A common sentiment since the announcing of Windows 10 is that Microsoft took too big of a step with Windows 8. If only they had slowly eased users into it, it would’ve been loved. I think that idea is a romanticization of the deep-rooted problems with Windows 8, and ignores the legitimate mistakes in Microsoft’s vision. Let me show you the path Microsoft has taken to Windows 10.
Microsoft is not a consumer oriented company like Apple is, or even Google is. Apple, for example, is now hell bent on selling ‘average people’ iPhones and iPads. Even their Macs are highly popular with students and hobbyists, while also serving professionals in select Industries. Microsoft is not like that.
Microsoft loves their enterprise customers
They are their bread and butter, and Microsoft will do anything to keep them happy. There are people in the comments that routinely say, “X problem isn’t Microsoft’s fault, let that company deal with it.” That is not the mentality Microsoft takes. Let me summarize an anecdote stressing how much they care.
For example, lets say a company had programmers that couldn’t be bothered to use the notifications of the NM_DBLCLK notification, and instead they took its address, added 60, and de-referenced a DWORD at the new address – which was in the stack – to control their workflow. With Windows 2000, the updated compiler handled local variables better, and this program broke. Microsoft coded a new “fake stack” so the program could work again.
Microsoft ended up completely ignoring the enterprise market’s concerns for the Windows user experience
You can read the full post here (fyi that is a pretty popular and famous blog, and I highly recommend it) and another one here. If you know something about programming, you will be horrified that someone did that. If you don’t, what’s important is that Microsoft patched their operating system to fix someone else’s mistake. All for backwards compatibility, because they want a seamless experience for users to upgrade.
Now, this is from a while ago, but it reveals the mentality Microsoft had going into Windows 8. They did not want to alienate enterprise. But, they ended up completely ignoring the enterprise market’s concerns for the Windows user experience. With Windows 8, they set their eyes on ‘Touch’ and the ‘future.’ I am rather proud that they ignored their enterprise and IT customers to instead commit wholeheartedly to their vision. It’s just too bad it sucked.
Touch & the Future
Microsoft was so focused on not missing out on the touch-centric future they forgot what their users used (hint: not many touch screens). With Windows 8 they built an operating system with clear benefits for touch. Seeing apps side by side by itself made me look at the iPad skeptically. And man were the iPads hot. Personally, I couldn’t understand their appeal, but as they got more and more popular even I was sold on their value. As was Microsoft.
And while Microsoft had lost to the iPhone, it did not plan to lose to the iPad as well – especially as this was encroaching on their PCs. Apple had created a range of devices, from their super good-looking iMacs, to their MacBooks found on every campus, and to their market-leading iPhones and iPads. Each of these ran an optimized OS, iOS for mobile and tablets, and OSX for laptops and desktops. They have continued to improve these for their respective uses.
What is it that Apple does better than any other company? Using one of their products makes you want more of their products. Not only is the quality reassuring, but they work well together, and make your life easier.
One OS. Hopefully multiple Devices.
Microsoft recognized this, and decided to one-up it by making ‘one OS’ across devices. This would be convenient, and an incentive to own multiple devices running Windows, right? Yes. But not how Microsoft implemented this vision.
No significant UI improvements were made to the desktop on Windows 8. For consumers running Windows on a desktop or laptop without a touch screen, Metro UI was at worst unusable, and at best still inferior to the desktop. Imagine a 24-inch monitor, and now imagine a full screen PDF app that can, at the least, take up half your screen. Why would you ever use Modern UI apps on such a build?
You wouldn’t. And since these were the primary devices running Windows 8, we have the app problem that we see today. It was even more unsuitable to enterprise customers. Companies would have to re-teach their employees, and were stuck with a Modern UI environment that couldn't run their corporate software and was in the way. The IT departments hated it. You couldn't skip the Start Screen that these companies didn’t want. It was ugly. Windows 8 gets a lot of hate that it doesn't deserve, and it did include a lot of performance improvements, but the UI did have very significant annoyances. And by the time Windows 8.1 fixed them, the reputation had stuck.
Microsoft needed to include touch in their devices, but instead of a new OS, they decided to adapt Windows. And while this was perhaps a step in the right direction of Microsoft and Windows, that was not clear on the PCs of the majority of Microsoft’s customers.
Windows 10: the fix?
No significant touch improvement has been made to the Modern UI in Windows 10 so far – and they are not needed. Microsoft simply realized they had ignored mouse + keyboard users, and that the operating system wasn't suited for desktops or traditional laptops. With windowed Modern UI apps, they are finally giving desktops users a reason to use them. With virtual desktops, they are finally showing improvements that the majority of their users could actually fully take advantage of. It is not that Windows 8 was too much change, it was just exclusive change for touch oriented Window devices that barely anyone owned.
It is not that Windows 8 was too much change, it was just exclusive change for touch oriented Window devices that barely anyone owned.
Further, they went back to enterprise. Perhaps Microsoft assumed that enterprise would skip Windows 8, but they are sincerely looking to fix any problems now. They have talked to countless IT departments, and have an entire enterprise focused mindset -- Windows 10 ‘Technical Preview for Enterprise.’ The balance they take will decide the fate of Windows in the consumer space. Apple can make changes to OSX -- heck, at one point they even changed their processors and broke all compatibility. The reason they can do this is because of few specialized software, and a consumer focus. If Microsoft broke compatibility they will have signaled the ruin of Windows. But also, Enterprise inherently wants a different UX than consumers. While consumers might appreciate exciting features (as can be seen by how quickly some jump onto OSX), enterprise does not. Microsoft's approach with two different updating systems, to please both customers, seems very promising.
Well, did they conquer the future?
Microsoft aimed to strengthen their entire ecosystem through unification of Windows. And while they messed up in the beginning, they will be fine for the immediate future. Windows 10 promises an experience that is optimized for every device, and they will continue selling PCs, especially in the enterprise sector.
But, this 'one OS' movement was to secure long-term success, especially in the consumer market. That success will be decided by mobile devices. There is no point of a touch-centric Windows if no one runs it on their primary touch devices. But unification will give them something to build off. This is the opportunity for them to challenge Apple on their strengths – Microsoft can give users running Windows reason and desire to get Phones running Windows. Imagine being at work, and telling Cortana to remind you to reply to an email when you logged on to your desktop, or set alarms on your PC and have them sync to your phone. This is the type of integration that will give users true motivation to consider Windows Phone. Microsoft has already started in this area with their optimizations for the Surface. When you plug it into your keyboard, you want a different UI than when you are using it solely through touch, which Microsoft has finally taken into account.
The end goal is to be like Apple -- but only better -- in the consumer market. An ecosystem that works together, where every device feeds an addiction that makes you want more Windows devices; one where Microsoft finally has significant marketshare in mobile and mindshare with consumers. But, they messed up once before with Windows 8. With Google attacking at all fronts of the consumer market with Android and Chrome OS, Apple dominating mindshare in high end PCs and mobile, this is not an easy task -- and not one I see Microsoft getting too many second chances with.
End note: obviously, this was subjective; it was how I interpret Microsoft’s path to where they are now. Please keep that in mind when you discuss and I will happily acknowledge any mistakes you point out. And please try not to assume any bias I have not shown in my writing; I've used Windows 8 since it came out and preferred it over Windows 7 in every way.