Windows 8 The Operating System No One Wants? (Part 1)

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Expert looks at Windows 8. What went wrong and can it be fixed?

It's fair to say that after the disappointment and criticism heaped on Windows Vista, its successor, Windows 7, managed to be one of the most widely loved operating Microsoft operating systems ever. It fixed the problems of Vista, added some flashy new ideas of its own, and generally performed in as rock-solid and speedy a manner as any version of Windows has ever managed to.

So it was perhaps a surprise when, faced with unusual levels of goodwill and consumer satisfaction around Windows 7, Microsoft decided to do a radical overhaul of the interface and release Windows 8 so soon after.

The reason for this unexpectedly rapid cycle quickly became apparent when people finally got a look at the new Windows 8 operating system. The overhauled interface, code-named 'Metro', was vastly different from any other Windows release thus far, designed to exercise greater synergy with the interfaces of other devices such as Windows Phone and the Xbox 360, all of which have moved to a similar tile-based Metro interface.

Windows 8

However, this approach seems to have backfired. For a variety of reasons, Windows 8 hasn't managed to build on the success of Windows 7. Instead, it's managed to squander it. Windows 8's lifespan has been characterized by poor critical response and slow user uptake. In response to this, Microsoft recently confirmed the existence of something code-named 'Windows Blue', a service-pack-style update, which will make a number of changes to Windows 8, and may even renumber it to Windows 8.1 in a move

the Financial Times described as "one of the most prominent admissions of failure for a new mass-market consumer product since Coca-Cola's New Coke fiasco nearly 30 years ago." Hardly a cause for celebration.

The feeling that Windows 8 is a failure is backed up by statistics. Microsoft recently reported that it had reached 100 million licenses in the two quarters since its launch last year, but the numbers hide the more pertinent truth: almost 200 million new PCs were sold in the same period, and with Microsoft's 90% market share, that should mean a lot more than 100 million licenses. It shows that there are people actively declining a copy of the latest version of Windows, even though they essentially get it included in the price of the system.

A large chunk of those saying 'thanks, but no thanks' are in the enterprise sector. Enterprise (i.e. business) use represents half of the PC industry, but a recent TechRepublic poll reported that only 15% of IT professionals (of 4,000 asked) had deployed Windows 8, or even planned to deploy it. Such low numbers give the impression that Windows 8 isn't what companies want for their business, and that automatically alienates half of the potential customer-base.

But what's actually going on here? Is there something fundamentally wrong with Windows 8? Was it created in such a way that it was incapable of success? Or is it simply a matter of wrong place, wrong time? Perhaps more pertinently, does the Windows Blue update have the chance to make a difference?

In this article, we'll answer those questions and more as we consider whether Windows 8 is simply off to a slow start or whether it's destined to be remembered as the operating system no one wanted.

In this article, we'll answer those questions and more as we consider whether Windows 8 is simply off to a slow start or whether it's destined to be remembered as the operating system no one wanted


Of all the changes made to Windows 8, the most prominent and radical is in the removal of the Start menu. This piece of interface design had been entrenched in the operating system's very fabric since Windows 95 was released the better part of 20 years ago and had become as closely associated with Windows as the very windows themselves.

Despite occasionally becoming the butt of jokes ('The new Windows is very intuitive. To shut down your computer, first click 'Start'...'), the Start menu nonetheless managed to endure through multiple redesigns, each of which seemed intended to de-emphasize it and reduce the amount of time users spent there. By the time Windows 7 was released, it no longer had the word 'start' attached and served mainly as a launchpad for a dynamically updated list of frequently accessed applications. But the old menu was still there if you looked for it, and despite some flashy adornments and a greater amount of screen real-estate to play with, it more or less resembled the original: a small pop-up list of programs, features and documents.

But Windows 8 took the plunge and did away with it completely. Instead of the Start menu, Windows 8 has a 'Start screen' - an entity that grants access to programs and content of all kinds, but which uses large blocky 'tiles' instead of a much more simple list, and which fills the screen, obscuring all else, rather than appearing in one corner. In fact, the Start screen goes even further than filling one screen, instead stretching the information on the top level over several. Existing Windows users were, to put it charitably, flummoxed.

Further complicating the relationship between the new interface and old users is that the Start screen has become, quite literally, your first point of contact. It's the first thing you see when you boot into Windows, and it has to be manually bypassed to even see the desktop. Windows 8 wasn't even out of beta before people were releasing programs that could prevent it from appearing first. If that didn't set off warning bells for Microsoft, what could?

The problem with the new interface isn't just a lack of familiarity, although that undoubtedly plays a part. Instead, the problem is that the flow and focus of Windows has changed.

Your desktop is no longer the centerpiece around which the Windows experience is built; instead it has become secondary to the Start screen - something people don't know how to use and have no existing context for.

The problem with the new interface isn't just a lack of familiarity, although that undoubtedly plays a part. Instead, the problem is that the flow and focus of Windows has changed

Even the very design of the Start screen causes it to actively repel users, swapping precise and small movements with broader, larger ones unsuited to mouse input and more suited to another type of user (more on that later). Between an unfamiliar appearance (one emphasized in all the marketing), a less than ideal design and a poorly established role, it's no surprise that many users looked at Windows 8 and decided to stick with what they had. Meanwhile, in the all-important enterprise sector, IT chiefs felt that the cost of retraining employees to use a new, unfamiliar Windows interface was too high, the inconvenience too great, to make it worth doing.

If any proof were needed that the Metro Start screen has been a significant contributing factor to Windows 8's problems, rumors abound that the Windows Blue update will reinstate the traditional Start menu and allow users to boot straight into the desktop, effectively reversing Windows 8's biggest visual design changes. A climb-down, yes, but one which has the potential to instantly eliminate the biggest barrier to entry for users, whether home or corporate. Metro isn't going away, but it may yet be made easier to ignore.

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