As beta programs go, Windows 8 seemed like a smashing success. The engineers and designers putting the new operating system together hit their deadlines like a finely tuned machine, and the code was ready to release to manufacturing one year ago this week, on August 1, 2012. Hardware partners had three full months to get their new PCs ready for what some hoped would be a big holiday season.
It didn't quite work out that way. The Windows 8 launch in New York City went well enough, but it was followed within days by two damaging events: Hurricane Sandy and the abrupt departure of Windows chief Steven Sinofsky.
Over the next few months it became clear that Windows 8 had arrived at a turning point in the PC industry, with consumers turning away from conventional PCs in favor of smaller tablets and mobile devices. In theory, the new operating system had anticipated this shift. In practice, it didn't quite work out that way.
What went wrong? Let's count the ways...
You see that empty check box, highlighted in yellow? The option to bypass the Start screen and go straight to the desktop when signing in to Windows 8.1?
That option was in an early preview of Windows 8, but it was dropped for the final release.
It’s back in Windows 8.1, as Exhibit A in Microsoft’s “We’re listening to your feedback” campaign.
There was plenty of feedback during the beta process from people who wanted a desktop-centric version of Windows 8. Microsoft stubbornly (some would say arrogantly) ignored them.
And now, a year later, that option and a few other desktop-friendly changes are part of Windows 8.1. One can only wonder: what would the reaction to Windows 8 have been like if a traditional desktop configuration had been available, even as a well hidden option?
It’s worth remembering that the initial design work for Windows 8 began in early 2009, a year before the iPad launched.
Microsoft’s vision started with the idea that a tablet is a PC without a keyboard. The inevitable by-product of that core design decision is a device built to work primarily in landscape mode. The trouble is, many of the things people want to do with a tablet, like read an ebook, are best done in portrait mode.
The mandatory 16:9 aspect ratio of Windows 8 was an obvious miss from Day 1, as was the lack of support for smaller devices. Windows 8 arrived to a market that had already digested the full-size iPad and was eagerly snapping up smaller devices. A year later, Windows 8.1 finally supports those devices, but that lost 12 months is the equivalent of stumbling out of the starting gate.
And even now, it looks like some of the people involved in planning Windows 8.1 haven't got the memo. When I went searching for pictures of the new 8.1-inch Acer Iconia W3-810 tablet, virtually every image I could find showed the device in landscape mode. I had to mock up the picture shown here using a stock photo and a screenshot from my own device.
If any developers had an advantage in the race to build the new-style apps for Windows 8, it would be Microsoft. In fact, having a collection of excellent apps ready for the platform should be table stakes.
But the first-party apps that shipped with Windows 8, the ones written by Microsoft, were weak, especially in key categories that are supposed to define the tablet experience: music, photos, and e-mail. Some of those apps felt as if they had been thrown together hastily. The limit of 10 simultaneous tabs with the Metro-style Internet Explorer 10, for example—what was that all about?
The original Photos app has rudimentary rotate and crop features but otherwise does almost nothing in the way of editing capabilities. Given that digital photos are a crucial part of the tablet experience, that’s a horrible omission.
I don’t know anyone who thought that the original Windows 8 Mail app was anything more than mediocre. An update in March smoothed some of the Mail app’s rough edges, but it’s still embarrassingly feature-poor, a situation that won’t be remedied until sometime after Windows 8.1 is released.
Part of the explanation is that the platform and the apps were being built at the same time. Maybe so, but anyone who tried to use the first generation of those apps probably has little patience left.
If Microsoft’s in-house app developers had problems building decent apps for the launch of Windows 8, what chance did third-party developers have?
A few big-name apps for Windows 8 are available in the Windows Store. Twitter finally pushed out an official app in mid-March, more than four months after the launch of Windows 8, but Facebook and Flipboard are still in the “promised, but not yet delivered” category after a full year. If you go to the Windows Store and search for Facebook, you’ll find more than 1600 entries, as I just did. But none of them are the official app.
There’s no Pandora, no Words with Friends, and no Google apps except search. In some cases that’s just capitalism at work: “We’ll build apps when there’s a market.” In Google’s case, there might be more to that decision.
One big part of the problem is that app developers don’t need to target the tablet side of Windows 8 when they can point to their desktop apps and say, “Use these instead.” And if anyone critiques that strategy they can point to the most glaring example of all: Microsoft Office.
With a three-year head start, Apple successfully defined the role of touch in devices: Touch is for tablets only; it's emphatically not for PC-like devices, as far as Apple is concerned. As a result, you can use your finger as the exclusive method of interacting with an iPad, but on Macs those gestures work only with trackpads.
Microsoft took a very different approach.
In the design of Windows 8, touch isn't restricted just to interacting with tablets. It’s also a valuable auxiliary input method on touch-enabled notebook PCs (and, to a lesser extent, on all-in-one desktop PCs). “Gorilla arm” sounds like a real thing until you actually use touch on a Windows 8 notebook and discover how useful that extra input method is.
I find that it's often easier to simply reach up an inch or two from the keyboard and tap a button to make something happen instead of trying to maneuver a tiny mouse pointer with a trackpad. Browsing through a long article is often easier if one flicks up and down to scroll through the pages. A simple pinch zoom can make the fine print easier to read. You get the idea.
So why does all of Microsoft’s promotional material for touch-based features focus on gimmicky features like the finger-painting example shown here?
How hard would it be to create a few videos showing real people using a hybrid notebook, switching naturally from the keyboard to the trackpad to the screen? Apparently it’s more work than one can possibly imagine.
Over the past year, Microsoft’s hardware OEMs have released some genuinely innovative hardware designs. Lenovo and Dell have been the edgiest, releasing new touchscreen devices that flip and fold into some positions that seem downright unnatural, like the Lenovo Yoga shown here. HP and Samsung, among others, delivered new devices that shift almost effortlessly between tablet and notebook modes.
The trouble is, most of these devices weren’t ready in late October 2012, when Windows 8 was released to the public. It was weeks or months before some of the most interesting new designs were available to consumers. Even Microsoft’s own Surface Pro didn’t arrive until more than three months after the Windows 8 launch.
Meanwhile, PC OEMs kept selling traditional laptops and desktops that were ill-suited for the new touch-centric operating system. Is it any wonder that the first wave of Windows 8 machines inspired mostly confusion?
Let’s all thank the late Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson for his antitrust ruling against Microsoft shortly after the turn of the century. Because of the restrictions of that consent decree, Microsoft found its competitive abilities severely hobbled. In particular, it was unable to do anything to stop PC makers from turning Windows PCs into sluggish delivery vehicles for trialware and mediocre, performance-sapping Windows desktop programs.
Little has changed in Windows 8, sadly. A neighbor brought over a new PC the other day, purchased at a local big-box store. All of the default file associations had been assigned to alternative programs that nagged and nagged for registration fees. Even the simple act of trying to open a PDF file led to a demand for a $35 registration fee. She blamed Windows 8.
I just took delivery on a new Windows 8 notebook PC today. It’s a brilliant piece of hardware engineering, but it’s loaded with third-party software that is both unnecessary and potentially a source of performance problems. Spending 20 minutes uninstalling crapware isn’t the way to delight the user of a new PC.
Windows 8 is a perfectly good name, especially coming on the heels of the incredibly successful Windows 7.
But two other crucial branding moves that Microsoft made have come back to haunt them.
The first was the last-minute decision to abandon Metro as the name for the new-look Windows 8 design language. After spending years building mindshare and equity in that brand, Microsoft threw the Metro name under an onrushing subway car, replacing it with … nothing. So now when we want to talk about the differences between apps written for Windows 8 and those written for the Windows desktop, we have to either play word games or just pretend that it’s still called Metro.
And in fact everyone except Microsoft is doing exactly that.
And then there’s the WinRT versus Windows RT debacle. One is a set of APIs, the other is a product name. But they sound so much alike that even the head of Microsoft’s Windows division confused the two at the Windows 8.1 launch event.
Oh well, at least Windows 8.1 wasn’t saddled with some horrible moniker like “Windows 8 2013 Feature Pack Release 2.”
Quick! Tell me about the most memorable Windows 8 commercial you’ve seen in the last year.
I’ll bet you can’t remember a single one except for the singing, dancing, clicking kids with their Surface RTs. Like the scary schoolgirls I've immortalized here.
Ironically, that wasn't an ad for Windows 8 at all. But it sure made an impression on the buying public, which wondered what the hell that was all about.
That’s a real problem for Microsoft, which has yet to deliver a clear, coherent, consistent message about why consumers should care about Windows 8.
In that respect, Apple has an almost unbeatable advantage: it sells only one iPad (two, if you count the new Mini), so its commercials are both training videos and demonstrations of the end-to-end scenarios it performs so well.
With its new series of “Compare” ads, Microsoft is finally trying to deliver that same kind of experience-based messaging. Let’s see if it works.
Throughout the preview process and even after Windows 8 was released to the public last October, Microsoft stubbornly refused to include any online help or orientation for new users. Driven by telemetry and test results, they seemed convinced that people would learn how to use Windows 8 as quickly and easily as a kid learning to ride a bicycle.
A few third-party partners, including HP and Dell (shown above), tried to pick up the slack with training modules that were included on the Start screen of new PCs. But most people just had to muddle through, with predictable results.
The Start screen for the Windows 8.1 Preview includes a placeholder tile for a new Help & Tips app. That's a good sign, but I'll reserve judgment until I see the final content that goes with that app. In the case of Windows 8, Microsoft has some serious explaining to do.