Microsoft is in trouble. Windows 8 adoption numbers are reportedly well behind those earned by Vista at a similar point in its roll out, leading some analysts to suggest that smartphones and tablets are threatening to trivialize the company’s status as a major player in the IT marketplace. Critics blame the company’s current woes to the lackluster performance of Windows 8, which they argue has not only failed to make Microsoft the dominant player it wants to be in the ever-growing mobile market, but has also proven itself a lackluster ally in the PC industry’s bid to reinvigorate its own flagging sales.
The problem isn’t in the engineering of the operating system. In spite all criticisms, Windows 8 is a superb piece of computer engineering: it’s faster than any of its predecessors, has superior multi-media performance and security features, and is better equipped to utilize the capabilities of new hardware. Certainly, too, the new UI — called Modern — has its advantages. The Start screen makes it easy to shop, access online social networks and phone services, and download and install Microsoft-approved apps on Windows 8 devices. All these are quite handy for users on the go. Beyond that, however, things get a little tricky.
A shift of focus
From the time Microsoft made the beta version of its operating system available to the public in February 2012, it was clear that the company had embarked on a bold shift of focus. One of the things that was immediately apparent was that the company had decided on a single basic operating system with a uniform set of application programming interfaces (APIs). This made perfect sense, of course. As one reviewer points out, both Apple and Linux moved to a single kernel years ago.
What puzzled many who tried the beta version of the new operating system, however, was Microsoft’s insistence on a single interface for all devices.
The desktop metaphor was all but gone, and in its place was a new UI with swinging slabs and touch-based controls designed primarily for the small screen of mobile devices. The emphasis on simplicity — made necessary by the physical limitations of smartphones — meant a drastic reduction in the information available on the screen. Desktop PC users with 27-inch monitors thus found themselves struggling with a UI designed for five-inch screens.
Perhaps even more jarring, easy multi-tasking, once the centerpiece of Windows operating systems, was no longer a primary concern. Menus were difficult to find, and users no longer had the ability to raise overlapping windows on a single screen at the same time.
Those who had hoped Microsoft would make revisions to the operating system prior to its commercial release in October last year were disappointed. In fact, even the option to restore the familiar Start button — which often served as an index on previous Windows operating systems — was discarded in the final version.
At first blush, it had seemed to more than a few observers that — with the release of Windows 8 — Microsoft was urging consumers to embrace the future. If so, then Microsoft’s decision-makers failed to follow through on what could have been a brave — perhaps even admirable — stance by ensuring that Windows 8 boasts a backward compatibility which in some instances stretches back 20 years. But that’s another story altogether.
Will Microsoft bounce back?
As it now stands, many will argue that Windows 8 isn’t the most ideal operating system for tasks related to work and productivity. The operating system can be fun to use, and it does offer mobile users an experience quite distinct from those offered by other operating systems. But Microsoft’s decision to give mobile and desktop users a uniform interface overlooks a fundamental fact about how people use their devices. We require a greater amount of readily available on-screen information from the machines we use for complex, knowledge-based tasks than can be fitted onto the screen of a mobile phone.
Whether or not the rumored revisions to Windows 8 will be enough to allow Microsoft to recover lost ground among business and desktop users remains to be seen. This early, there are those who say the countdown to the fall of the house that Gates built has begun. Such a sweeping assertion may be a bit premature at this stage. There are lessons to be learned from this — and if there is one thing that Microsoft has proven over the past 38 years, it is its ability to bounce back by learning from past mistakes.