Windows 8 is not a failure !
On my blog I have discussed Windows 8 and some who have been reading it on my web site may get the impression that I think Windows 8 is a failure. I would like to state for the record, that I do not think it is a failure, nor do I think it is a disaster just waiting to happen. I actually get tired of reading all the news stories calling it a failure or one just waiting to happen. They just don’t get it.
Now I am not saying that everything in Windows 8 is perfect, nor am I saying that I like it all. Let’s be realistic here. But it is not as bad as everyone seems to be saying though. So in this post I want to discuss what is good about Windows 8, why it was necessary and also what I think could be done to improve it.
Windows 8 was inevitable !
Why ? Well, I am not just talking about the IPad or Android making it necessary. Windows 8 was necessary because of its own history. To appreciate what I mean, you have to consider my experience over the years dealing with the average Windows user. In the early days of PC’s, they were very expensive and not a consumer device. Businesses would pay thousands of dollars for a PC with a monochrome monitor and floppy disk drives. PC’s were a tool and businesses were the only ones willing to pay the high price for such a powerful tool. Most of my early work on computers was for businesses, not consumers. In time, some business users began to get computers for their own personal use. There were those who were hobbiests who just loved computers, who despite the cost would buy a PC. But for the average person, the PC was not something they wanted or would be willing to pay for. In time though something strange happened. Globalization and technology brought the price of electronics down significantly. Computers now started to be affordable to the average consumer. Some of them had been exposed to the computer at work or school and now wanted their own. Games began to become popular on PC’s. Slowly the PC was moving into the consumer world. The problem though was that the PC has always been an all around tool, rather than a consumer device. Consumers would buy a PC and then learn how to do the minimal amount necessary to play a game or type a letter with it. Then came the internet and a totally new world approached. Now the PC became the doorway to the internet. But still the PC was more than the average person really needed. It was a power tool in the hands of normal everyday people who barely tapped into its power. Imagine this. The average consumer, was using a tool which was originally designed for businesses, but they were doing simple stuff common to consumers.
Over the years, it bothered me to see the average person pondering which computer to buy with all the sales pitches for bigger and more powerful PC’s, when their needs only required the barest of PC’s. Sales people would tout, “you need a better CPU” or “more RAM” and then when that consumer asked me the same question I would tell them that they should buy the cheapest computer they could find because most were far more than what they really needed anyway. The typical conversation with such a consumer would go like:
“How much RAM do I need ? Should I get the better CPU ? Do I need more hard drive space ?”
Then I would ask:
“What are you going to do with your computer ?’
They would reply:
“Type letters and read email”
Do you see where this is going ? Why in the world would someone buy a computer with tons of memory, a huge hard drive and the latest super duper CPU if they only want to read email ? Now of course some would play games, but unless you are a high end gamer (super 3D stuff), even the lowliest PC would run most games well enough.
PC’s were being sold to the wrong people. Why ? Because there were few alternatives !
But something changed. First it was the dedicated game machine (don’t need a PC any more). Then it was the smart phone (heh, I can send and read email on my phone). As new more dedicated devices began to appear, consumers didn’t need a PC any more. So what began to happen was that a device originally designed as a business tool was now being replaced by dedicated devices better suited to the needs of the consumer. They were smaller. They were portable. They were in some cases even cheaper (an Android tablet can be bought for about $100 or less now). They were easier to use and you didn’t need to be a computer genious to know how to work them. Devices didn’t need complex software installation steps any more. You just selected it from an App Store and click install and all done. Nice and easy.
Windows 8 for all practical reasons was inevitable as I will now explain.
Microsoft tried it before and failed.
Amazingly Microsoft has been in the tablet market long before Apples IPad. They tried the tablet market and simply put, failed. Why ?
Well, actually they didn’t really fail, they just misjudged their market. The problem was that these tablets were still business tools, not consumer devices. They were expensive. They were geared towards productivity (ie. pen based which is really useful for business tasks). The problem was they didn’t become easier to use. They weren’t dedicated devices for consumer needs. So Windows tablets filled a small nitch at the time, which was businesses. It was not a total failure. As I stated earlier, it was still a business tool which they tried to market to consumers as well. Something had to change. The IPad began this change, but not because they had a totally superior product, but because they understood their market better. Consumers need easy. Consumers need affordable (even though Apple does tend to target those consumers with a bit more money). Now something else happened which changes the landscape. Google comes along with Android. What this accomplishes is what Apple still does not fully appreciate. Price matters ! Yes, there are always those who can afford (or think they can) the brand name designer bag, the brand name designer jeans and of course the brand name designer mobile device (aka. IPad). But for many more, the last hurdle is price. Consumers need easy to use, dedicated devices but also something affordable. Even computer programmers like myself who live on a budget may care about price. I was interested in a 7 inch format tablet and while I would love it if an inexpensive 7 inch Windows tablet existed (but of course it does not), I opted for an Android tablet, since there are many available , even for less than $100.
Windows (the operating system) as it stood was not ready for mobile, not ready for simple easy dedicated use by consumers. It was still a business tool. It needed a radical change. Microsoft had only two choices. Either create a totally new operating system (maybe based on their phone OS) specifically for this new market or do something totally unexpected and that was to build two operating systems in one. That is exactly what they did with Windows 8. Now whether they grasp the importance of affordability or not is something else to be seen, but as far as usability I think they got it right. Now Windows 8 is not perfect and I would hope Microsoft is willing to make the necessary changes to improve it. Yet Windows 8 is a bold and intelligent concept. But there is a catch (or two).
Price matters !
This does not need a lot of explanation. Simply put, price matters, especially to consumers. For Windows 8 to be super successful, it would greatly benefit from the courageous hardware manufacturer who could create the first $200 Windows 8 tablet and it is possible, even with an Intel Atom inside. True this would require software developers to learn how to significantly increase the performance of the software they write, but this also is possible (see: http://channel9.msdn.com/posts/C-and-Beyond-2011-Herb-Sutter-Why-C ).
But Windows 8 has one extra advantage going for it when it comes to the x86 (Intel/AMD CPUs) devices which needs to be exploited better.
Don’t forget who PC’s were originally designed for!
PC’s have always been a business tool, even if consumers used them too. Windows 8 is a bold move, but Microsoft has to appreciate the heritage of Windows and the PC. You can not force the consumer model onto businesses. Now you can share these concepts of consumer and business, but you can not forget the importance of the business. This is where Microsoft faces its biggest challenge. While there may be different viewpoints within Microsoft, there is an obvious fact which I believe they should seriously consider. I say this as a long time Windows (and DOS) user. I have worked with businesses such as local small mom and pop operations in helping them get the most out of their computer investments. While new technology is great, backward compatibility has been Windows most important feature. I tend to be a bit more practical when it comes to technology. I always tried to help my customers use their computers as long as possible, so they get their moneys worth out of it. Even with the software I designed, I took this into consideration. The longer they could use that software, the better. Windows has a rich heritage and its greatest strength has been backward compatibility. If there is one strength of Windows which should never be lost it is backward compatibility, no matter what it costs. (see: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/APIWar.html ).
As a software developer myself the one thing I count on most is backward compatibility. Now while some Microsoft technologies may have possibly broken some older software, amazingly the WIN32 API’s have been extremely consistant and solid. As a long time WIN32 programmer I can write apps which will run on Windows 95 to Windows 8. Yes, even Windows 8. The first thing I was concerned about when I first tried out the Windows 8 Build Preview was whether it broke any of my WIN32 code. As far as I can tell it has done an amazing job of being backward compatible. Here is a link to a test app I created which I used to test a number of features of the WIN32 API’s to see if they work on Windows 8:
Go ahead and download the app and try it on as many different versions of Windows you may have . I have tested in on Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 and it should be able to run on some versions even earlier than that.
This application tests things such as the standard windows controls, the common controls, common dialogs, ownerdraw customization, DIBs (device independent bitmaps), MCI, custom window classes, subclassing, superclassing and even OpenGL.
Where Windows 8 can shine.
The key to Windows 8 is knowing where and when it should be used. For example, the Windows RT version (ARM CPU’s) is limited when it comes to the desktop and backward compatibility with x86 (Intel/AMD CPU’s) software. Simply put, it won’t run it. This makes Windows RT good only for consumers in my opinion. Yes, while Microsoft may feel Windows RT is suited for businesses, unless you plan on only using the new Microsoft Store apps (aka. Metro) I would strongly suggest businesses stick with the real Windows 8 (x86). Now for the real Windows 8, its ability to be a dual operating system (new Windows Store apps and existing WIN32 desktop apps) is a real accomplishment.
Now I should point out that touch (where Windows 8 shines) is not limited to Windows Store apps. The desktop supports touch and it is even fully supported in Windows 7 too. Software developers, should not only tap into the new Windows Store user interface, but they should also take advantage of the desktop too and start designing intelligent software which can shine on both Windows 8, but also Windows 7. I would also suggest that one not limit oneself to the new user interface, since in many ways it is limited. Now more than ever software developers need to push the limits of desktop software, demonstrating what Windows is really capable of. One might want a very fixed and dedicated environment for consumer apps, but for the desktop and businesses I don’t think you should limit yourself.
While I tolerate the flat look of Metro for Windows Store apps, I really don’t want it to be all that there is. That is just plain wrong for those who write desktop applications. The beauty of Windows has always been the freedom to create what ever you want. So for Windows 8 to succeed, businesses need to appreciate this new dual role that Windows is playing. The new modern user interface was necessary for Windows to play in the new mobile device world. Windows 8 shines on touch devices, from large touch enabled screens for desktops to mobile tablets. But when it comes to the desktop PC’s or laptops (without touch) then it is just as important to remember that the Windows Desktop (our familiar windows) is still there and important. On x86 systems you can still run all your favorite applications, from games to Adobe Photoshop.
It is also important to appreciate that the mouse is not dead. No, while I really like touch on a Windows 8 tablet and I can see the benefit of touch on really large displays, touch will never totally replace the mouse. Actually not even a laptop touchpad can totally replace the mouse. The mouse is still the most accurate user input device there is (also drawing tablets with a pen). There are just too many situations where such accuracy is vital for the mouse to become obsolete. Also a touch keyboard just will never replace a quality mechanical keyboard. Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Now for minimal typing a touch screen keyboard may suffice. But for those who need to get some real work done, face it you just can’t replace a real keyboard yet. I am so picky about keyboards myself, that I can’t even tolerate the typical keyboard that comes with most computers today. I still use (on a newer computer) one of the best keyboards ever made, which is a good old IBM Model M keyboard (PS2). My keyboard was manufactured in 1989 which makes it 23 years old. I can type so much faster and better on this keyboard that I can’t imagine myself using any other. If people like me are willing to use a 23 year keyboard because it is the right tool to use, then I really doubt the keyboard is going to become obsolete in the near future and replaced by touch screen typing. Again this example demonstrates the point I made earlier about the difference between a consumer device and a business user tool.
Windows 8 is here to stay, so get used to it.
Windows 8 was not created in a vacuum. There were very good reasons for its creation and design. Now many may not like every aspect of Windows 8 and I do hope it continues to improve over time (in updates), but it is here to stay so get used to it. It makes sense for many reasons. What people need to do is learn as much about Windows 8 and learn how to leverage its strengths for your particular needs. Businesses need to at least start adding some Windows 8 computers to their IT departments so they can start learning how to best use them in the future. Sure, businesses may not make a move to a total switch to Windows 8 yet and likely I would not recommend that either. Windows 8 is too new and different for that. You have to experiment with it. Get to know it. Find out where works well and where it may not.
At the minimum though, I would recommend that every business get at least one Windows 8 tablet (or touch enabled laptop) and not the RT version (unless you really understand the ramifications of Windows on ARM). You need to see Windows 8 where it shines the most on an x86 based tablet. I would also recommend that businesses also seriously consider getting at least one touch enabled monitor (with a new Windows 8 PC or if upgrading a Windows 7 PC to 8) for a desktop PC. A good size monitor too! I have a 21 and 1/2 inch touch enabled monitor and I really like it (and I use it on Windows 7). Windows 8 will come into its own on a desktop PC with a touch enabled monitor.
While I don’t expect a rush to Windows 8 by businesses, it does make sense to start learning about it. See where it really fits. Learn how to integrate Windows 8 devices into the current Windows ecosystem (XP, Vista and 7). Don’t believe those who say that Windows 8 is some kind of failure. Yes, it is different. Yes, it is new. Yes, one should cautiously consider how to integrate Windows 8 (to some degree) into your business. But don’t skip it. Don’t ignore it. Windows 8 is just too important to do that. Windows 8 is not Windows Vista (which is really not all the bad either to be truthful and yes I use that too).
So in the future when you come back and read my blog ( http://cwsof.com/blog/ ) and I dig into areas about Windows 8 that I may not like, remember despite my honesty about some things which could be better in Windows 8, all in all, I like it and I am using it. I have a small one man operation here with my business (I design programming tools for programmers), but I am a Windows shop. Yes, I have Windows XP, Windows Vista (my current development system), Windows 7 and yes, Windows 8 too. They all work together and I understand how they can live as a happy family. Windows 8 just adds some new exciting things to the mix, but in the end it is still Windows.