollars were lost due to decreased productivity while relearning how to use Windows? Given that the typical end user isn't as savvy as most of us, two days is probably a low number...let's change that to four or five days and recalculate.
    • windows 8 u can adjust

      you can adjust the start menu back like the old start menu, so some old timer people can be happy its simple and there is an app that will do it for you, and then you can have both worlds windows metro style to use your apps and your start menu, and for those who do not want it just stay behind with windows 7 and shut up!!!!!!!!!! People must face facts that people stopped buying desktops, must people buy tablets and mobile smart phones today...... and for those who want desktop most of the time you open your computer and go to a software program or the internet, get real people....
      • "you can adjust the start menu back like the old start menu,..."

        Good to hear that one can tweak Win8 to get the classic start menu. Zdnet should do an article soon with a walk through for we dummies on how to do this. I plan to buy another laptop soon and if it has Win8, I'll need this tip.
        • yes you can

          you can you tube it, it has changed since the release and easy way will be with an app, but i think when people get use to the new metro that is what they will use, mac will soon make there OS also with apps because the make money on the apps when they sell them, and people are using apps more then a desktop anyways, when you open your computer you go to a software, a file, internet or an small developer app...thats the real need now
        • Adjusting Metro to mimic Start Menu

          That article has already been done.

          And... don't forget, when you display all programs in metro mode, right click on the old desktop programs you know you have and select "place on task bar". No big &^%(*( deal!
          Crashin Chris
      • Please...really...that's so lame!!!

        Start menu is worth something. Personally I prefer the taskbar. I hope MS hasn't skuttled that too.

        Apparently you don't care much for Windows 7, nearly as much as the millions of people who use it every day. Lame.
        • taskbar

          The desktop in Win8 still has the same taskbar- pin programs or websites just as in Win7. A "version" of the start menu is still there: in far left lower corner below the point that returns you to the "Metro" Start screen, but is much easier to use with mouse than touch- accessing it really does need to be improved. It brings up a list with control panel, windows explorer, command line, programs (I think, but I don't have Win8 open right now), and several other links that are on Win7 start menu (again, I don't recall them all). I have programs and website links pinned tio the taskbar, but I've actually come to prefer pinning those things to the now-not-metro start screen. A recent update returned the aero glass effect to Win8 (I don't have an RT machine,of course, so am not sure about that version). I realize that 'aero' is just to pretty-up the desktop, but for me, ast least, I'm glad to have it back. Overall, I now prefer using Win8 rather than Win7, as much as I love Win7. The cold boot time is amazingly fast and from sleep mode it's as near to instantaneous as possible. Shut down takes a full 3 seconds- much faster than Win7 in all ways. I'll almost definitely upgrade my Win7 laptop to Win8 sometime this fall, because IMHO it's well worth the $40 cost. And I'm using Win8 RP on an inexpensive off-brand tablet, so I think it's safe to assume it will work even better on a quality machine.
      • A word from an It person in a large corporation

        "People must face facts that people stopped buying desktops, must people buy tablets and mobile smart phones today...... and for those who want desktop most of the time you open your computer and go to a software program or the internet, get real people...."

        As an IT manager in a very large corporation of 38,000+ employees I must respectfullly disagree that people have stopped buying desktops. This may be partially true in the mainstream consumer market, but in the business world, corporations are not going to dump millions of desktops just so that they can have cheaper equipment and/or touchscreen monitors.
        Many companies rely on powerful applications that simply won't run on tablets (for example, the illustrious IPad has limited memory and can't be expanded). Desktop computers will most likely be the mainstay of business because they are capable of having hardware added such as proprietary cards specific to certain applications, not to mention the fact that they are still relatively cheap.
        Microsoft has always centered its OS designs around the business environment. Windows 8's design and functionality seems to be geared towards social networking and eye candy. When it was still in beta state, I downloaded and installed the pre-release version on a test machine and gave it a good month to work with.
        I found the learning curve to be difficult and could forsee that the business sector would have to spend lots of $$$$ on training workers to use the new interface. I have also heard complaints that it is difficult to set up in a network environment.
        When Windows 7 was first released, our company had to stay with XP Pro for about a year because there were tremendous conflicts with mainframe apps and other network management software.
        I personally find it annoying that Microsoft didn't simply add a service pack to restore the more familiar desktop. IMHO, leave the "cutesy" stuff to Apple and keep the hard-core business structure to the OS for the business and power-user community.
        • A reply from an IT person in another large corporation

          There is no need for a service pack: stay with Windows 7 and you will keep your start button. We are in the process of completing the upgrade from XP to Windows 7 and I suspect that it will be another five years before we upgrade to anything new. As an IT professional I think this is sad, but unfortunately ithappens to be the norm – at least in my observations. I’m a software developer and in order to keep up with technology I do it on my own time. I recently bought a touch enabled Windows 8 notebook and couldn’t be happier. Change happens and people should just get on with it…
    • Indeed.


      Though I don't agree with needing to "very carefully" click on an 8 by 8 pixel region. Just slam your mouse in the corner full-speed and be done with it (your mouse won't go off the screen).

      As far as I'm concerned, it could be a 1 by 1 pixel region -- the very bottom-left pixel... but it would be (among with 3 other pixels in the other corners) the easiest to click on... by far.
    • i would comment but

      it is such a boring blog... the author i doubt that has enough mental abstraction to be a scientist....

  • Small factual error

    I agree with your comments about the Start menu, but for saftey safe I have to point out that the right pedal on most motorocycles is for the REAR BRAKE, not the clutch. The clutch is on the left pedal. The right handle bar contains the thottle and the FRONT BRAKE.

    Let's hope that Microsoft puts the Start menu back where it belongs (and Harley-Davidson leaves the clutch where IT belongs).
    Steve Wright - Omaha
    • Even Smaller Factual Error

      Sorry. I mean the clutch is on the left HANDLEBAR. The left pedal is the gear shift.
      Steve Wright - Omaha
      • Finally, thanks

        The analogy was not bad, but the execution horrible. If you are old enough, you may remember British bikes on which the gear lever and the rear brake were reversed. That could be expensive AND dangerous.
        • More Biking Analogy

          An even more extreme extension to this analogy is race shifting. I converted my track bike to race shift pattern for track day riding. In other words, you shift down for a higher gear, and you shift up for a lower gear (wont go into why this is much more efficient). Learning this shift pattern (unlearning the previous pattern) was difficult indeed and may have led to a crash I had at the track when I may have downshifted when meaning to upshift while trying to pass a guy in a tricky section of the track. I'm comfortable with it now, but it took mental diligence to learn. If you converted the street riding population to this, there would be complete chaos and mayhem across the nation. Takeaway: Wholesale usability changes are not for the layman. I've learned how to use Win8, and I didnt have to land on my head to do it, but I dont envy the challenged (PC, dont you know) in thier transition to the new paradigm.