May 082013

Years ago, from a back-row press seat at a Microsoft financial analyst meeting, I heard CEO Steve Balmer bellow that Microsoft would make software that “just works.” If memory serves, the much unloved Windows Vista was then the flavor of the month. In time it was succeeded by Windows 7, now four years old.

Between them, Windows XP, introduced in late 2001, and Windows 7 run the majority of the globe’s Windows-based computers. In my experience, neither comes close to the “just works” standard. When it comes to Windows, the late comedienne Gilda Radner had it right: “It’s always something.”

Yet with more than a billion users world-wide, Windows has become a “civilizational tool,” according to Jason Pontin of the MIT Technology Review. The tool for more than a dozen years has included a desktop interface, with icons representing files and folders, and the comforting “start” button at the lower left for launching applications.

Fast forward to Windows 8, introduced last fall. Gone are the start button and the desktop, replaced by colorful tiles familiar to users of smart phones. Set a user in front of a Windows 8 computer for the first time, wrote Pontin, and he or she will “recognize nothing.”

In Win8, the start button and desktop are there, under the hood somewhere. But everything I have read indicates they are hard to find and that switching between Win8’s tiles and the familiar desktop interface is both frustrating and time-consuming. Why should that be? I don’t have to learn to drive all over again when I buy or rent a different car. Why don’t new Windows computers “just work”?

The problem isn’t just with the interface. Windows 8 is designed for touch-screen computers, both relatively rare and relatively expensive.

Now Microsoft is having to eat crow. The Financial Times on Monday broke the story that the company is preparing to reverse course on key elements of Win 8. The FT characterized the course change as “one of the most prominent admissions of failure for a new mass market consumer product since Coca-Cola’s New Coke fiasco nearly 30 years ago.”

Tammy Reller, a co-head of Microsoft’s Windows division, told The Wall Street Journal this week that “the world is changing in changing fast and frankly we didn’t get everything we dreamed of done in the first release.”

Microsoft isn’t yet saying what the next iteration of Win 8 will look like. But there’s a high probability that users will have the option to default to the more familiar interface with the start button back in its proper place. [Update: Microsoft finally cried ‘Uncle.’]

The question is whether an updated version of Win 8 can help Microsoft get its mojo back. The world is moving away from desktops to tablets and phones, dominated by operating systems from Apple and Google. As recently as 2007, Windows in one flavor or another was the foundation for 90% of consumer computing devices. Last year, Windows ran only 30% of such computing devices.

Windows and Office have been Microsoft’s cash cows. The Financial Times notes that Microsoft faces a dilemma with Office. It has not released versions for portable devices running non-Windows operating systems, preferring to keep the suite of productivity applications tied to Windows. The risk is that users will grow comfortable with alternatives to Word, Excel and PowerPoint that are available from Google and others as free or low-cost services.

Microsoft has a lot more going for it than Windows and Office. Server and tools and the X-box entertainment system produce lots of revenue and profits.

Microsoft boasted this week that it had sold more than 100 million copies of Win 8. One skeptic who parsed Microsoft’s numbers concluded that the rate of sales of Win 8 is much lower than Win 7. The Wall Street Journal noted that Microsoft did not specify how many users are running Win 8 and that a “significant” number of Win sales are under multi-year contracts with companies that are allowed to choose which version of Win to run. The Journal quoted an IDC analyst estimating that as many as 40% of sales of Win 8 are to companies with options to downgrade to Win 7. We haven’t heard the last of the subject of the rate of Win 8 sales.

Windows 8 will go down as a major stumble for a company that in its hey-day was the greatest machine for the creation of wealth in history. Microsoft stock, range-bound for a decade or more, has been up recently, indicating some smart money thinks Microsoft can get back in the groove. Maybe so. But based mainly on the pattern I observe among young people, with their preference for mobile devices not running Windows, I am a skeptic.

  One Response to “Start me up?”

  1. This is an excellent compact history of “the troubles I’ve seen” history of Windows operating systems. It almost seems like Microsoft, in its zeal to make Windows desktops and laptops look and feel the same as smart phones and other mobile devices they forgot a fundamental principle of focus groups, beta sites, and consumer product testing: you only get one chance with a new user. People never respond to a product the same way the second, third, and subsequent times they see and use it. The Windows 8 system is unfamiliar and its benefits were not immediately apparent. In fact, Microsoft seemed not to recognize that for many workplace users of desktops and laptops, especially those whose work involved unlinked data bases, menu-driven algorithims, or simply a lot of writing/editing, a touch screen was more of a nuisance than anything else. Eventually the information systems in those workplaces will be restructured from the force of mobile devices (Microsoft was ahead of its time in that sense) but in the meantime users need to toggle seamlessly and quickly beween input devices. Microsoft’s attitude toward this and other customer-driven changes, though, is not all that promising. It is still defensive and that isn’t helpful, especially when it is clear that Windows 8 has an acceptance problem. That’s how companies get themselves into real trouble. Microsoft is capable of developing products that work so smoothly and reliably that they become nearly invisible. Its server operating system is one of those products. But it needs to take an honest look at how it tests products and how it responds to suggestions, problems, and, ultimately, complaints.

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