When we first saw Windows 8, we were impressed, but you had to wonder if Microsoft’s latest push to create a robust Windows ecosystem, where mobile and desktop devices live in harmony, was simply too late. Windows is still the dominant force in desktop computing, but that sector being eroded by mobile, it seems that Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to pay lip service to the mobile sector while making a case for the relevancy of PCs.
But one thing jarred me from the beginning: Windows 8 doesn’t have a start button! To me, the move feels like when someone cuts off all their hair during a rough patch, to say “Hey, look, it’s a new me!” Faced with a market that wants anything but the bulky desktops that made Windows such a force, Windows 8 is Microsoft’s Travis Bickle.
The strategy may not be working. Windows 8 sales are below projections, and it’s unclear if Microsoft is building any sort of groundswell with its Surface tablets and Windows Phone 8, despite relatively positive reviews for both. In either case, Steve Ballmer fired Windows division head Steven Sinofsky just 15 days after the Windows 8 launch. Firing a Microsoft exec isn’t going to directly boost Windows sales, but Sinofsky was notoriously strong-headed about making Windows 8 a huge departure from Windows past. Letting him go opens the doors for Microsoft to backtrack a bit, like bringing back the Start button, which is easily the most recognizable feature ever in Windows. As Byron Acohido wrote for USA Today:
Sinofsky persuaded Ballmer to replace the Start Menu with a hybrid touch screen, plus keyboard and mouse interface. He had his detractors. But Sinofsky successfully argued that it was crucial for the company to orient Windows PC users toward the look and feel of the all-new Windows 8 Surface touch tablet and the latest Windows Phone 8 smartphone models.
He might have won the internal debate. But convincing millions of home and workplace users of Windows that the switch was for their own good hasn’t gone well.
Software company Stardock has sold tens of thousands of copies of Start8, a $5 application that restores a fully functioning Windows 7 Start Menu interface to new Windows 8 PCs. Stardock has distributed tens of thousands more free trial versions, says Kris Kwilas, Stardock’s vice president of technology.
Sinofsky was very passionate about preparing Windows to compete with Apple, whose excellent integration between OS X and iOS is a large reason for its success and loyal user base. But in doing so it appears that he made a mistake worthy of Jason Biggs, ditching his loyal supporters in a search for the next hot thing.
Gaze upon the unfailing logic of the Start menu and be healed
Windows has dominated desktop computing because it’s dominated enterprise and entry-level computing, and along the way it’s held on to an enormous number of legacy users. According to Net Marketshare, Windows 7 makes up 45% of the market, while XP still makes up 41%, which is incredible for an OS that was first released in 2001. (It still has a couple years left of support.) And the fact that so many people are still using XP — and that few are using Vista — shows that there’s a ton of inertia in Microsoft’s massive user base.
That doesn’t change the fact that Microsoft absolutely needs to do a better job of uniting its consumer ecosystem, especially when the Xbox is such a powerful entity. And when PC manufacturers are still producing huge catalogs of confusingly-striated and overlapping products (while Apple still smartly only offers a couple choices per sector) to the point that Intel started the whole Ultrabook thing just to kick them in pants to start making modern laptops, Microsoft absolutely should look into making its own hardware.
But Sinofsky apparently saw those needs as a choice: Either stay stagnant, or drag all users kicking and screaming into the mobile-heavy future. I don’t think the choice is as stark as that. One way to look at it is that other companies have become so successful at mobile because they’d never have a chance in hell at taking Windows head on, which would suggest that Windows doesn’t need a huge revamp.
Businesses and enterprise users aren’t switching to Windows 8, and with reports like this one from Gartner telling businesses explicitly not to, they may not anytime soon. Microsoft can’t sit still as consumers move towards mobile and ultraportable, sleek laptops, but as we saw with Vista, the Zune, and countless other me-too Microsoft products, it’s going to be much harder to find success in a crowded market unless it leverages what it already does well. Spending the money to perfect Surface would make a lot more sense if they were selling by the thousands to big businesses and not simply trying to compete in an arena where Apple, Amazon, Samsung, and Google already have strong footholds.
Windows Phone 8 deserves praise for being a slick, well-developed, and ambitious. It’s a glimpse at what Windows can do with its incredible resources, and is definitely a refreshing alternative to iOS and Android, which at their heart have very similar interfaces. And Windows 8’s native touchscreen support is a leap in the right direction for Microsoft; as computers increasingly move towards using touch, having a full-powered operating system that has touch baked in is a step ahead of Apple.
But with people still hesitant to ditch Windows 7, Microsoft needs to make Windows 8 a little more friendly for those users averse to change. I’m surprised it doesn’t come natively with a “classic” mode, but I supposed that may be part of Sinofsky’s plan to force users to learn the new system (in his defense, it’s not that big of a barrier to entry). The fact that a third-party option is so popular is evidence enough that even change-loving early adopters miss the old Windows, and I’ll admit that the thought of losing the Start menu has kept me from looking into a full-time upgrade.
So, while it is important for Microsoft to try to catch up with the last few years of computing, it can’t ignore the fact that two fifths of the computer market is still on an operating system that’s two generations old. Getting those people — along with the Windows 7 users — to bump up to Windows 8 is key. At the very least, just bring the Start menu back.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.