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]