Microsoft launched Windows 8 late last month, to a storm of controversy and uncertain initial sales. What is going on with Windows and should you care about Windows 8?
The controversy comes as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Windows 8 is two operating systems in one.
On the desktop side it is a slightly upgraded Windows 7: slightly faster and quicker to boot, revamped File Explorer, better Copy function, improved Task Manager, Hyper-V virtualisation, and a few other things, though a little less pretty thanks to the removal of the transparent Aero theme in favour of a plainer appearance.
These are nice improvements, but the real innovation is in the new Windows Runtime platform, in which apps are sandboxed, support touch control, run full screen, and are easily installed from the Windows Store or by distributing an application package, which is called sideloading. Sideloading is mainly restricted to developers or enterprise deployments.
Microsoft ensured that the tablet personality would not be ignored by replacing the Start menu with the Start screen, a new-style app. This also ensured that newcomers to Windows 8 would find it unfamiliar and difficult to navigate.
Another contentious issue is that Windows Runtimes apps - officially called Windows Store apps - look stupidly large and bold on large desktop displays and do not work at all across multiple monitors.
Underlying Windows 8, especially in the new tablet personality, is a design concept with a couple of notable features. One is "content before chrome", the idea that content rather than screen furniture should be foremost. This has led Microsoft to have many essential controls hidden by default; you have to right-click or swipe to see them. You can see the point, but unfortunately this is bad for learnability.
Another is a grid layout, giving rise to the tiled appearance which characterises Windows 8. It is neat and logical, but constantly looking at boxes can be wearisome.
That is the preamble. What is the business impact of Windows 8? Here are a few observations.
One is that the learnability issues in Windows 8 are sufficient to deter upgrades, both in the consumer and business market, even though it is an improvement on Windows 7 once learned. Bearing in mind that the desktop improvements are relatively minor, most IT administrators will conclude that Windows 8 is not worth the hassle.
Therefore, we can expect only a slow uptake by businesses.
Against that, Windows 8 does work much better than Windows 7 on a tablet without keyboard and mouse. What if you have a project which is suited to tablet deployment, or users who simply prefer to use a tablet, does Windows 8 make sense then?
In many ways it does, with easy app deployment and a touch-friendly user interface - provided you stay away from the desktop side. However, it is up against Apple iPad and Google Android which are more mature as tablets, and already well understood by users.
The availability of Office and compatibility, in the case of the x86 version of Windows 8, with existing applications may swing it for Windows 8 in some instances, though since existing applications are generally not designed for touch control that compatibility is less useful than it first appears, if what you want is a tablet.
Windows 8 strikes me as a decent version 1.0 of a new tablet platform, though with some of the weaknesses that you associate with a 1.0 platform. The modern-style Mail app is poor, for example, which is surprising given how critical it is.
Considered as a tablet OS, Windows 8 is already usable and has plenty of potential; but the hard question is whether Microsoft is able to establish a third tablet platform at this stage in the game. The company has the money and the resources, but has struggles to engage its developer community, OEM partners or retailers to fully understand and support Windows 8. In this context, the unexpected departure of the key executive driving the platform at Microsoft, Steven Sinofsky, looks like a disaster.
Microsoft's biggest problem may seem nebulous, but it is real. The Windows brand is strongly associated with desktop, keyboard and mouse; the name also brings to mind unwelcome associations like forced reboots, virus warnings and troublesome setups. The new Windows 8 tablet platform is designed to escape that legacy; but changing public perception is not easy. In addition, it has to support its legacy since much of the world's business runs upon it.
The task of making Windows a successful tablet platform may be as hard for Microsoft as for Polaroid or Kodak trying to make the transition from film to digital; and those stories do not end well.
This translates to a whole lot of uncertainty, which is not what businesses want to hear.
Personally I like Windows 8, but its success and in particular the success of its tablet aspect is by no means assured.
That brings me back to the current state of play. Windows 8 is out, and it is controversial. Where is the Start menu? Why are there so few decent apps?
Since these issues were well flagged in advance, you would think that Microsoft was prepared for them, and ready to suffer some difficult quarters while building up the app ecosystem, working with its partners to help them with the transition, and energetically preparing service pack 1 with performance and usability fixes.
The alternative scenario is that Microsoft allowed itself to believe that the world would be instantly won over and when disappointed will respond with a lurch in another direction which would be fatal.
It is all fascinating to watch, but from a business perspective the right word is caution.
Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Adopt or Abort/Retry/Fail: what is the business impact of Windows 8?.
TrackBack URL for this entry: