The most striking thing about Microsoft’s Windows 10 announcement was how much of it was a reaction to the problems of Windows 8. I wouldn’t quite call it a do-over, but it comes pretty close.
All of the user-facing features Microsoft mentioned in its press release respond to complaints about Windows 8: The Start menu is back, all apps can run in windows, a “snap” feature makes it easier to work with multiple apps at the same time, and users can create multiple desktops for different purposes (so we’ve gone from no desktop on the main screen in Windows 8 to as many as you want in Windows 10).
On the enterprise side, the pitch for Windows 10 is basically a response to the failed upgrade cycle to Windows 8. Companies are promised advanced security, the ability to install the new OS without wiping old computers, better management of licensed apps, and a partnership in which companies can try out Windows 10 before release and give feedback on it. (How that differs from the Preview programs for previous Windows releases is not clear; maybe the difference this time is how much Microsoft will listen to the feedback it gets.)
It’s easy to forget what a revolutionary change Windows 8 was supposed to be when Microsoft first talked about it almost three and a half years ago. At that time, tablet computers seemed to be on the verge of taking over all personal computing, and Microsoft responded by making Windows 8 a tablet-first operating system that de-emphasized personal productivity in order to drive adoption of the tablet user interface. Microsoft was very explicit about this. Here’s a blog post from 2012 by Jensen Harris, one of the Windows 8 product managers (last week, he announced plans to leave Microsoft to cofound a startup):
People, not files, are the center of activity. There has been a marked change in the kinds of activities people spend time doing on the PC. In balance to ‘traditional’ PC activities such as writing and creating, people are increasingly reading and socializing, keeping up with people and their pictures and their thoughts, and communicating with them in short-frequent bursts.
Unfortunately for Microsoft, those social activities didn’t migrate to Windows-powered tablets. Instead, they have been increasingly absorbed by the smartphone. So Windows 8 was optimized for tasks that people don’t do as much on computers any more, while it made more difficult the “traditional” activities that people actually buy PCs to perform.
No wonder most users didn’t want to install it.
It was a catastrophic misreading of the market. Many users and critics warned Microsoft at the time, but by then the company was completely committed to Windows 8. Then-CEO Steve Ballmer was adamant in his support of the OS, and critics were subtly branded as reactionaries. The Windows 8 product manager wrote:
Fundamentally, we believe in people and their ability to adapt and move forward. Throughout the history of computing, people have again and again adapted to new paradigms and interaction methods.
In other words, if you don’t like the tiles and charm bar of Windows 8, it’s because you lack faith in humanity.
So here we are three years later. Ballmer is gone, the company talks a lot more humbly, and presumably it’s learned a lesson.
But Microsoft has wasted several years while the business problems that Windows 8 was supposed to fix have only gotten worse. The high-growth parts of the tech industry, smartphones and tablets, are not built on Microsoft software. Microsoft applications have very little presence on those devices. Meanwhile, on the Internet it continues to be an also-ran to giants like Google and Facebook.
Windows 10 will probably stabilize the Windows business, but what’s going to bring the growth back? For that, Microsoft is apparently counting on its ongoing unification of the Windows code base. In its Windows 10 announcement, the company wrote: “Windows 10 will run across the broadest range of devices ever from the Internet of Things to enterprise datacenters worldwide. Microsoft is also delivering a converged application platform for developers on all devices…developers will be able to write an application once and deploy it easily across multiple device types.”
I can see why Microsoft views that as a benefit–it wants its OS running on all those new types of devices. But I’m not sure it’s a benefit to anyone else.
Developers complain bitterly about the need to rewrite their apps for multiple platforms, but they do it anyway because that’s where the customers are. They’re not going to make Windows a top priority unless it increases its market share on phones and tablets dramatically. But most consumers in the developed world have already standardized on Android or iOS for their mobile needs, and I don’t think they’re going to give them up just to get higher compatibility with desktop Windows (if that were their driving concern, they would not have adopted incompatible phones and tablets in the first place).
Meanwhile, I have yet to meet an IT manager who wanted to deploy the same app on a datacenter and a thermostat.
So maybe Windows 10 is less of a change in Microsoft’s strategy than I thought. As it did with Windows 8, Microsoft is still trying to convince people to buy what it has, rather than coming up with a fundamental breakthrough that will actually attract them to its products. Absent that attractive new product or feature, Microsoft will probably continue to be the company that controls the PC standard but can’t get traction elsewhere.