When Eight Isn't Enough: Microsoft's Future Hangs In The Balance
Author: #1 This is a repost from my blog, and my first tech article, so go easy on me! Just thought I'd share.
#2 I know that there will probably be many who disagree with me or the content of this post. That's fine, but please don't flame me; let's have a nice, reasonable discussion.
#3 This was originally written for people with less tech knowledge, so it's a bit on the long side.
#4 To quote Mr. Dieter Bohn, I love you all.
"Windows 8 represents a re-imagining of Windows from the chipset to the experience."
In a few months time, Microsoft is expected to release its final version of Windows 8, also known as the RTM (Release to Manufacturing) version to the public for sale. This newest update to the Windows operating system as it brings some of the biggest changes to the operating system ever since Windows 95. It bring an all-new, touch-optimised UI design and, more importantly, Microsoft's vision to unite devices that, up to now, had overlapped but remained distinctly separate: the desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone, among others.
This is, clearly, no mean feat, and if Microsoft manages to pull it off, it would bring to life the dreams that many tech pundits (and even ordinary folks) had so fervently clung on to.
The bad news is: They probably won't. At least, not yet.
Zune, 2nd generation
They say it started here.
This is the second-generation Zune media player. You may not have heard of it, but it was part of an ongoing effort from Microsoft to produce a credible alternative to Apple's iPod Touch. Reviewers were impressed by the LCD screen, great audio quality, FM radio, and most notably - the user interface. With clear, oversized Segoe typography and a visually pleasing layout, it made many-a-netizen take a wistful second look every time it came up on one of the "Best MP3 Players/Media Players" lists.
However, it had its faults, such as limited video support and being limited to Windows PCs only, ensuring that it never managed to make a true foothold in the market. Because of its lack of success, the Zune slowly faded back into obscurity, and in October 2011 Microsoft discontinued the line of Zune media players. But the UI design had inspired and was loved by many, so it stayed on...... in Windows Phone.
The year is 2006. Smartphones were a minority, but their numbers were growing. If you were in the market for one, you basically had three choices of operating system: Blackberry, Symbian and Windows Mobile. All three were slow, clunky and less than intuitive, but it was the best that the world had at the time.
From left: Samsung SGH-i450 with Symbian S60, Blackberry Pearl 8100, HTC TyTN with Win. Mobile
A few years before that, work had begun on a replacement to Windows Mobile. Codenamed 'Photon', it was to provide a much-needed revamp to the seven-year-old operating system. However, work was slow, and coupled with a lack of urgency or need to better competitors who displayed an equal lack of interest in doing big updates, the effort was eventually shelved.
The following year, the iPhone was released. And in 2008, Android left beta and entered the market on the HTC Dream/T-Mobile G1. Fast forward even more to the beginning of 2010, and the former leaders of the smartphone operating system wars were in tatters. Blackberry sales were falling day by day, Symbian was like a fish dragged out of the water, and Windows Mobile barely existed.
Behind the scenes, Microsoft had reorganized the Windows Mobile team and were pushing hard to develop its successor. Faced with the lack of time and deteriorating market share and mind share, the team made the difficult decision to create an all-new system with no ties whatsoever to its predecessor. This meant breaking application compatibility, starting with zero all over again. It also meant being able to go in with totally new design guidelines.
And what better design to use than the one from the Zune?
"Microsoft and its partners are delivering a different kind of mobile phone and experience — one that makes everyday tasks faster by getting more done in fewer steps and providing timely information in a ‘glance and go’ format."
Indeed, Windows Phone 7, or WP7 for short, captured the attention of the tech crowd when it was announced at the Mobile World Congress, Barcelona in February 2010. Taking center stage was 'Metro', the name given to Microsoft's new design language. Essentially a continuation of the Zune design, it featured 'live tiles', which were blocks of text and images that populated the homescreen and could update in real-time, along with other Zune UI traits such as large, overflowing text. In a world of app icons, it was a unique and refreshing take on mobile system design, and people were excited by it.
Somehow, though, like the Zune before it, Windows Phone never really caught on. In the first quarter of 2012, it had tumbled to a market share of 1.9%. And that figure is combined with Windows Mobile market share, which, remember, has no compatibility with Windows Phone. Even aggressive marketing by its main partner Nokia, with the latter's line of Lumia phones didn't really help things.
But Microsoft didn't seem to mind too much. They had a vision - a world where phone, tablet, laptop and desktop would unite, and shared a single operating system. They were determined to make it work, and they put everything they had into their "next big thing".
They call it Windows 8.
Metro, to Microsoft, was the future. And many reviewers agreed; with touchscreens becoming the norm, the Metro UI was one of the most fluid and easiest to use. But Microsoft made operating systems for non-touch hardware too - namely, almost all desktops and laptops. And for many people, a touch-centric operating system wasn't going to be optimal for their use.
This was, of course, quite the headache. Microsoft needed to step in the mobile market hard and fast; it'd missed the boat already, and needed to really work to catch up. With their firm belief in Metro, a Windows 8 with Metro UI, implemented on all systems (both touch and non-touch) seemed like a no-brainer. On the other hand, it was easier said than done - they were still selling hundreds of millions of Windows copies to "traditional" customers, ones that were on legacy hardware, and were unlikely to use a touchscreen PC any time soon.
Thus, Microsoft decided to take the hybrid route: It would offer both the traditional desktop interface and Metro on Windows 8.
As with all big stories, a small ball starts it rolling. This time, the ball in question is the small little "ball" many of us see and use every day: the 'Start' button.
The Developer Preview of Windows 8 came and was downloaded by thousands. It was a big change, with Metro popping up like an alien lifeform on a planet long undisturbed. Testers noted the placing of Metro as the default homescreen, while the traditional desktop was launched like an app - by clicking a tile marked 'desktop'. There were plenty of kinks and inconsistencies, but few complained too much; this was, in the end, merely an early version.
Then the Consumer Preview came out.
The exclusion of a start button was the first thing many testers noticed after downloading the Consumer Preview. Suddenly, one of the most essential parts of the Windows desktop had vanished, with Microsoft giving strong hints that not only would they not bring it back, but they would be actively obstructing any attempt to resurrect it, whether through hacks or mods. It was replaced with a 'hot corner', which could be activated when a user clicked the lower left corner of the desktop (all four corners have different uses assigned to them).
However, this was but only the tip of many bigger problems.
"If this all sounds a bit confusing in concept, that’s because it kind of is—there’s no obvious indication that the four corners of the screen do anything in particular, and the "hot" areas of the screen can be easy both to miss or to activate by accident." -Anandtech
Complaints started to surface on the web about the usability of Metro on the traditional desktop. Why do apps default to full screen? Why are there so many hidden UI elements, such as hot corners? Why are there overlapping applications, such as Internet Explorer (which has a different version for both Metro and the desktop)?
More importantly, why Metro?
"They have nothing in common...They're separate and yet you have to use both." -Brad Wardell, Stardock
Indeed, many long-term Windows users were perplexed to why Microsoft felt the need to mix two desktop environments in Windows 8. The majority argued that Metro should have been left to mobile devices, while keeping the old desktop for non-touchscreen hardware. Others contended that Microsoft could have gone with Metro on the desktop, but they would need to go "all-in", which was unlikely due to the need to support corporate environment, which was never friendly to big changes in UI.
So the question remains: why Metro?
The answer is ubiquity. Microsoft has been synonymous with the PC market for decades. Thus, it is no surprise that they would strive for the same market share in the next generation of computing, on mobile. By incorporating Metro in Windows 8, they would be able to
But welding together two disparate computing environments is a monumental task, and Windows 8 simply isn't up to the job. Applications are sometimes here, sometimes there; certain tasks can only be done in Metro, and vice-versa. It's a nightmare.
Microsoft may know this, or it may be oblivious. Either way, it's pushing ahead, and it may be because they believes that there's a way out. It's quite obvious that Microsoft is putting hopes of corporate adoption aside for the time being. Companies are wary of change, and Windows 8 is unlikely to see mass adoption in the corporate space like its predecessor, Windows 7. Microsoft will probably bank fully on consumers to raise Windows 8 popularity, and use it as a base for future versions.
And it's not a bad strategy. While many have voiced concerns about Metro on the desktop, few have had issues with Metro itself. The praise for UI from the past has still held true, and it had impressed many when demoed on tablets. Other improvements in Windows 8, such as Xbox Live integration and Hybrid Boot gives it a real chance at mass appeal.
But there are several factors that will hold Windows 8 back, chief among which are the usability issues mentioned above. While this doesn't directly affect its adoption on mobile devices, backlash from both experienced and novice users on traditional desktops will lead to consumers distancing themselves from buying Windows 8 phones and tablets. To them, the idea will be that "if they're the same thing, then they'll be equally as bad".
Granted, this still isn't a big enough factor to hold Window 8 back. It still has plenty going for it. Unfortunately, there is not one, but two other less well-documented reasons that will see its downfall.
The decision to port Windows 8 to ARM devices was not a surprising one. ARM Holdings is by far the biggest player in mobile computing, and are also excellent in power efficiency, perfect for mobile devices. However, this does mean that Windows 8 is now on two very different processing architectures, x86 - which is the most widely used in today's desktops and laptops - and ARM.
While this is a non-issue for Windows 8 itself - which, as we are told, will run perfectly fine on both platforms - on ARM, it does mean that one of the core features of Windows, backward compatibility, is no more. In other words, devices with Windows 8 running on the ARM architecture will not be able to use legacy apps designed for previous versions of Windows.
This can lead to serious customer confusion. One of the most-touted hardware forms by Microsoft is the 'convertible', devices that can function both as a tablet or a touchscreen laptop. They even came up with their own hardware, the Surface and Surface Pro, that ran on ARM and Intel platforms respectively.
But even that hardware demonstrates the problem Windows 8 will have. Other than slight size and weight differences, there isn't much that differentiates x86 and ARM hardware. While for techies, this doesn't matter, as most know of their various capabilities and limits, it's not as simple when it comes to the average customer.
Assuming those who buy these convertibles are people who are more productive-focused (or they would just go for a normal tablet), the difference between the two is night and day, as a lot of applications will not be updated and ported to work on both architectures yet. Explaining the differences to a customer with negligible tech knowledge will be an even bigger headache.
The biggest and least noted killer problem to Windows 8, however, lies with money. And it's one that will lead to all the above issues that have been mentioned.
Let's face it: A large share of the hardware coming out Windows 8 will not have touchscreens. Touchscreen devices are always priced at a premium, and premium devices will not be able to serve to mass market. Unfortunately, premium devices are the one best suited to run Windows 8 - while naysayers may still complain about Metro on the desktop, they'll be able to use the touchscreen to navigate Metro when it is the best option. On mass market devices, however, there will be no option; it'll still be the mouse or the touchpad for navigation. Prices of touchscreen devices will continue to drop, but it'll take some time until there is something for everybody.
A look at Computex Taipei 2012 confirms this. A slew of Windows 8-ready devices were announced, some of which had touchscreen devices, while others did not. Which in itself was bad enough, but worse was the fact that the devices with touchscreens came in two forms: convertible or Ultrabook, the latter being Intel's coined term for laptops that were thin-and-light, and had long battery life. These two forms of devices are far from cheap, with Ultrabooks regularly going beyond USD $1000.
As such, there will come a time in the not-so-distant-future where you have great devices for Windows 8 at the top end, but everything else below that not being optimal hardware for it. And with that, the much-feared usability issues arise, and it's back to square one.
The big question now is not whether the above issues will arise. They will arise. The real question is, will it matter enough?
In the end, Microsoft still has a monopoly over the PC market, and has a great, though not perfect, operating system for the mobile market. While more and more consumers are jumping straight to mobile devices nowadays and could thus choose to avoid Windows entirely (by using Android or iOS), the truth is that for a large number of people, the PC is still a necessary base and starting point. And while not all of them may like the Windows 8 that will most likely come preinstalled on their next desktop/laptop, they'll probably find favour with the integration between Windows 8 devices, and this may influence their decision in buying a phone or tablet.
Windows 8's success or failure hinges very much on what consumers care about. Will all the new features, integration and the bold new UI win their hearts, minds and pockets? Or will the problems that come from such a transition be too much to bear?
It's too early to tell. But late 2012 promises to be a really, really interesting time to watch.
First published at Suburban KID.