Microsoft released Windows 8 in October 2012, with its key feature being a new tablet-friendly user interface and store-driven app model, though a slightly improved desktop lives alongside it.
It is not going well. Here is a user comment on Gizmodo that says a lot about the majority reaction to Windows 8:
Im still using a computer with win7 on it, so I had not had much experience with win8. That changed when I helped my girlfriend buy a new computer for her mom. In all honesty, we found the win8 interface a huge pain. It took forever to figure out how to use it, and in the end we did everything we could to get back to a normal non-tile setup. Heck, it takes like 3 menus just to get to the shut down screen! Its insane, and the overall experience for the 3 of us was negative (two of which are very experience computer users).
Spelling and grammar left as-is! Note a few features of this comment:
The business world is different, of course, and here things like Hyper-V virtualisation or Windows To Go secure deployment are more likely to be appreciated. People are not so different though, whether they are at work or at home, and given that most Windows users spend most of their time on the desktop (hard to avoid however much you like the "Modern UI") I've noticed similar reactions from business people trying out Windows 8.
That is, if they have tried it at all. Most businesses I encounter are sticking with Windows 7.
With PC sales in probably permanent decline, in favour of other computing form factors, is Windows now set to become a legacy workhorse operating system? Will it ever break through on tablets?
Microsoft's official position, as far as I can tell, is that everything is fine. Leaked builds of the next major update, known as Windows Blue, show only minor changes:
Of course there will be more to come; the recently announced Build conference in June is when we will find out more. The stage is set for Blue to be generally available by the end of the year.
I am guessing though that Microsoft does not intend to implement what many users would like, things like:
I do see Microsoft's thinking here. There is not much point in making a brand new platform, and then designing it so users can easily ignore it.
It is also true that if Windows 8 had simply been like Windows 7, but a bit better, that would have done nothing to stem its decline.
On the other hand, Microsoft's attitude to the problems people have with Windows 8 seems to me denial. More could be done to help desktop (that is, most) users get to grips with Windows 8. For example, I would like to see small visual clues to the presence of menus and "Charms" features (the right-hand menu which hides many settings, search and sharing features), an easier way to raise the Charms menu with the mouse, and a visible Start button on the desktop.
Windows 8 usability is fine if you make the effort to learn it, but making that effort is hard to justify when the world of modern apps is uninspiring. This is the second and most important area that must be improved, if the world is ever going to want versions of Windows beyond 7. There are few delightful apps, and a large part of the reason is that the built-in controls available to developers for building apps tend to be blocky in appearance, inefficient in use of screen space, and short on important features.
Miguel de Icaza, of Mono, Gnome and Xamarin (C# for mobile) fame, said on The Register that "the new Windows basically has no style. The style is DOS with large fonts." A little unfair, but he has a point.
We also need to see further unification of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. The phone side does have some momentum now, and the app story is better. Why not enable Phone apps to run on Windows 8, as iPhone apps do on the iPad, as well as making it easier for developers to target both phone and tablet with new projects?
Finally, it is time Microsoft came up with inspiring examples of Windows Store apps that really are a joy to use. There are a few good ones. I still like the weather app, and Fresh Paint is a good effort though sadly has not made me into an artist. More is needed though, and I am guessing that Microsoft's own developers have the same problems that third parties have faced in trying to code for the new platform.
Yes, Microsoft does need to fine-tune the Windows 8 user interface to make it more enjoyable for upgraders; but what is even more important is that Windows "Blue" needs to improve the Windows Runtime platform. That is the thing to watch for at the forthcoming Build.
Developer conferences are a great way to re-energise yourself and your work with new ideas, partly thanks to the content from the front, and partly because you get to engage with other developers. Technology changes constantly; but if I reflect on events I have attended I notice some common themes. Occasionally there are compelling technical insights - I think of the first time I heard Ryan Dahl describe the thinking behind Node.js, for example - but more often the most acclaimed talks are not about technology as such. Rather, they are about how we work together: communication, and simple truths about human nature.
This proved the case again at the Monki Gras recently, an unusual London event run by analysts Redmonk.
Craig Kersteins and Matt Thompson from Heroku asked a question: how often are you interrupted at work? Software development is partly about keeping a lot of information in your head so that you can see patterns and make connections, and avoid bugs by remembering exactly how the code you are working on fits into the application. Getting a summons to a meeting or a call from a colleague in the midst of that kind of concentration is costly. They even put a figure on it. 76% of the worst-performing engineers are frequently interrupted, they said.
How often is frequent? That was not stated; but they did suggest aiming for 4 hours of uninterrupted work each day. That still leaves plenty of time for meetings; and I have little doubt that 4 hours of good work counts for more than 8 hours of choppy work that leaves you feeling that you should not have bothered to turn up.
More human factors: Mazz Mosley and Nick Stenning from the UK Government Digital Service advised us not to recruit "rock star" developers who become a single point of failure, as everything stops if they become unavailable. A team with collective intelligence is better.
Ted Nyman from GitHub weighed into managers. They do not have any. I was reminded of a comment from Joyent's Bryan Cantrill at Monki Gras 2012: "it is very hard for middle management to add value".
Do I think that most companies remove all their managers? That is neither realistic nor likely to succeed. As another attendee observed, companies with managers generate a lot of revenue.
The point though is this: the way developers are managed impacts their productivity. That human factor matters more than whether they use Java or C#, or which tools they use.
I hear similar insights from the QCon conference in London each year. Coming up in March and recommended.
Shanley Kane from Basho spoke about honesty in software development. Roadmaps are a lie, she claims, because attempts to map features to a timeline will always fail. When roadmaps fail that erodes trust in the team. Interactive "what we're working on" documents work better, she said.
I will leave the last word to Cyndi Mitchell from Logscape and Thoughtworks, who remarked at Monki Gras that "Software is fundamentally a human, interactive activity. If you don't understand that, forget it."
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.
See how this all links together? First, you deliver on your commitments. As you deliver, you let people know that you have delivered. Not obnoxiously, but enough so you build a reputation for success. Now, you've built a reputation for delivery and success. You have earned your personal power. You keep doing that.
Now, you have power in the organization. You can start influencing people. You see what other people want, and you explain what you want. You listen. You explain. You look for short and long-term wins. You're not salesy, that doesn't work. But what does work is looking for an outcome that both of you can live with for the short and long term.
There's more for influence, but this works for verbal influence and was the topic of my keynote at the Better Software/Agile Development Practices conference. I posted my slides on slideshare.
You start from where you are. This is a building process. You are not going to get there overnight. But, you can be more powerful and more influential. Do try and let me know what you did.
Cloud computing, Infrastructure as a service (IaaS): nothing new about that. Yet the month of June saw two momentous announcements.
The first was from Microsoft, which announced the addition of IaaS to its Azure platform, along with a new management portal that may prove equally significant, for reasons I will give in a moment.
The second was from Google, at its IO 2012 conference, when it announced Google Compute Engine (GCE), which lets you launch Linux virtual machines (VMs) on Google's platform.
Google may be a new player in the IaaS market but you would also think that managing this stuff will come naturally to a company which has built its own search and cloud services on a massively scaleable cloud. Google also has a good track record in terms of reliability, when you look at its existing Google Apps services. It is not perfect; but then neither are others such as Amazon or Salesforce.com, both of which have occasional service interruptions.
In fact, one of the advantages of major new entrants into the market is the possibility of building fail-safe solutions across several cloud vendors, making it less likely that cloud downtime will cause severe loss of business.
What about Windows Azure? This one has made a big impression on me, partly because (unlike GCE) I have been able to try it out, as well as speaking to Microsoft Corporate VP Scott Guthrie about the new features.
He told me how, soon after he moved to work on Azure in 2011, his team sat down and tried using the service, encountering numerous problems ranging from sign-up difficulties to problems finding documentation.
Since then Microsoft has released not only a wide range of new features, including durable VMs alongside the existing stateless VMs, but also a new administration portal that is a pleasure to use.
Does that matter, when what really counts is the cloud technology, its performance and reliability?
I think it does. A good user experience changes behaviour. It is now so easy to log in and create a VM on Azure, that I will be using this myself when I need to spin up a server to test some software. Click Virtual Machine - From Gallery - pick an operating system - type a name and password, select a machine size, and it is done. A few minutes later you can log in with remote desktop and get working.
With a bit of effort, you can even connect Azure to your internal network.
If it is easy to get started, users are more likely to try it out and, all going well, start using the service in anger. My expectation is that Azure will see a lot more activity as a result.
It has taken too long, but Microsoft is now a real contender in cloud infrastructure.
With Google also coming into play, you may wonder if Amazon will finally feel some heat. I actually doubt that. It is a growing market, and Amazon is the leader by far.
It seems to me that it is more the other, smaller cloud hosters who should worry, as well as those in the on-premise server market. Increasingly, you will not only be testing your new solutions in the cloud, but deploying them there as well.
Why would a company take its core product and mess with it so that a significant proportion of its customers will almost inevitably dislike it? Welcome to Windows 8. Microsoft has taken its familiar operating system and bolted on a Tablet OS called variously Metro-style, or the Immersive UI, or from the developer perspective WinRT (Windows Runtime).
I have been working with Windows 8 since the launch of the Consumer Preview at the end of February, both on a slate device and on my usual desktop PC. It has not been a bad experience, but it has been distinctly odd, and at times distinctly annoying.
Putting two disconnected web browsers with different user interfaces in Windows 8 is a usability disaster, for example. I find myself losing tabs, or right-clicking to raise the tab selection UI forgetting that I am in the desktop browser.
Another problem is that the taskbar, reliable task-switcher since Windows 95, is broken in Windows 8, since it does not show which Metro apps are running.
Presuming you are not using a slate, the pragmatic solution is to avoid the Metro side and just use the desktop. This is difficult too though, partly because of the Start menu which is Metro-only, and partly because some utilities are now Metro. Sometimes these also exist in their old versions, at least in the Consumer Preview, leading to a surreptitious Metro-avoidance search.
Take the new Remote Desktop Client, for example. Raise the Start menu, type Remote, click Remote Desktop, and off you go. Then you discover that the settings are minimal and hard to find, and that when you do connect, it only runs full-screen (like all Metro-style apps). What if you do not want it full screen? Maybe the old one is buried here somewhere?
So you press Windows+R for the Run dialog and type mstsc, and up comes the old one. Thank goodness, pin to taskbar.
This is all very well, but if you run a corporate helpdesk the prospect of constantly advising users on how to avoid Metro or work around its limitations is unwelcome. Unless Microsoft can work some magic between now and launch, businesses will be patting each other on the back for sticking with Windows 7 for years to come, at least until Windows 9 arrives.
That will a shame, since there are also plenty of good things in Windows 8, even leaving aside Metro. Hyper-V virtualisation is one, Storage Spaces another (though probably of little relevance to businesses), networks connect faster, and performance feels snappier overall.
So what is Microsoft up to? The problem it faces is encapsulated by a conversation I had with someone who works in the City of London the other day. "I am getting an iPad," he said. "It is changing the way we do meetings."
Apparently it is now common for documents to be sent out as PDFs and viewed on an iPad. Somehow, the difference in usability, portability and battery life between a laptop and an iPad is enough to tip the balance from paper to electronic documents.
Microsoft fears this, because it sees that as iPads and other tablets improve, and the apps become more powerful, the moment will come when there is no need for a laptop at all.
Put another way, it is touch-controlled tablets that will be the growth area in personal computing, not the usual cycle of Windows upgrades.
This is why Microsoft cares more about the tablet experience in Windows 8 than about the desktop experience. In particular, the Windows on ARM devices, which should be equally as lightweight and power-efficient as an iPad, will in theory be a compelling option for City users who want an e-reader for meetings. They get real Excel and Word as well as all the usual Tablet benefits.
That is the theory, though after using Windows 8 on a tablet at a conference last week I have concerns there as well. The snag is that it is even harder to avoid the desktop when in Metro, than it is to avoid Metro when in the desktop. Windows 8 has a much better on-screen keyboard than Windows 7, but all the fundamental usability issues of touch-control in Windows remain in the Windows 8 desktop.
The fix will be more and better Metro apps, but by the time Microsoft has it right, how far behind Apple and Android will it have fallen in this market?
I am reserving judgement, because despite the annoyances, Metro-style Windows does work well on a tablet, and I do value having a combination device that runs everything. Microsoft is apparently re-working Office for Windows 8, even though it remains a desktop application, and this combined with improved Metro apps should considerably improve the tablet experience.
The controversial Start menu becomes one of the best features when you are working with touch, and apps are easier to find and launch than on iPad or Android.
It is not all bad then; but there are plenty of reasons for caution when it comes to Windows 8 in business. Perhaps the real significance of Windows 8 is not so much Metro, Windows on ARM, and the debate about how well they will do, but rather the underlying trend which has caused Windows 8 to be what it is: the unexpectedly rapid ascent of tablet (and by implication, cloud) computing thanks to Apple's iPad.