TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Why Windows 8 is a hard sell

Microsoft's re-imagination of the PC world looks a confusing mess and it's hard to see why organisations will feel the need to upgrade.

Technology Spectator

In 1975 Bill Gates & Paul Allen had a bold belief that one day there would be a personal computer on every desktop and it would run Microsoft software. However, 37 years later people are no longer living in a desktop PC-centric world, increasingly preferring laptops, tablets and smartphones.

This trend was made painfully apparent at the Australian Windows 8 launch, where the journalists covering the 're-imagining' of Windows where armed with a plethora of a mobile devices. I was using a Toshiba Z930 Ultrabook to take notes and my Google Nexus 7 tablet to gauge the launch vibe from social media. Behind me News Ltd reporter Claire Connelly was working and monitoring social media on her iPad. Looking around us many people had laptops but quite a few were using tablets instead.

With the Vista debacle in late 2006/early 2007 Microsoft was saved because it was a few years before tablets and smartphones gained critical mass and drew attention away from traditional computer. Meanwhile, people continued using Windows XP while they waited for Vista’s eventual replacement Windows 7.

Entering the tablet and mobile space at this late stage, Microsoft is competing against incumbents Apple and Google who have already built up large ecosystems and big fan bases. Even if there is space for a third player Microsoft will have to share the revenue pie as an also ran compared to its existing almost monopolistic dominance of the desktop/laptop operating system market.

Sofabed compromise?

Microsoft would have us believe that Windows 8 is graceful and flexible but the reality isn't quite as pretty. The half new tiled, half old desktop, part-touch, part-keyboard/mouse Windows 8 interface will result in many users feeling confused and frustrated at not being able to complete simple tasks as quickly as they are used to.

British UX/UI designer David Yates told Technology Spectator that if he had only word to describe Windows 8 with "it would be ‘sofabed’ in that it is trying to be all things to all types of devices."  

"Why sofabed? It is neither a good sofa, nor a good bed. It is uncomfortably compromised in order to be multifunctional and looks like cheap bedsit furniture next to other well-crafted output of the quality products out there."

After 17 years of familiarity with a desktop and start menu interface if an organisation upgrades from XP, Vista or Windows 7 to Windows 8 it will result in less productivity without extensive and costly organisation wide employee re-training.

One ring to rule them all?

Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer is confident that the software giant's is on to a winner in its attempt to unify user experience 

"We've reimagined Windows and we've reimagined the whole PC industry. In addition to notebooks and desktops, we introduce the PC as tablet … Work. Play. Tablet. PC. Boom! One product," Ballmer said last week.

Microsoft is betting that a single interface across smartphones, desktops and laptops will appeal to customers and in Lord of the Rings parlance be "one ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them”, unleashing a new stream of revenue to flow for years to come.

However, while Windows Phone 8, Windows RT for tablets and Windows 8 Standard/Pro for laptops and desktop computers share a similar tiled interface there will no doubt be people who expect purchased applications to work across these platforms, they will not.

The staggered launch of Windows 8 RT for tablets powered by ARM now and Windows 8 x86 tablets in three months will also cause confusion. It will especially be interesting to see how many people buy ARM powered Windows RT tablets mistakenly expecting that legacy Windows x86 software will work on them.

Corporate takeup unlikely

With corporate spending constrained due to our multi-speed economy and uncertainty about US and European economies, Microsoft doesn’t have a clear key selling point which explains why Windows 8 is more productive than Windows 7.

There is no logical reason for any organisation to upgrade to Windows 8 on an existing desktop or laptop computer, especially if it's not touch enabled. When Windows 8 is used on a laptop that isn’t touch enabled you still see the same start screen interface which makes your brain prompt your fingers to touch the screen ineffectually.

The rule of thumb in the past with Microsoft Windows has been to skip every other version. The Vista debacle held true to that rule which explains why so many organisations worldwide are still using the now ancient Windows XP operating system.

Since Windows 7 has proved to be reliable and popular with consumers, organisations will have transitioned their users to it well before Microsoft stops support for Windows XP SP3 and Office 2003 on April 8, 2014. Given the option of deploying Windows 8 instead the response from any sensible CIO should be ‘over my dead body’.