Windows 8: Death by a Thousand Cuts?

Windows 8: Death by a Thousand Cuts?

After Microsoft released Windows Vista, the company stumbled badly by reacting far too slowly to an amazing push by Apple and its allies in the media and blogosphere to discredit the new OS. With Windows 8, Microsoft faces a similar problem, and the growing perception that this new OS is a poorly conceived disaster. And the window is closing to address this perception.

The problem Microsoft now faces, however, is compounded by a number of issues. Windows Vista, whatever its problems, was a traditional PC operating system aimed at traditional PCs. The competition it faced, such as it was, was Apple’s Mac OS X. At that time, the Cupertino juggernaut hadn’t even released the first iPhone, let alone the iPod touch or iPad. And no offense to Mac fans, but there was only so much ground the Mac was ever going to make up.

This time, things are quite different. Apple has released its iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad in the interim and the world will never be the same: We now have completely different expectations when it comes to personal computing, and we are increasingly turning to devices over PCs.

At work, we used to call this trend the “consumerization of IT,” because these devices -- just like the first PCs, by the way -- became popular first at home and then were pushed into the workplace by users demanding to be more efficient. But more recently it’s been referred to as the BYOD movement -- for “Bring Your Own Device” -- and has been formally adopted via a looser management scheme than the one Microsoft spent the previous decade perfecting. As is so often the case with technology, progress happened, and those of us who support technology were simply swept along in its wake.

Windows 8 is a product of the BYOD era and was designed to bridge the gap between the traditional PC world of the past and the devices world of the near future. Microsoft should be credited with creating a single product that can be all things to all people -- or two products, if you consider Windows RT something different -- but it can also fairly be dinged for creating a first version of that product that, put fairly, is pretty damned confusing to most people.

Microsoft claims that the Windows 8 learning curve isn’t insurmountable, and although I’m sure that’s true, there is a learning curve. Compare the experience of a PC-using adult trying to understand Windows 8 to that of handing a child an iPad for the first time to understand the difference between frustrating and delightful.

Microsoft also claims, curiously, and, I think, disingenuously, that it had arrived at the design for Windows 8 before the iPad arrived. This claim was most recently repeated by new Windows chief Julie Larson-Green, a disciple of previous Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, the man most personally responsible for all that is both right and wrong with Windows 8. “We started planning Windows 8 in June of 2009, before we shipped Windows 7, and the iPad was only a rumor at that point,” she told MIT Technology Review recently. “I only saw the iPad after we had this design ready to go.” I was told a similar tale by the credible Jensen Harris, who helped design Windows 8.

But the issue here isn’t a matter of release dates, it’s a matter of common sense. When you hear that Apple, which had already released the iPhone and iPod touch by 2009, was going make a tablet version of these devices, you arrive immediately at what Apple did release, the iPad. So it’s not like Microsoft decided that “touch is the future” independently. And as I hinted at earlier, a case can be made that Windows 8 might have been better if Microsoft simply had aped the iPad design a little more closely.

I think it’s relevant too that Apple has, to date, not tried to merge its iOS and OS X products into a single product line. Instead, Apple has evolved its Mac-based OS X to include features from iOS that make sense on that desktop/laptop-based system. It has described this work, which began in 2011, as a virtuous cycle, because iOS was originally based on OS X, but now iOS is influencing OS X too.

Microsoft, with much less success in mobile markets than Apple, felt it couldn’t afford to keep the two separate. And poor sales of devices based on its Windows Phone platform -- which followed nonexistent sales of its predecessor Zune devices -- pretty much explain why the new Metro mobile platform has been melded onto the desktop like an experiment gone wrong: Had Microsoft released this thing separately, no one would have purchased it. And although I’ve made the argument that Microsoft can and will update and mature Windows 8 pretty regularly for the next few years, this is an effort that can’t start soon enough. And it’s one that needs to involve the community of users who will actually implement and deploy this product.

That sounds obvious until you recall that the current team overseeing the development of Windows couldn’t care less what you think about the product. Windows 7 and Windows 8 were developed in abject isolation from the outside world, because Microsoft disbanded the beta testing teams that had previously offered feedback at a very early point in development. Here, Microsoft was cherry-picking from the Apple playbook -- creating products in secret -- while ignoring the most important parts of that company’s strategy, such as its emphasis on keeping its products aggressively simple and effective. Dictating from on high only works when you make something that everyone loves.

I want to believe that Larson-Green is a better manager than her predecessor. And a key way that she can prove that is to reach out to those whom Microsoft has wronged the most, its customers. Rather than impose its will on users, Microsoft should make a show of asking exactly what it is that people think is wrong with Windows 8 and then endeavor to fix the most common issues. My suspicion is that such a campaign would result in such things as the ability to boot to the desktop and run desktop applications side-by-side with Metro apps. The horrors.

Today, like Windows Vista before it, Windows 8 is starting to succumb to death by a thousand cuts. But it’s not too late, Microsoft, and your customers would love to help you design a product they want to buy. All you have to do is ask.

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