8 things Microsoft needs to do to save Windows 8

The real world runs on real computers doing real work and those computers run Windows. Microsoft needs to remember that as they introduce Windows 8 to the real world.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Our home media PC is getting a little long in the tooth. It's always been a bit of a problem because we bought a horizontal case that would look pretty in our media room, rather than one optimized for holding PC hardware. Right now, the machine is just about three years old, hasn't had a Windows reinstall in all that time, and has developed its own set of quirks.

It's getting near that time. It's getting near that time when either a Windows reinstall is necessary, or its general crotchetiness will give us an excuse to build a spiffy, new machine. And that has had me thinking about whether we'll just put our trusty copy of 64-bit Windows 7 on it, or hold out for Windows 8.

That has had me thinking about whether I even want to run Windows 8, and that got me thinking about what it would take to make Windows 8 a real, acknowledged, indisputable success in the marketplace.

Here, then, are eight things Microsoft needs to do to save Windows 8:

1. Clearly overcome Windows 8's WTF problem

Windows 8 suffers from WTFitis. Most of us, when presented with news of Windows 8's various changes -- from the weird start environment to Metro to Windows RT, to the apparent push for Windows on tablets -- look at Windows 8 and simply ask, "WTF?"

In other words, why is Microsoft doing this to us? Why can't Windows 8 just be Windows, only better? That's all most of us want, anyway. Just Windows, but better.

Microsoft seems to have iPad envy, and the company looks like it's willing to sell all us desktop and notebook users down the river, just so it can have a nice tablet interface, even though most tablet users will still just buy an iPad.

So, the first major thing Microsoft has to do is make it clear that they understand that there's a future desktop and notebook market, and that they don't consider all of us who have to do real work with Windows 8 the ugly step-children of the beautiful people who use tablets and want a PLAYSKOOL interface so they can fling Angry Birds.

See also: Why Windows 8 matters for real work, and so will Windows 9

2. Rename the tablet version of Windows to "Windows for Tablets"

This is a corollary to #1 above. There's a version of Windows 8 being designed for OEMs who are building tablets on Arm processors (the most popular mobile processor). This is a fundamentally different Windows than most of us will run on our PCs, and it's not even available to the general public.

But Microsoft's early Windows 8 marketing has been problematic, because Microsoft hasn't made it clear that PC version is completely different from the tablet version. Even now, things aren't completely clear. Microsoft has been encouraging developers to move to RT as a development library, saying that it's the future of Windows applications.

But Windows 8 RT is just the version of Windows for Arm devices (yes, the name of the tablet product is "RT", not something -- you know -- like "tablet"). So it's not clear to developers that if they start coding RT applications, whether or not those applications will only run on Windows RT or Windows for PCs.

Clarity is essential here.

3. Build an install option to install Windows 8 in "classic" mode with a Start button

There is no doubt that the Metro interface has the potential to be pretty -- on small displays. But there's also no doubt that all the jumping back and forth into and out of Metro to simply launch desktop programs is completely untenable -- especially, again, for those of us doing real work.

Clearly, there are now two approaches to the Windows interface -- the old-style desktop and the optimized-for-tiny-displays Metro.

To avoid truly pissing off Microsoft's very loyal (and very busy) desktop user-base, they need to create an option for a "classic" interface install, including a Start button and the desktop as the primary environment.

4. Start promoting the "getting real work done" benefits of upgrading to Windows 8

As it turns out, other than the whole Metro nightmare, Windows 8 is a pretty slick desktop OS upgrade. It adds a ton of helpful new features that will make using Windows more productive.

These include being able to manage what items boot from the Task Manager, without having to MSCONFIG or hack a registry, faster booting, the ability to do a clean Windows reinstall without wiping your data or settings, the ability to sync your settings across PCs, and a lot more.

These individual feature tweaks are what will make us active users (you could also call us "recommenders") decide to upgrade to Windows 8.

Microsoft needs to go out of its way to explain these benefits, not just rely on us in the trade press to discover them and point them out as afterthoughts.

5. Remove artificial performance limitations from all Windows 8 versions

Windows 7 has a bunch of artificial performance limitations, designed to force customers to buy different packages just to get better performance from their computers. For example, Windows Home doesn't allow you to use all your RAM, if you have a boatload of RAM.

Another limitation: the IIS Web server artificially throttles down the number of simultaneous Web sessions, presumably to try to force server operators to buy Windows Server.

These artificial limitations do not encourage Windows upgrades, they simply annoy their customers. Any company that wants a fully powered server operating system will buy Windows Server, for example. But there's no good reason why Microsoft should be pushing people to things like Apache and Linux, when their own products work quite well.

The way to separate versions is by features, plain and simple. The Pro version of Windows 8, for example, will offer Active Directory domain management, a feature that's almost exclusively corporate. This makes sense, but artificial limitations don't.

Next: Stop self-limiting Windows »

« Previous: Overcoming Windows WTF

6. Make sure Windows Media Center runs on the non-Pro version of Windows 8

In a truly bizarre move, Microsoft announced that the Media Center version of Windows will only work on the much pricier Windows 8 Pro. Worse, most PCs that users might buy and want to put in their living rooms won't be running Windows 8 Pro, so in order to use the Media Center features, users would have to install or upgrade their entire OS.

Ed Bott outlines some possible reasons why Microsoft is pushing this approach, and it has to do with paying licensing fees for DVD codecs.

But there are easy ways around this, up to and including charging a small fee for the DVD codec. After all, it doesn't make sense to limit such a critical hub function of home PCs just because Microsoft doesn't want to incur the cost of licensing a codec for an obsolete technology.

7. Stop self-limiting Windows

This brings me to another point. It seems that Windows 8 is being brutalized by Microsoft's product management, trying to get everything to fit "just so" in an Excel spreadsheet or a PowerPoint slide.

Home machines can't run media center. Desktop machines are forced into a non-desktop UI. A provided Web server can't really serve more than a few Web pages. And so on and so on and so on.

Look, Windows 8, without the artificial limitations, is one seriously kick-butt OS. But it's if it's going to be held back from showing what it can really do in the market it dominates because some brand managers are eying another market, they're going to wind up killing the golden goose.

Sure, it totally makes sense for Microsoft to go after the mobile, small computer, and tablet market, since that's where the growth is. But it doesn't make sense to self-limit an incredibly powerful OS just because there's some iPad-envy out there.

8. Give out a completely free, ultra-bare bones version to absorb all those XP users

There are a tremendous number of Windows XP users still out there. Many of them are running unsafe, virus-ridden, completely vulnerable systems, but aren't upgrading to Windows 7 or Windows 8 because they either don't know how, or don't want to pay for an update.

A lot of these people are senior citizens, so we have our most vulnerable populace stuck with the most vulnerable version of Windows.

Here's my suggestion: make a build of Windows 8 with almost all the features stripped out, except for an updated IE and the ability to install and launch applications. Remove all the games, all the media player applications, all the neat support applications like the Snipping Tool, most of the accessories, the Remote Desktop Connection, etc.

Remove all of it except what it takes to run a program and browse the Web. Then make this version free, with an easy to see and use Anytime Upgrade button.

First, this is probably the only way Microsoft will ever be able to finally be done with Windows XP. It's a way to strike a strong blow against cyberattackers who love running distributed denial of service attacks from vulnerable XP machines. It's also a way to get more people voluntarily using Windows 8.

As we all know from in-app purchases, once you've got something installed, you're far more likely to press that upgrade button than you are to undertake a massive installation project. So if Microsoft were to release Windows with a fremium model, they'd solve a whole bunch of problems at once.

Finally, it's not like Microsoft would lose any customers who'd otherwise buy Windows. Most people and OEMs wouldn't tolerate a Windows devoid of almost all features, so we'd all upgrade anyway. But I'll tell you what it would do. It'd give those Linux desktop folks a kick in the teeth, taking away their primary selling point of a free OS.

This strategy would not only finally bring an end to XP, not only brutalize the Linux market, but it'd also give Microsoft a nearly guaranteed stream of Anytime Upgrade revenue. Talk about a win-win-win strategy.

Can Windows 8 be saved?

So there you go, eight things Microsoft needs to do to save Windows 8. While there's undoubtedly tremendous growth in the world of tablets and other toy computers, the real world runs on real computers doing real work and those computers run Windows.

Microsoft needs to remember that as they introduce Windows 8 to the real world.

See also: Three ugly, middle-aged men argue about Windows 8

Editorial standards