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Windows 8.1 won't save Windows 8

Column It's still a pig with lipstick
Fri Oct 11 2013, 13:46

SOFTWARE HOUSE Microsoft's Windows 8 PC operating system tanked this past year, dragging down global PC hardware sales, and the firm's Windows 8.1 fixpack isn't likely going to recover from that market failure this year.

Initially dismissive of Apple's iPad but then panicked by its undeniable market success, Microsoft was in denial and dithered for years before finally reacting with all the agility and speed of a wounded mastodon. However, it was blind to the media consumer paradigm shift represented by the iPad and tried to force tablet punters to buy into its Windows cash cow.

In making that design choice, Microsoft not only ignored the market segmentation created by the iPad and competing touchscreen tablets, it failed to recognise that tablets are aimed at and bought by people who primarily use them to consume internet content and media, rather than create documents, spreadsheets and presentations, which was Windows' strength and made it easy for many ordinary people to use.

Thus, Microsoft developed and released a regurgitation of Windows 7 in Windows 8 that was both insulting to longtime Windows users, because it broke the operating systems's most basic user interface metaphors and means of interaction, and unattractive to tablet users due to its awkwardness, as shown by the $900m hit the firm took on its Surface RT tablet. Tweaking Windows 8 here and there with Windows 8.1 won't fix those basic blunders.

Even if you forgive Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's mismanagement of the firm for 10 years, he presided over the overarching design of the unmitigated disaster that was Windows 8.

Ballmer apparently insisted that Windows 8 should try to force both tablet and PC users into using the same user interface, despite the fact that their usage modes are completely different. PC users are accustomed to using a mouse and a keyboard, but not raising their hands to use their fingers on a touchscreen, while tablet users are the exact opposite. PC users can use productivity applications, whereas most tablet users just point and view.

That works if all you want to do is select an icon, but it doesn't operate like a mouse pointer, which allows one to set the cursor position precisely. It's also possible to use a mouse comfortably for hours on end, while stabbing a finger at a touchscreen inevitably soon leads to 'gorilla arm'. Ignoring those two facts in designing Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT doomed both of them, as well as touchscreen Windows PCs and Microsoft's failed Surface tablets.

Microsoft only compounded its mistake by carrying the blocky 'metro' theme over to the PC desktop and doing away with the familiar Start Menu of applications that Windows users were used to using. There was no good reason for doing this and it alienated many users.

I suspect that Microsoft's Windows 8 development executive Steven Sinofsky might have pointed these things out internally, only to be ignored by Steve Ballmer in his obsession with adapting Windows to tablets and his willingness to trash its familiar user interface to do so. That Sinofsky left Microsoft shortly after Windows 8 was released suggests that he might not have agreed with some of the design decisions.

Windows 8 was a new operating system without any compelling reason to build it or adopt it except its fundamental user interface redesign for use on tablets, in my opinion. PC users saw no advantage to buying it, and the market soundly rejected both it and Microsoft's Surface tablets. There's still no reason for Windows 8 except Surface, and no reason to buy it.

Even though it brings back the familiar Start button and lets users choose to boot to the desktop again, Windows 8.1 won't be able to turn around the market's perception that Windows 8 isn't worth buying. Instead, we could see Microsoft's historical stranglehold on the PC operating system market start to slip, as alternatives like Linux, Google's Chrome and Android, and others start to gain some traction.

If so, that development will be very welcome indeed. µ


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