Microsoft's Windows 8 approach: Bold, arrogant, or both?

Microsoft has done many bold things in Windows 8. No one in their right mind would accuse this release of being timid or overly cautious. But plenty of perfectly sane critics have attacked Microsoft for being arrogant, stubborn, and dismissive of legitimate complaints. They might be right.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between boldness and arrogance. That’s true whether you’re the actor or the audience.

I believe Microsoft’s motives were sincere, but their decision was mistaken.

So, how would you characterize the Microsoft Windows Division under the leadership of Steven Sinofsky? Bold and decisive, or arrogant and stubborn? Maybe both? Your answer to that question colors how you feel about Windows 8. And the fact that I even have to ask the question explains the passionate reaction to this polarizing product.

The naysayers are probably overrepresented in the final tally from this week's Great Debate between me and my ZDNet colleague, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, Can Windows 8 be saved? But there’s no question that a lot of smart people have serious problems with the initial release of Windows 8.

Great Debate: Can Windows 8 be saved?

Microsoft has indeed done many bold things in Windows 8. No one in their right mind would accuse this release of Windows of being timid or overly cautious. It represents a big technological bet that one OS family can scale across an extraordinarily wide range of device form factors and sizes.

On the other hand, plenty of perfectly sane critics have attacked Microsoft for being arrogant, stubborn, and dismissive of legitimate complaints about the user experience with Windows 8 on systems that lack touchscreens and are primarily running desktop programs.

I believe Microsoft’s motives were sincere, but their decision was mistaken. In the desire to take a bold and determined step into the future, Windows 8 eliminates some of the touchstones of the Windows 7 desktop interface, while still leaving most of that desktop intact.

That decision alienated many desktop users and created a wedge issue that has distracted from the many impressive accomplishments in Windows 8. I know some people (myself included) who have adapted to the new ways and even prefer them. Those who would rather stick with the old paradigms can't catch a break from Microsoft, though. They need to tweak the system extensively and use third-party utilities to achieve the desired result.

Microsoft had the ability to include at least some options in Windows 8 so that upgraders could get the many benefits of the new Windows while still keeping those familiar touchstones. They chose not to. That decision is widely perceived as arrogant. As a result, people who should be happily using an upgrade that’s filled with genuine goodness are clinging bitterly to the previous version. And they're telling their friends.

What’s right about Windows 8

Microsoft got a lot of things right with Windows 8.

I’m very impressed by the internals. On new UEFI-based hardware, performance (both in operation and especially in terms of startup and shutdown times) is excellent. There are small but meaningful improvements in Task Manager, File Explorer, and other little stuff that Windows power users will love.

The ability to sync settings and files (with SkyDrive integration) is downright magical. If your only experience with Windows 8 is poking around at a copy running in a virtual machine on a Linux box with a local user account, you can’t appreciate this sea change in how Windows works.

But when you switch from a Windows 8 desktop PC to a tablet to an Ultrabook or a Surface Pro and your files and settings just roam with you, that’s very cool.

The inclusion of Hyper-V virtualization in the Pro edition is awesome. Big improvements in the BitLocker experience make it easy to encrypt a whole drive so your data stays safe if your device is stolen. Connecting to wireless networks is easier and faster.

And just about all of your Windows 7 software works on the Windows 8 desktop.

Everyone I know who has used Windows 8 on a touch-enabled device likes it a lot. (Even dyed-in-the-wool iPad fanatics admire it and quickly learn how to use it, in my experience.)

The problems appear when you run Windows 8 on a PC that doesn’t have a touchscreen.

The Metro problem

My debate opponent might have gone slightly overboard with his hammering on what’s wrong with the modern/Metro UI, but he speaks for a lot of people.

If most of the things you do with a PC involve Windows desktop programs driven by a keyboard and a mouse, many of the new mouse gestures are unfamiliar and awkward to execute.

If most of the things you do with a PC involve Windows desktop programs driven by a keyboard and a mouse, many of the new mouse gestures are unfamiliar and awkward to execute. People learn them eventually, some even do so quickly. But if your first hour or day or week with a product involves frustration as you try to figure out how to switch to a program or why your browser is using the full screen and you can’t find the tabs…? Well, first impressions last.

Partly this is people just grumbling about change. People complained about Windows XP’s “Fisher-Price” interface when it was first released. People complained about Windows 95. (How many times did you hear critics joke about having to click the Start button to shut down?) Hey, the guy who designed Apple’s first human interface and wrote eight editions of the Apple Human Interface Guidelines complained bitterly for years about OS X and why its signature interface change, the Dock, sucked.

Microsoft has very sophisticated, very wide reaching tools to monitor sentiment among their customers, including on social media, so they should have known this. They should have expected that people would complain when they took away the Start menu and reworked several small but important parts of the UI while leaving other parts unchanged.

Switching between two Control Panels, for example, can be jarring, with one group of settings in a modern/Metro app and a bunch more settings still in the desktop Control Panel. They should have anticipated confusion when people have desktop and immersive versions of Internet Explorer that behave in different ways. I can share a web page easily on Twitter from the immersive one, but the Share charm just laughs at me from the desktop browser.

From the leaked previews of Windows 8.1, we know that Microsoft is moving more stuff from the desktop Control Panel to the modern/Metro PC Settings app. In other words, the Windows road map assumed that this transition was going to take multiple releases over an unknown period and require some patience on our part as we worked in the construction zone. So why couldn’t they allow users some opportunities to avoid the transitional parts?

One UI change that would help tremendously, in my opinion, is the ability to pin the Charms bar to the Start screen so that you can always see those five charms: the Windows flag icon that takes you to the Start screen; the gear icon that takes you to the PC Settings page and the Shut Down command; and the Search icon. If you set a beginning user in front of that screen and those five charms are visible, they will figure things out quickly just by clicking. I suggested that option shortly after Windows 8 was made public, and my feedback was dismissed completely.

We already know that the Start screen will get some fine-tuning in Windows 8.1. You can already see some slight rethinking of the way apps work with the latest refreshes of the Mail and Music apps. But there’s definitely room for improvement in the way that Windows 8 introduces itself to new users, especially those without a touchscreen.

The accelerating decline of the PC

Any observer who’s been paying attention knows that the PC market was poised to decline and that mobile devices represent the future. Almost exactly two years ago, I noted the stunning rise in mobile web traffic and wrote “As Microsoft's monopoly crumbles, its mobile future is crucial”:

For the first time since I’ve been recording this data, Microsoft’s share of web usage has dropped below the 90 percent mark—to 88.88 percent in April 2011.

That’s a reflection of the decline of the traditional PC and the increasing importance of mobile devices. People aren’t abandoning Windows for other traditional operating systems—OS X usage is flat, too, and desktop Linux still can’t crack the 1 percent level.

No, people are turning to mobile devices to do tasks that used to require a PC, and the iPad has been the biggest success in that role. In just over a year, it has grown from a microscopic market share to nearly 1% of all web traffic.

Obviously, Microsoft had seen this inflection point coming. That’s why Windows 8 makes such investments in touch, power management, and connectivity.

With Windows 8, Microsoft is unifying its user experience across an entire range of devices, including traditional PCs, ARM-based tablets, smartphones, and the Xbox 360. The stakes are incredibly high, and there’s really only one chance to get it right. if Windows 8 flops on phones and tablets, Microsoft’s future is very dim indeed.

So, here it is two years later. The economy sucks worldwide, PCs are better built and therefore lasting longer, and what people really want are light, portable, personal devices that they can use for work (to handle a variety of communication and creative and collaborative tasks) and for play (as consumption devices for reading, listening to music, watching videos, and looking stuff up online).

The dismal recent numbers for worldwide PC shipments are evidence that we in the early stages of a fundamental transformation in PC form factors. Consumers and businesses are buying fewer “heavy” PCs and holding on to them longer. I might quibble with the projections from IDC and Gartner, but I think Gartner is basically right to see huge growth potential in “ultramobile” devices (which can act like a tablet or a full-strength PC) as well as lower-powered tablets designed primarily for media consumption and light computing tasks.

If you look at Windows 8, you can see that it’s aimed at both of those segments, which are primed to grow at very high rates over the next few years. One big change that would help make Windows 8 more popular is the appearance of small tablets at low price tags. For holiday season this year, Microsoft and its hardware partners (who should have gotten the point by now that those tired old designs won’t sell anymore) need to have lots and lots of touchscreen devices on the shelves, at a broad range of price points and form factors.

Windows 8 is more like a living organism, made partly from familiar bits that have evolved over the last two decades, with several new strands of DNA tossed in.

But let’s not overestimate the importance of the holiday season. The fourth quarter is important for consumer devices, but businesses will continue to have a big say in Windows’ growth, and they tend to buy on a schedule that is not seasonal.

The good news is that enterprises always resist new Windows versions. (See history lessons here and here and here.) So most of them will be able to watch from the sidelines for the next few years and see how early adopters fare with the first wave of updates to Windows 8. Microsoft can capture the revenue from those Windows 7 licenses for several years to come.

It’s the ecosystem, stupid

It’s tempting to compare Windows 8 to its predecessors. But I really see it as the first Windows release in a new generation.

I believe Windows 7 was the last big, monolithic release from Microsoft, the end of the line for static code on a shiny disc in a shrink-wrapped box, like Windows XP or Vista.

Windows 8 is more like a living organism, made partly from familiar bits that have evolved over the last two decades, with several new strands of DNA tossed in. It’s due to be updated for more often, and it’s part of a much larger hardware-apps-services ecosystem that is also changing quickly.

It’s terribly short-sighted to focus only on the flaws with the interface, which can be easily tweaked. Windows 8 lays the groundwork for some other huge long-term changes as part of Microsoft’s transformation to a “devices and services” company. An impressive collection of cloud services are evolving along with Windows 8, including SkyDrive and Office 365. Windows 8 has deep connections to those services, which work across devices, and even across platforms. The end-to-end experience, the collective impact of all those devices and services, is the really big bet.

Those services have evolved significantly since Windows 8 launched six months ago. Windows itself will make another big set of changes this summer with Windows 8.1 (Blue), which is much more than a service pack. New Office apps designed specifically for the modern/Metro side of Windows 8 will arrive this year as well.

Those are big changes. But the Windows 8 system you use today will include all of them by the end of the year.

Microsoft’s biggest failure was falling behind in the middle of the last decade, first fighting a successful but costly battle to secure the underpinnings of Windows and then cleaning up the mess of Longhorn and Vista.

The scope of change in Windows 8 (and its successors) is so great that it was inevitable it would be released in phases, with the early phases that we’re in now causing some confusion. But Windows 8 isn’t broken, like Windows Vista was. It doesn’t need a service pack to fix fundamental performance and compatibility problems, like Vista did. It just needs to grow up and for the ecosystem around it to evolve.

The good news is that Microsoft can afford a year (maybe two) of transition in the Windows Client division, which is only one of a dozen billion-dollar businesses in the company’s portfolio right now. The Windows desktop market is not small, but it’s a small percentage of Microsoft’s overall business.

Meanwhile, there’s a list of things Microsoft needs to do quickly and confidently, and there’s not a lot of margin for screwing up. The built-in apps desperately need improvement, especially the Mail and Music apps, which are still a mess despite recent improvements.

And Microsoft also needs to acknowledge more fully that the new user experience is confusing and frustrating for some people. Oddly, this is a case where I think Microsoft gave too much credit to its user base in terms of their willingness to adapt to change. Adding some tools and options to create a Windows 7 Legacy Desktop mode will inspire plenty of “Microsoft admits it screwed up” blog posts, but users will appreciate it.

Unike Vista, Windows 8 is solid at its core, and Microsoft today is far more disciplined than in the Vista era.

Six years ago, my opponent in the just-concluded debate called Windows Vista “the walking dead.” This time around, he called Windows 8 “a dead OS walking.” But in his eagerness to pronounce things dead, he’s inadvertently called attention to a perfect example of how Microsoft responded in a similar previous crisis. The Aero interface he loves so much debuted in Vista. Windows 7 was "Vista, fixed" and much more.

Unike Vista, Windows 8 is solid at its core, and Microsoft today is far more disciplined than in the Vista era. It’s also capable of working much more quickly, which means that improvements to the OS and its apps can and should arrive in a cadence that’s measured in months, not years. The real wild card is the OEM community, which  needs to step up and build products that people want to buy, not just produce incremental updates to the same tired old designs.

Microsoft’s role as the kingpin of computing is long gone and some already consider it irrelevant or obsolete. Windows 8 and its ecosystem have all the ingredients to change that perception and make the next generation of computing devices very interesting. But even with flawless execution there’s no guarantee of success.

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