Is Microsoft Breaking The Promise Of Windows 8?

Six months after the launch of Windows 8, the success of Microsoft's overhauled operating system remains a mystery. With PC sales down 14% last quarter and sales of Microsoft's Surface tablet insignificant, many have started to wonder whether the redesign of Windows 8 has turned out to be a flop.

Worse yet, Microsoft is potentially aiding in this increasingly negative perception of the company's flagship product. In recent weeks, there has been an onslaught of reports indicating the company is dialing back on the radical rethinking of its operating system. According to one report, Microsoft is considering booting the next version of Windows (8.1) right to the desktop; another report suggests the company plans to bring back the traditional Start button to its taskbar. Such design changes represent a reversal of the promise of Windows 8--a tile-based OS that was designed for mobile devices and touch-screen interactions, which was supposed to represent the new face of Windows, as the company transitioned away from antiquated menus and toolbars. The changes are especially disconcerting, given all Microsoft's top designers said was riding on the revolution.

Simply put, the promise of Windows 8 was to deliver a better user experience to customers. Completely refreshing the UI was a risky bet, but designers at Microsoft knew keeping the same tired interface, based on decades of legacy design, was an even greater risk considering Apple's and Google's strides in the mobile space. A grid of tiles replaced the traditional desktop on Windows 8; a "Metro" UI was introduced as an upgrade to the old filing and menu system. "You can’t just change stuff for change sake," Sam Moreau, the director of user experience for Windows, told me once. "We have this saying: Change is bad, unless it’s great."

So the team involved removed the Start button, one of the most recognizable fixtures of Microsoft's OS since Windows 95. The change ruffled the feathers of countless users, who counted on the button to navigate through the operating system and were confused by its absence. But, according to Moreau, the changes were worth the learning curve involved. "Taking away things wasn’t really the point of our design," Moreau said. "It wasn’t like we had this idea to get rid of it." Rather, as Windows 8 became a tile-based user interface, the "Start" icon became less relevant.

Moreau said then that the changes represented a "promise." If Microsoft couldn't commit to the changes completely, then it wouldn't work. "Otherwise, it’s just another thing that you’re not confident about how it will work," he said. "If I can’t make that promise universally, then I can’t have it do that job.... It’s true that people don’t like change. But we don’t do things frivolously. I don’t want someone to be frustrated or mad--that hurts my heart. But the goal is that you wouldn't want to take it away in the end. There's a little bit of learn-ability to it, but then you're like, 'I would never go back.'"

Unless Microsoft lets you by reintroducing the Start button--or does decide to bypass the tile menu and boot directly to the desktop. While critics are already crying failure, the larger issue here is that Windows 8 has always represented a loose promise, at best, an OS that was full of stopgaps. Certainly Windows 8's tiles were a refreshing approach--but always hiding underneath was the operating system's traditional desktop, file system and all. Though most of the UI was overhauled with Metro, a slew of programs still came without this styling, even on tablets. The new version of Microsoft Office, for example, felt like it was from the era of Windows XP, complete with cluttered context menus that were difficult to navigate via touch. And even Explorer, the company's browser, came with two versions installed: one pre-Metro and one post-Metro.

Adding the Start button back to Windows would be another example in a long line of half-measures. According to early reports, a reintroduced Start button wouldn't even function the traditional way. Instead of showing you a Start menu when the button is clicked, Windows would supposedly just kick you back to the tile interface, a user experience not likely to quiet dissatisfied users. It's another instance of Microsoft's unwillingness to fully commit to the redesign of Windows 8--or a full retreat back to the old design.

Of course, whenever any company introduces a radical redesign--whether Facebook, Gap, or Gawker--user revolts are inevitable. But having talked to a range of players involved during the redesign of Windows 8, I got the sense that the company had turned over a new leaf when it came to its commitment to the novel redesign. PJ Hough, the head of Microsoft's Office division, called it an innovation in the company's fortitude.

"It's easy to have a point of view that says we should change something," Hough told me last year. "The question is: When people start knocking on the door and asking for the old way back, how much do you believe you've done the right thing?"

He compared the redesign of Windows 8 to when the company introduced a controversial feature into Microsoft Office, called the "ribbon."

"When we moved from menus and toolbars to the ribbon, there were a lot of people crying out for classic mode or the option to go back," Hough said. "One of the reasons why we persisted with the ribbon was because ultimately we knew the user interface model of menus and toolbars was actually reaching its limits, and our ability to innovate in adding new features was getting caught in a trap--there was nowhere else to put them. You just can't keep piling on menu after menu and toolbar after toolbar."

Will the company maintain the same level of fortitude for Windows 8 as sales wane and users continue to complain? It's not looking likely.

[Image: Flickr user Steve Snodgrass]

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61 Comments

  • obviously

    "Rather, as Windows 8 became a tile-based user interface, the "Start" icon became less relevant."

    Says who? And under what authority?

    If you don't like the Start button don't use it, but for goodness sake, don't be so damn arrogant that you feel none of the rest of us should have the choice to use it.

    It's about choices, stupid.

  • JuanBeegAhs

    Well, it seems like MS thinks their customers are the stupid ones by putting that "Start Button" back in Windows 8.1 but linking that back to the tile interface still instead of a menu. That so-called Start Button functions exactly like clicking the mouse in the bottom left of the screen in Windows 8 without that button.

    This actually p*sses me off more than if they had not put the button back .

  • Liam Lopez

    i like the newest interface a little bit. but i hate the crashing windows was always involved with if they strengthen the os it would be better and make it customizable for the consumers it would be better. i would like to be able to change every single detail on it to my likeing not the developers

  • TheQuestian

    "Completely refreshing the UI was a risky bet, but designers at Microsoft
    knew keeping the same tired interface, based on decades of legacy
    design, was an even greater risk considering Apple's and Google's
    strides in the mobile space."

    I have two issues with this. First, doesn't Apple still have a desktop OS? Why is no one haranguing them about being obstinate, or dragging behind the times? iOS on a desktop would make no sense, and in much the same way, Windows Phone 8  on a desktop doesn't make sense. Having said that, I have installed Start8, and I do boot to the desktop, but I don't mind occasionally popping over to the tiles. I play games, I install a few fun apps that aren't available for desktop. But it's at best a supplement to my core experience. I don't want to have tiles and touch to deal with when I'm doing graphics work, or doing PC heavy-lifting.

    I personally believe that the doomsayers who have already dragged the mouse-and-menu-based OS to their Recycle Bin are jumping the gun. They may even be perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Laptops may be moving into desktop territory [due to their ability to "basically" act like a desktop], but tablets and smartphones are a bridge too far for content creators, in my opinion. I have a desktop, I'm planning on getting another one when this one is finished, and I see no reason, YET, not to continue do so and to recommend the same to my friends who ask.

  • deeshore

    Personally I don't care for the tiles or apps in a laptop or all-in-one desktop. I don't understand what was so horrible about Windows 7 that they had to redesign it. If there is a way to completely remove the tiles menu, could someone please tell me? I don't use them. They not only kill the battery life, they serve no purpose because I can do things faster on a regular browser. 

  • vbl

    I'm just not a huge fan of the Metro app thingy.  To me, Windows is just that, the ability to have several windows up.  I can have a spreadsheet open while cross referencing it with another document.  I can have a media player up and take notes on Word.  I can have a stock chart up on my browser and a calculator running too... etc.

    One of the drawbacks of tablets is you can only have one app up front, or even running at all.  Why port a drawback into a PC/Laptop?

    I have no issue with a touch enabled interface, if you'd let me run multiple windows and drag them around the desktop.

  • johnsmith9875

    Disable the tiles interface and it works kinda like Windows 7.   Server 2012 does this as Microsoft figured that Network Administrators would riot if they had to deal with the horrible tile interface.

  • Phillip Luebke

    Based on the lengthy survey I received as part of the Windows Feedback Program, it does appear that Microsoft is seriously considering back pedaling on this one.

  • Caledonian_Comment

    Nothing wrong with Windows 8. I've got it on desktop PC, touchscreen laptop and phone and it's great to use. It's fast and intuitive if you're prepared to take 30 minutes out to get in to it. All the bleating about the lack of a "start" button is pathetic.

  • Alex Desilets

    The main problem with windows 8 isn't the new interface, it's the desktop. Change can be a great thing, a lot of times it's better to knock down an old building and rebuild than to remodel the interior of an existing structure. The problem is that they only demolished about half of the old structure, got scared and left slapped on a new interface. If windows had completely abandoned the desktop then they would have been forced to polish the metro interface more because there would be no fallback, every option and feature would have to be accessible through the new interface and there would be more continuity in the user experience. 

  • ckeledjian

    Windows 8 was designed on a tablet. If you have used it in a tablet, you will get it. If you haven't, then you have to realize that newer generations are getting introduced to computers first through a tablet, not a desktop, and by the time they will get to use productivity apps, they will all have found their way into A touch UI and the issues with bigger screens will be resolved. The traditional desktop will no longer exist.
    But before all this happens, the OS needs to come first, to allow user demand, to promote developers to create new apps, to have OEMs compete on creating better and cheaper hardware with innovative from factors.
    An OS has no use without apps, but the OS needs to come first to promote demand for apps. That's why Windows 8 exist, the link between the old desktop and what is coming, a transitional OS. And yes, it is more polished as a touch UI, because touch is what people crave. The interim solution to integrate the desktop may not be too polished yet, but people that will use the desktop are typically veterans who will have less trouble to learn a couple of new tricks.
    Criticizing Windows 8 without having used it with touch is like judging windows 95 without using it with a mouse. It is as I said, a transitional OS to allow the need batch of apps to be developed and allow OEMs to catch up.

  • otinp

    There is nothing wrong with windows 8 there lot of thing wrong with people don't blame the OS. With change come bumps along the way they are not forcing you to upgrade. For people that need start menus in windows 8 just install it from stardock. They will improve usability as they fine tune windows 8.

    It transition into a new era people but everything is still there as in windows 7 for productivity.

  • Jason Pace

    So what you're saying is that all the users who don't like Windows 8 are wrong.

    You do realize that this is the #1 rookie mistake of User Centered Design, right? It's not about what you think users SHOULD want, it's about what they DO want. You don't jam something down your users' throats because you think they should want it even when they keep telling you they don't. That's not you being smarter than your users, that's you being dumb.

  • H Pitts Flateau

    Laugh of the day

    "Simply put, the promise of Windows 8 was to deliver a better user experience to customers."

    Absurd
    Windows 8 was created to solve Microsoft's lack of market share in tablets and phones. It was done in a way they knew was to the disadvantage of desktop user. It was a standard operating procedure move from a company that made monopoly abuse their fundamental method to make money. 

  • johnsmith9875

     The Windows 8 kernel is here to stay but I suspect the tiles could very well die.   Its already been proven you can turn them off permanently and just use the older Windows 7 style interface.   If given a choice most users will simply disable it.  Right now you can only do that with registry hacks.

  • Crazyivan9561

    So can we get the office classic toolbar back?

    Innovation means improvement, not change. Far too many companies confuse innovating to improve versus changing for the sake of change. Windows 8 is a text book case of it. The UI for XP and 7 were great. So great that even 12 years after its launch XP is still the #2 operating system. There is no need to change or improve except that it is microsoft's business model to have planned obsolescence. But right now programs don't NEED the latest and greatest hardware to run fine. Computers from 6 or 7 years ago can still fill most needs of many casual users and small businesses. Microsoft is not innovating with windows 8, it is trying to justify its business model by forcing the lifecycle of its products to be shorter than what the consumers want.

    Windows 8 is going to fail. Businesses are willing to go to 7 but IT professionals have written off 8 and many are looking hard at the work it would take to get to Linux. With the licensing fees companies save from not paying Microsoft they can expand their in house IT departments to work with Linux for their own purposes. Consumers are either casual users who want tablets to facebook/youtube their life away or power users who demand the versatility of a traditional desktop. There is no real market for a hybrid like windows 8.

    Windows 8 is not innovation for the sake of improvement, it is change for the sake of justifying the shortening of product life cycles.