​Saying goodbye to Windows 8: Where did it all go wrong?

Microsoft's ill-fated operating system was a 'bet-the-company' moment that didn't pay off.

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Windows 8.1 has passed another important milestone, going out of mainstream support a little over five years after the original operating system was released.

When mainstream support ends, developers can no longer request changes to product design or features, and users no longer get free support, although they can buy support if they want it. Users will also get security updates until the end of extended support, which for Windows 8.1 is currently due to be 10 January 2023. The original Windows 8 went out of mainstream support in January 2016.

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Mainstream support for Windows 10 is currently due to end on October 13, 2020, with extended support slated to lapse on October 14, 2025.

Microsoft and most users will be very grateful to put Windows 8 and 8.1 behind them. Indeed, considering the operating system is only five years old, few are still using it.

According to data from NetMarketShare, Windows 8 and 8.1 PCs accounted for about seven percent of devices accessing the internet at the end of last year -- little more than Windows XP, which first went on sale in October 2001. This is mostly because Microsoft offered a free update to Windows 10, which many Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 users cheerfully grabbed.

A step too far

Windows 8 launched in October 2012 with a colourful tiled interface that was a massive gamble, but one that Microsoft felt it had to make. The success of smartphones and tablets was making the traditional PC look out of date, so Microsoft needed to show that Windows could innovate beyond the tired-looking desktop. It was a 'bet the company' moment, according to then-CEO Steve Ballmer.

Also: Windows 8: Why Microsoft's giant gamble didn't pay off

But many users and businesses found Windows 8 a step too far: the changes to the look and feel of the OS -- in particular the removal of the familiar Start button and the inability to boot to the desktop -- was met with horror by many. It was described as a 'design disaster' by one critic, while others argued it had few clear benefits over the much more familiar Windows 7.

Microsoft scrambled to respond, and a year later Windows 8.1 arrived with the Start button restored. Although the company encouraged as many as possible to update to 8.1, the damage was done: even with the tweaks, Windows 8.1 never managed to catch up with Windows 7, which in terms of popularity remains the top version of Windows to this day.

The design changes introduced in Windows 8 persist in modified form in Windows 10. The use of tiles brought Windows into line with design language of tablets and smartphones, which is now the standard. As such, the shift embodied by Windows 8 may have helped Microsoft in the long term, but there was certainly a hit in the short term when it came to Windows 8 adoption.

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