With Windows Blue, Microsoft may (finally) do the right thing

Call it capitulation. Call it listening to customers. But whatever you call it, making Windows 8 more usable with expected coming Blue tweaks is a positive, not a negative.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Over the past week, I've been surprised how many armchair pundits have lambasted Microsoft for its still not officially-admitted but largely expected decisions to add an optional Start Button and boot-to-desktop capability to Windows Blue.


There've been reports claiming everything from Microsoft is doing a 180-degree reversal with Windows Blue, to others advising the Redmondians to dig in their heels and stay the current UI course with its coming Blue update.

Windows Blue, from all leaks and tips I've received, is not a do-over. (If it were, it would take Microsoft a lot longer than nine or ten months to deliver it.) And ignoring customer confusion isn't a virtue; it's stupidity.

This armchair pundit finds it refreshing to hear Windows honchos admit that Windows 8 isn't selling as well as they hoped and that they want to make its successor more comfortable, familiar and usable for the Windows installed base.

In addition to the optional Start Button and boot-to-desktop options, there may be other interface adjustments in the works, according to one of my Blue tipsters. I hear the Windows team may also be tweaking the Charms to make them a bit easier to use with a mouse. There might be new built-in tutorials and in-context help coming to Blue. And word is there may be adjustments to the Start Screen designed to make Blue easier to use for Desktop users. One of my sources said some of these tweaks may not be in the Windows Blue preview release coming at the end of June, but that they still could make it into the final product.

If any or all of these tweaks make it into the final version of Blue, it's nothing but goodness. If you're a user who likes Windows 8 already, great. Just ignore new options and keep on keepin' on. If you're someone like me -- who is still running Windows 7 on two of my three Windows devices (with Windows RT running on my Surface RT) -- maybe Blue will make you reconsider whether you might find the new Metro-centric Windows a little more palatable because of these changes.

Last summer, before Windows 8 launched, I said I thought the operating system would face a rough road. My reasoning at the time was there were few PCs or tablets that made Windows 8 usable. And for those of us who might be interested in putting Windows 8 on existing non-touch hardware, the usability was questionable. Now that Windows 8's been out for about six months, I feel like my early inklings were true. I wouldn't call Windows 8 a disaster (with 100 million licenses sold), but I also wouldn't call it a barn-burner success.

My biggest criticism for Microsoft in all this isn't that the company is trying to make some adjustments to improve usability with Blue. Instead, I can't but help wonder why Microsoft -- with all its telemetry information, customer satisfaction data, and beta-testing input -- still went ahead with what its Windows execs must have known full well would be a confusing and less-than-optimal experience for many Windows users.

It's possible to project a bit by reading one of the recent blog posts of former Windows President Steven Sinofsky, who spearheaded Windows 8's development, for some insights into that question. In a May 8 post (a day after Microsoft's latest Blue disclosures), Sinofsky blogged about the damned-if-they-do/damned-if-they-don't choice that companies face when launching a disruptive technology:

"If you listen to customers (and vector back to the previous path in some way: undo, product modes, multiple products/SKUs, etc.) you will probably cede the market to the new entrants or at least give them more precious time. If technology product history is any guide, pundits will declare you will be roadkill in fairly short order as you lack a strategic response. There’s a good chance your influential customers will rejoice as they can go back and do what they always did. You will then be left without an answer for what comes next for your declining usage patterns.

"If you don’t listen to customers (and stick to your guns) you are going to 'alienate' folks and cede the market to someone who listens. If technology product history is any guide, pundits will declare that your new product is not resonating with the core audience. Pundits will also declare that you are stubborn and not listening to customers."

The Windows organization that Sinofsky left behind in November is facing this very choice right now, and seems to be heading toward Option A (after already trying Option B under Sinofsky).

Given Microsoft's installed base of 1.4 billion and the reticence of some of its key partners to back Microsoft's claim that the whole device world is going touch (something else I have to say I'm relieved to hear), I am liking Microsoft's new direction here. 

I believe Microsoft can stay its Metro-centric, touch-centric course with Windows Blue, while still making some changes that will make the OS more usable and comfortable fora bigger pool of users. While it would have been great if Windows 8 debuted this way last October, I say better late than never.

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