Windows 8 The Operating System No One Wants? (Part 2)

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It's impossible to use Windows 8 and not feel the influence of tablets on its design. Perhaps that's understandable. A few months following the release of Windows 7, something unexpected happened to the computing industry. It was called the iPad, and it did what nettops, netbooks and even smartphones had failed to do: it altered the computing industry on a fundamental level.

Suddenly, people didn't want to spend their money on a desktop system. They wanted a portable, though admittedly less powerful one. Full-size operating systems and applications gave way to mobile versions and their low-price, portable apps. Keyboards and mice were replaced with touch-screens. Microsoft, which had never managed to conquer the portable world in the first place, was left looking less like a second-stringer and more like a dinosaur.

It's impossible to use Windows 8 and not feel the influence of tablets on its design

There's no denying that Windows 7 was great at what it was designed to do - desktop computing - but its natural interface features were nascent at best. Between iOS and Android, everyone was getting excited over tablet operating systems on mobile devices, and Microsoft didn't have an answer for them. A few Windows 7-based tablets were created, but it was about as successful as jamming a square peg into a round hole traditionally is. Windows 7 had high resource requirements and an interface intended to be used with a mouse and keyboard. It was never going to succeed on tablets.

Indeed, this might even be why Windows 8 was released so quickly. It's certainly why it was redesigned so heavily. As we alluded earlier in this piece, Windows 8 wasn't aimed at desktop users, but at tablet users.

From the moment we first saw Windows 8's Metro Start screen, with its large, tactile animated tiles and sliding screens, it was quite clear that this version of the OS was aimed squarely (no pun intended) at the growing and increasingly trendy tablet market.

Windows 8's Metro

Windows 8's Metro

Having seen the way the wind was blowing mobile computing getting more and more prominent while interest in desktop and even notebook systems beginning to wane - Microsoft decided it didn't want to be left behind. In effect, it spotted a better-looking basket and decided its eggs would probably look better in it.

You don't need us to tell you that results were far from the success Microsoft was hoping for. Despite an aggressive marketing campaign mainly comprised of smug TV adverts, the Microsoft Surface tablets barely cut a sliver off the overall market. Almost 50% of all new tablets run iOS, a further 45% run Android, and the remaining sales are shared between Windows and other operating systems. Corporate synergy with Windows Phone 8 has failed to pay off, because no one actually uses Windows Phone 8: fewer than 5% of all phones worldwide, compared with over 70% using Android and 20% using iOS.

Instead of capturing the lucrative tablet market, Window 8's shift to a more mobile-centric ethos has had a devastating effect on its ability to interest desktop users. After all, why buy an operating system so clearly designed for use with a touch-screen if you don't have a touch-screen?

This reveals a bigger problem with Windows 8: that on a fundamental level, it has been constructed based on the mistaken assumption that people want one interface on their phone, tablet and desktop PC. In attempting to unify all three classes of device, the platform has proven unable to optimally serve any and desktop has taken the biggest hit as a result.

This isn't a problem unique to Microsoft. Apple has similarly wrestled with how to integrate its mobile and desktop experiences. But Microsoft tried to force the unification before the market was ready for it, hoping to get an edge over the competition. A brave, though ultimately misguided goal.

The updates contained in Windows Blue are unlikely to address this in any meaningful way, however. Short of splitting up the tablet and desktop experiences entirely, there's no way to optimize Windows 8 for either experience without damaging the other. The cosmetic changes should help to convince desktop users to come back into the fold, but we wouldn't be surprised if the interest in Windows 8 as a desktop OS remains stunted long into the future. Unless the Surface tablet gets an unlikely boost (and there are suggestions that Windows Blue will add support for a 7-inch tablet, which would certainly help), it'll leave Microsoft with two underperforming strands.


Here's the thing about upgrades: they're supposed to be improvements. When you buy a new piece of software or hardware, you want it to be better than the piece you left behind. In some ways, this is the case with Windows 8: systemic improvements allow it to boot and shut down faster than Windows 7, and certainly it has a lot of new features that will notionally justify the expense and inconvenience of installing a new operating system.

However, Windows 8 also has a quality that arguably eclipses those improvements. Tests done by dozens of enthusiasts consistently show that Windows 8 makes specialist hardware perform more slowly and less efficiently than Windows 7. Everything from 3D graphics performance to high-demand processor usage was shown to be slightly worse in Windows 8 than in its predecessor. For gamers especially, it's an upgrade that isn't an upgrade.

However, Windows 8 also has a quality that arguably eclipses those improvements

The problem for Microsoft is that gamers are the leading edge of desktop computing. You can't get the best 3D graphics on a tablet's screen, and you can't get Core i7 speeds out of an ARM CPU. A performance increase of even the tiniest percentage would have had gamers everywhere encouraging their peers to upgrade to Windows 8. Instead, the opposite is true, and the recommendations are that people stick with Windows 7 if they want to get the best out of their hardware. Not something Windows 8 should necessarily have to deal with.

So as if Windows 8 didn't have enough to contend with, it also had computing trend-setters pointing out that it was, if anything, going to slow your hardware down. Not in all aspects, admittedly - Windows 8's multimedia performance is conclusively better than Windows 7's - but people who care about multimedia performance aren't the voice of desktop evangelism in the way gaming enthusiasts can be.

It's unclear where these problems are coming from, and until gamers get their hands on Windows Blue, there's no way to know whether its resource management has improved. For Microsoft's sake, let's hope it has.

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