Five ways to save Windows 8

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.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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