Windows 8: Big Changes, Big Gamble

Monday Jan 30th 2012 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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A tech pundit opines that Microsoft's decision to adapt its desktop OS to the mobile world raises a question about Windows 8.

Ever been in one of those situations where you're doing or thinking something and then the perfect song comes up on the radio or jukebox that sums up exactly how you feel about the situation?

A few weeks ago I was sitting at my desk using Windows 8, which I've done pretty much daily since Microsoft made a developer preview of the new OS available for public download. At the same time It's The End of the World as We Know It by REM started playing out of my speakers due to a random shuffle playback in iTunes.

At the time I didn't think anything of it, but it must have stuck in my head because the more I use Microsoft's latest OS, and the more I learned of the Redmond giant's plans for the platform, the more I've become convinced that Windows 8 will be the end of the Windows platform as we know it.

OK, I'll be straight with you, I don't have access to a crystal ball (not a working one at any rate) and I haven't dug up Nostradamus, bought him back to life with some extra strong smelling salts and interrogated him.

So what information am I calling on in order to make this bold prediction? Well, to be honest with you, it isn't one thing, but a whole host of different aspects about the new platform.

Desktop vs. Mobile Interface

Let's start with that touch interface. Microsoft has been caught with its pants down by the sudden and quite unexpected popularity of tablets. Apple's iOS-powered iPad and Google's Android platform have broken into a market that Microsoft has been trying to make mainstream for over a decade.

Yes, Windows-powered tablets have been available since the turn of the millennium. Problem is, no one ever really felt that enthusiastic about them, so they pretty much withered and died on the vine. But now that tablets are hot stuff, Microsoft needs a platform in order to be able to continue to compete.

The logical solution for Microsoft would have been to take its current mobile platform – Windows Phone – and modify it for tablet use like Apple and Google did with iOS and Android respectively. It makes sense because Windows Phone was both designed from the ground up for both touch use and small screens.

But Microsoft isn't doing this. Instead of expanding its mobile platform to a bigger screen, Microsoft wants to take its dominant desktop operating system and make it work on smaller screens. And to do this it needs to heavily modify it so that it can be driven by both mouse/keyboard and the far less precise finger.

(By the way, why did Microsoft choose not to modify the Windows Phone platform for use on tablets? My betting is that the main motivation is money – Microsoft makes more per Windows license than it done per Windows Phone license. So it doesn't want a tablet surge eroding its bottom line.)

Microsoft’s decision to make its desktop OS work on smaller screens doesn't make sense to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Windows is a platform that's primarily used on desktops and notebooks.

Apart from the overwhelming success of the iPad, and modest success of Android tablets, there's no real evidence that there's a demand for Windows-powered tablets. In fact, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. Windows-powered tablets have been available for over a decade and no one seems to know that they exist outside of geeks and a small number of enterprise users.

Yet despite this, Microsoft is going to make every Windows users, irrespective of what device they’re using, have to suffer a user interface designed for tablets. This sounds like a massive gamble to me, especially in light of how users shunned the Vista OS for pretty much no reason.

Users are fickle, and aren't interested in having gimmicks shoved down their throats. For folks with hardware that isn't touch-capable, that Metro user interface that's been designed for fingers rather than a cursor is going to be nothing more than a gimmick.

Purchasing Touch-Enabled Hardware

But won't Windows 8 encourage PC buyers to purchase touch-enabled hardware, which will fuel touch desktop computing? I'm not convinced.

Buyers – consumer and business alike – are price sensitive, and touch adds a significant bump to the price tag without really adding much in terms of usability. (Sitting in front of a display and prodding it with your fingers isn't really all that intuitive…if you don't believe me, try it at home).

Now, having read this far, you might be thinking that I don't think that Microsoft needs to modify Windows to make it ready for touch. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Windows as we know it is an awful platform when it comes to touch, containing far too many tiny user interface elements and requiring far too much precise fiddling. Compare the size (and precision) of your on-screen cursor compared to your finger. Now imagine using something with the precision of finger to carry out tasks such as file management or computer management. Good luck with that.

But modifying Windows itself isn't enough because people use more stuff that just Windows on their PCs. All software installed will need to be touch-capable if people are going to be able to do everything using touch. And it's not just installed software that needs to be customized for touch, but everything users are exposed to – from web pages to Flash applications to driver installers.

Everything will need to be touch-ready, or users will be jarred into having to resort to keyboard and mouse.

The Legacy Support Issue

I see another problem with Microsoft's Windows on tablets strategy, and it's this. One of the main reasons that people stick with Windows (rather than switch to another platform, such as Mac OS X or Linux) is that Windows offers excellent legacy support.

This means that you can take your brand new computer running a brand new version of Windows, and chances are good that your hardware and software will work on your new system. But when it comes to Windows-powered tablets this won't be the case. Microsoft wants these tablets to be powered by ARM hardware as opposed to the x86 architecture, because ARM is far more power efficient and more suited to mobile devices powered by batteries.

But this power efficiency comes at a cost – the software that you run on your regular Windows system won't work on ARM hardware. Same goes for hardware drivers. That means that all legacy support is gone right from the start.

You'll have a tablet running Windows, but it is Windows is name only. The only software and hardware you're going to get running on it is stuff specifically designed for ARM. Anything else and you're plain outta luck.

Calling the tablet OS 'Windows' creates an expectation among buyers that they will get the full Windows experience, something that could be the undoing of Windows 8. Compare this to how Apple managed user expectation when the iPhone was released. If the platform had been called 'Mac' instead of iPhone OS (only later it was called iOS), then users would have had all sorts of unrealistic expectations for the platform. Expectations that might have killed it before it ever had a chance to really take off.

All this begs the question ... why would you want a Windows tablet if the operating system doesn't offer the full Windows experience? For the life of me I can't answer that question. And to the best of my knowledge and research, no one at Microsoft has answered it either.

App Shortage?

But wait, I'm not done. It also seems that Microsoft will limit ARM tablets to software from its own personal app store, much like Apple does for iDevices. But it's highly unlikely that there will be much in the way of a software ecosystem to support the platform.

At launch of hardware, I don't expect there to be more than a few dozen apps available for the platform, and most of those will be Microsoft apps. That's not really going to inspire people to buy tablets. And if tablet sales are weak, developer interest will also be subdued, which results in a vicious death spiral.

So let's recap. Microsoft is heavily modifying its desktop operating system to make it better suited to being used on touch-enabled devices, but there's no proven market for Windows-powered touch devices. What's more, the majority of devices that Windows 8 will end up being installed on won't be touch-enabled. Add to that the fact that tablets running the ARM architecture won't benefit from any of the legacy support that makes Windows what it is. Oh, and the platform is likely to suffer from a very limited supporting software ecosystem.

Does all that make Windows 8 seem like a winning platform to you?

Upside of Windows 8

So am I predicting the death of Windows? Believe it or not, no. While I think that the heavy touch focus present in Windows 8 is a mistake because it's too much, too soon, it won't kill Windows.

If the Vista mess couldn’t kill Windows, nothing can. And just like Microsoft learned from its Vista mistakes and came out with the much-loved Windows 7, Microsoft will learn from user feedback with Windows 8 and that will make Windows 9 a far better platform.

My guess is that unless Microsoft comes to its senses with Windows 8 and makes the classic desktop available to those who want (or need it), it will be back in one form or other in the next version of Windows. And that the ARM and x86 versions of Windows will receive a branding upgrade so that consumers understand the difference between the two.

(And no, I don't think that the x86 architecture will be dead by the time Windows 9 is out. Look at how long the transition to 64-bit has taken or how long it took to bury 16-bit applications).

I can see some cool features in Windows 8 (I like the repair and refresh features, and I'm certain that the enterprise will love the new ReFS file system with its heavy emphasis on data integrity and reliability). But I think that everyone could happily pass on Windows 8 (especially if they're running Windows 7) and wait for what Windows 9 will bring.

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