Ever since Microsoft released Windows 8 there has been fierce debate over whether it is a good OS. Many complained about the “Metro” (or Modern) interface and of course the loss of the Start button (subsequently returned). Some have said that it is the new Vista which was of course a disaster for Microsoft, or New Coke which was an even bigger disaster for Coca Cola. Windows 8’s little brother Windows RT has been universally slated with a growing expectation that Microsoft will drop it. Then there has been the lack of Windows 8 Store Apps compared to platforms such as iOS and Android. Apparently the number of flashlight and flatulence apps in any given store is the key indicator of success in the mobile marketplace.
However I believe that these detractors are wrong and here’s why.
The legacy challenge that faced Microsoft
Apple is widely recognised as the creator of the modern touch based operating system with iOS. Google followed with Android which offered a similar but not as beautiful (although more productive) touch driven OS. However both of these companies had a major advantage over Microsoft. When Apple launched iOS it was on the iPhone and there was no legacy to worry about. There was no pre-iOS Apple phone and so they did not need to worry about customers wanting to run old applications on the new device.
When they launched the iPad they were selling to a new market that they had effectively created with the iPhone. That was customers willing to pay a significant price to have a device that was smaller, lighter and easier to use than a laptop, primarily for leisure activities. People who bought these devices wanted them for the simplicity of being able to sit on the train or in front of the TV and carry out simple tasks such as email, web surfing or tweeting. When they needed to use more productive applications they had their laptop or desktop. Android similarly competed for this market and unlike Apple never had an OS before and so also had no legacy applications to worry about.
Microsoft did have legacy applications to worry about, millions of them. Plus they did not have the Apple advantage of being able to sell devices to people simply because people wanted those devices. They lacked (or their OEM partners lacked) the Apple magic that made people want to spend £2k on a laptop and then another £600 on a tablet (plus data charges). Instead Microsoft had to sell to people who needed to use the many apps that they had been using on previous versions of Windows (such as Office). In many cases these customers were not going to buy multiple expensive devices. Somebody had to sell computers to the millions unable or unwilling to afford Apple’s high prices over the last 3 decades. That’s what Microsoft and its hardware partner have done and very successfully, it is also what they will need to continue doing.
Then there are businesses who have been married to the PC and Windows for the last 30 years. They are not going to rush out during the worst economic conditions for a century to buy every employee a new touch screen device. There will remain for some time scenarios where the desktop PC is the best tool for the job. Therefore Microsoft had no choice but to continue supporting existing Windows applications and that meant continuing the Windows desktop.
I hear many Windows 8 critics say that they would rather have Windows 7 but Windows 8 is Windows 7. In “desktop” mode which you can now choose to boot (start-up) to Windows 8 looks and works like Windows 7. If an application runs on Windows 7 then it will run on Windows 8. The only noticeable difference is that the (Lazarus like) Start button takes you to a much larger version of the programmes menu.
No avoiding that the future is touchable
There is no escaping that the future is going to be touch screens and that people do want highly portable touch devices. Therefore Microsoft had to offer a version of Windows that worked well in this scenario. Windows 7 simply did not and the applications built for it do not work well in a touch environment. On a 7inch screen or smaller these traditional applications are almost impossible to use. Just try browsing desktop websites on your mobile phone and you will see what I mean. Microsoft therefore created the Modern UI based on their Windows Phone experience.
In many ways Windows 8 is the best of both iOS and Android. The Modern UI provides a rigid visual framework to which apps conform similar to iOS but provides more flexibility and customisation than iOS, similar to but not as much as Android. Whereas iOS home screen is very uninformative Windows live tiles are very informative. Whereas I can heavily customise Android’s home screen with ugly widgets I can somewhat customise Windows but within their design guidelines. The Modern UI is both highly usable and productive, both customisable and consistent.
Unlike Apple they then merged the two. Both the traditional desktop Windows and the new touch optimised Windows into a single OS. A user could upgrade their old fashioned desktop PC and carry on using the applications that they had within a familiar Windows experience. Another user could sit on the train with their 10inch tablet and easily carry out tasks such web browsing, Skyping or watching a movie with the new Modern UI. A user with one of the new hybrid devices or a dock with which to connect their tablet to a monitor and keyboard would straddle both worlds with one single device.
I experienced this very early on as one of the few who were given a Samsung tablet at the Microsoft Build conference when Windows 8 was announced. With the Samsung I could dock it and use a keyboard, mouse and monitor to work within Office or applications such as Visual Studio. I could then remove it from the dock and Tweet from in front of the TV. The solution was elegant, productive and cost effective (one device to buy). As the price of devices comes down this latter point becomes all the more persuasive. The multiple user account functionality of Windows also means I do not need a separate device for each person in the house unlike iOS.
And so to the criticism that there are not enough Modern apps on Windows 8. This is indeed true as there are far more apps for iOS and Android however many of these most people would not want (and do not want from the download figures). Most of the popular apps are available but not all and that is an issue. However mobile devices such as tablets are not a fad but are here to stay. Individuals and businesses are not going to move away from Windows and the vast number of Windows applications that they rely on.
Therefore Windows will survive and it will need to work in a touch optimised world. The game is therefore long and the issue of app numbers will become less relevant as time goes by. To those that say Microsoft should drop the Modern part of Windows 8 I say that would be the biggest mistake that they could make. As we move forward there is a proliferation of form factors emerging: many sizes of phones and tablets; hybrid devices; wearables. Windows 8 is adaptable to many of these and we are seeing demand across the consumer and industry for such variety.
Beyond the discussion about the Modern UI Windows 8 also comes with a number of upgrades over its predecessor. Improvements have been made in areas such as security, performance (especially start-up time) and resource usage. For organisations still looking to make the transition away from Windows XP and considering Windows 7 due to its greater maturity these other areas of improvement should make Windows 8 a serious consideration.
For any such organisation it is important to consider the lifespan of the next OS upgrade. Windows XP is over 10 years old and if one commits to the next version for a similar period then consider the future challenges. During that time it is inevitable that the number of touch devices within the organisation will grow. In many cases this will be for good reasons such as wanting to enable new processes, practices and increase productivity. By committing to Windows 7 the ability to realise such benefit will be greatly diminished and give an advantage to competitors.
Mistakes were made and challenges remain
This is not to say that Windows 8 is perfect. The experience on a touch device is superior to that on non-touch hardware which most people have. In fact some of the touch gestures are awkward to recreate when using a mouse. Microsoft continue to make improvements in this area and so the issue is diminishing. Aside from the fewer apps in the Windows Store the apps that are there are frequently not as good as they could be. Even some of the big brand apps have not mastered the Windows 8 Store App experience. Microsoft have some responsibility here as their original UI guidelines made for some bad UX especially given the unfamiliarity of Windows 8 amongst users.
Microsoft have also failed to integrate the desktop UI and Modern UI through applications. For example the Start screen tile to launch Outlook on the desktop is unable to show live updates of email in the same way as the Modern mail app does. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency if we are to see a growth in Modern Line of Business applications.
Windows 8 strength is that it combines a touch optimised UI with the traditional desktop however this also means that hardware is heavier than pure touch OSes like iOS and Android. Battery life is equally shorter. Hence the reason that Microsoft gave us Windows RT, the true equivalent to iOS and Android. Unfortunately this is where the lack of apps hurts Microsoft the most as RT only runs Store Apps (Office being the awkward exception). The biggest problem though was the name, Windows RT.
If there is one piece of advice for the new CEO of Microsoft is that sometimes you have to take off the techie hat and imagine being the man in the street. To that guy or girl the name Windows RT means absolutely nothing. In no way does it convey what Windows RT is and more importantly what it is not. Windows RT has been far more of a product marketing disaster than a technical one. Not the first time that Microsoft has made this mistake but as they move into being a more consumer orientated company it needs to be the last.
Keep calm and carry on with Windows 8
I have read and heard a lot about Windows 8 and some of it is balanced and fair but some of it has been simply Microsoft bashing for the sake of it. Microsoft faced the largest challenge of all OS vendors with the move into a touch device world. With Windows 8 they created the best solution for bridging both the traditional and new worlds. Something that Google did not have to do and that Apple has not done. The first iteration was not perfect but that had to be expected and Microsoft are working to fix the issues. If you are still not convinced and want Windows 7 then just install Windows 8 and boot to desktop. According to rumour the next update will automatically do just that and so then what excuse is there?