Microsoft has had years of success at the top of a game that they arguably didn’t play very fairly to win. Windows has succeeded on the desktop PC more due to the numbers game with dozens of major hardware manufacturers competing against each other to push prices down all with Microsoft skimming the lions share of the profit off the top. Taking features from the Mac, Linux and several other operating systems and doing deals with enterprise ensured their success. A team of talented engineers pushed them forwards with some innovation also coming out of Redmond.
However, Windows did not succeed because it had a beautiful interface. It did not succeed because it was user friendly. It did not succeed because consumers desired it.
The interesting thing is that despite this Microsoft now has many millions of people trained in how Windows works. The “Start” button (replaced recently in Windows Vista/7 with the Microsoft Logo but still in the same spot in the bottom left corner of the screen) and the program menus with desktop folders and static images for wallpapers with a taskbar at the bottom for switching between windows. People were mostly forced to use this in order to do their job and as such they are now familiar with how Windows works.
Microsoft then pushed the idea of Windows everywhere. We can only speculate on how Microsoft think internally but let’s assume that Microsofts success is because Windows is well liked and effective. If that’s true then surely a Windows everywhere strategy would work? Windows CE, Windows Mobile, Windows Tablet Edition all tried to push familiar Windows-desktop-styled user interface ideas that “worked” well for Windows on the desktop, and reused them on mobile platforms with touch interfaces. Unfortunately these were barely useable with these different device types and not widely adopted as a result. The market was dominated by RIM and Nokia, and Microsoft were left out in the cold.
Let’s switch focus. The Zune became the first portable touch-screen product that Microsoft redesigned the user interface for. The interface was called Metro and whilst the product did not survive the idea did. Microsoft then decided to turn its attention to replacing Windows Mobile and released Windows Phone 7 with a significantly more developed Metro interface. The Metro interface persisted and Microsoft then made the boldest step yet: replace the Windows start menu with Metro and push for a common platform on both Desktop and Mobile - this time based around Metro.
Microsoft couldn’t help itself but to prefix it “Windows” Phone 8 and “Windows” 8 but the truth is that there really are no windows - there are tiles and full-screen applications (or apps, if you prefer). The start menu is gone. The tiles are mostly animated with a plethora of information - much of it not particularly relevant (the People tile has a slideshow of your contacts faces for example). Previously simple tasks such as closing a window have become more cumbersome with a left-click at the top of the screen then drag down to the bottom of the screen being much more difficult to master than a simple “click the red X in the top right”. With a touch interface it’s not too bad, but with a keyboard and mouse it’s terrible.
The gestures on the desktop make little sense, aren’t obvious and with all the tile animation is it overwhelming for many people as they try and figure out where they have to click to edit that Word document or Excel spreadsheet they need to get finished.
Irrespective of any one users opinion about whether something is intuitive or not let’s review two key facts:
1) Microsofts Windows interface has significant momentum and any significant change from that user interface style will be met with equally significant resistance that will hurt Microsofts marketshare.
2) Microsoft tried Windows everywhere before and they failed. Why repeat the same strategy with Metro everywhere all over again? Calling Metro “Windows” doesn’t change the fact that it is nothing at all like Windows. Windows is a brand and determining the value of a brand is difficult but then renaming Metro to Windows creates an expectation of what a current Windows customer is expecting. They will likely be shocked, stunned and/or very disappointed as they desperately search for a start button.
Apple have proven that it is possible to succeed with different user interfaces for their desktop and mobile platforms. If Microsoft are trying to prove them wrong then that’s not a good business strategy. It’s clear to me that Microsoft truly believe they can make Metro work everywhere and take the Windows brand along for the ride. But as millions of users choose to stick with Windows 7 or bypass the Metro interface with hacks to take them to the Windows 8 Desktop (bypassing Metro) the less likely those users are to stick with Microsoft in the long term. Macs are similar enough to switch to without too many problems and more productivity software is written for the Mac with every passing moment as their marketshare grows.
Faced with lost revenue Microsoft may eventually fold and allow direct booting into the traditional Windows desktop or at least make it easier for users to do it. If they stick with Metro their momentum may well be enough to force enough people to relearn Windows the Metro way, but the sad question is just how many people will have abandoned Windows by then?
Microsofts arrogance that Metro everywhere will succeed where Windows everywhere failed is what’s wrong with Windows 8. Their choices are bold in the extreme and will lead them down a path where redemption will be bitterly fought and may well be a hopeless endeavour. Let’s see if fortune truly favours the bold.