Memo to Microsoft: Why Didn’t You Make Windows 8 Usable?

August 29th, 2012

Since the first public betas of Windows 8 appeared last year, I have really made a huge effort to find some comfort in the new interface. Right, it used to be Metro, but when that ended up being the name of a German supermarket chain, Microsoft opted for “Modern UI.” I suppose that could change yet again, although names don’t really count.

The product itself is perfectly awful, and I’m not alone in coming to that conclusion. Even tech pundits who’d normally favor Windows seem to be upset over a schizophrenic interface that splits you between 1980s-style square or rectangular tiles, or a simplified form of the traditional Windows desktop. What makes it doubly confusing is that there are even two versions of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, one for each interface, though it appears they rely on the same bookmarks and cookies.

Now I realize that Windows 8 is better optimized for touch interfaces, but the vast, vast majority of users will be operating with a traditional keyboard and mouse, even though Microsoft would appear to want it otherwise. In my situation, I ran the pre-release versions under a virtual machine, first with Parallels Desktop 7, and, more recently, with the newly released VMWare Fusion 5.

I suppose some of you might complain that I should have run the Windows 8 betas on a “real” Windows PC to enjoy the best possible user experience. But the only downside would seem to be performance, and for that I had no complaints. The current versions of Parallels and Fusion are designed to be compatible with Windows 8.

But Parallels did have problems. The bundled apps, including Mail, were non-functional, and, after attempting to launch for a minute or so, would revert to the Modern UI Start screen. App launching was also tepid, although I would hope the next version of Parallels, due out in September, would offer better support.

With Fusion, I was actually able to use most Windows 8 features without trouble, although that doesn’t mean it was a pleasant experience. Take Mail, which is a pretty full-featured email client on the Mac. Under Windows 8, Microsoft has delivered a pathetic limited-function app that appears confined to Microsoft and Google email accounts. And don’t get me started about the dumbed-down interface that would be too basic for a grade school student.

If you want Windows 8 Mail to be your one and only email client, forget about iCloud, Yahoo!, your own domain or any other email service, such as GoDaddy, 1and1 Internet, Namecheap’s Open-Xchange, Polaris Mail, or Rackspace. There appears to be no way to add such accounts.

Within the Modern UI, you have to use barely accessible hotspots to change system settings, or even return from an app or the traditional Windows desktop. Now I’ll consider the possibility that mouse and trackpad handling is not a fault of Windows 8, but due to the fact that the Parallels and VMWare drivers haven’t been updated to provide a smooth experience.

Or maybe Microsoft still had a lot of work to do in making Windows 8 function predictably. I’ll also grant that the road from beta to RTM (Release To Manufacturing) gave Microsoft sufficient opportunity to repair some of the worst problems ahead of the final release.

Microsoft’s biggest task, however, is to convince customers that this mess is the future of personal computing. In Microsoft’s parlance, we’re in the world of PC+, rather than PostPC, which is the Apple version. In theory, Windows 8 will work pretty much the same on an ARM-based tablet as on a traditional PC. But the touch obsession, assuming it works, is going to freak the traditional Windows home and business user.

I cannot even imagine the enterprise adopting this total mess. Retraining employees reduces productivity and costs money, and it’s not as if Windows 8 is offering any demonstrable improvement over the traditional Windows look and feel. I mean, hundreds of millions of customers do productive work on a Windows PC every single day. Certainly OS revisions that improved productivity would be welcome by any company. But not change for the sake of change.

Understand that I have used Windows for years. It’s not my OS of choice, but I have written books about Windows products, and even used Word for Windows to handle those chores. When there were no Mac versions of an app I needed to run, obviously I had to resort to Windows.

Over the years, I have tested Windows PCs and written reviews about them for major tech publications. These days, my excursions into the Windows world are confined to a virtual machine. Both Parallels and VMWare are good enough not to require a standard Windows PC, except for heavy gaming. Even then, Apple’s Boot Camp can do wonders, although it’s easier for me just to run the virtualization app. Performance is that good, and I have options to integrate Windows apps with Mac apps to make the cross-platform experience reasonably pleasant.

Yes, I will install the release version of Windows 8. Ever optimistic, I will hope that Microsoft has fixed some of the worst ills. But even Windows fans are expecting a train wreck, and Microsoft may have to come out with a Plan B far sooner than they expect.

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3 Responses to “Memo to Microsoft: Why Didn’t You Make Windows 8 Usable?”

  1. DaveD says:

    The “look and feel” of Windows 8 is the current state of affairs that Microsoft is lost in the wilderness.

    My crystal ball tells me…

    There are millions of Windows XP users that will never upgrade.
    There will be millions of Windows 7 users that will never upgrade to Windows 8.
    There will be millions more Windows users upgrading to a Mac.

  2. Andrew says:

    I regularly use Windows for both work (military forms, Windows-only application) and gaming. For the military I use Parallels and Windows 7, while for gaming I use Boot Camp.

    I’ll likely experiment with Windows 8 in a VM, but I highly doubt I will move to the new OS for either of my uses until I am forced to.

    Windows 8 does have some real benefits over Windows 7, such as vastly superior boot times and faster application launching. The interface woes, however, negate most of that for me. Also, while Windows 8 is faster, Windows 7 is by no means slow. On my Retina MacBook Pro Windows 7 in boot camp takes about 30 seconds to fully boot. Totally acceptable.

  3. dfs says:

    Let me try tø answer Gene’s question. Like Apple, Microsoft must have plenty of ergonomic engineers on its payroll. And at least some of these engineers are presumably pretty bright people who are competent at their jobs. The difference, therefore, must lie in the degree of respect, authority, institutional support and the personal support of the top brass these individuals are given within the two corporations. In Apple, these are important people who obviously have the ears of the corporate leadership. In Microsoft, it would seem, they are considerably farther down in the chain of command and it is easy to suppose that their input frequently gets drowned out, changed out of recognition, or even rejected by — by exactly what, I don’t know: maybe by other internal corporate interests and concerns, maybe by the interfering meddling of executives of the kind represented by “Dilbert’s” pointy-haired manager — it would be well worth knowing the answer, for this would be an important clue to what’s fundamentally gone haywire at MS. We have just seen Samsung get in trouble for imitating Apple. No matter. In this case, the Way Out for Microsoft is pretty clear: to compete with Apple they need to imitate Apple by having plenty of good interface engineers on their team, and they need to imitate Apple by giving these people plenty of power in determining how their end products look and behave. And each and every one of these engineers needs to have that dictum of Stravinsky tattooed on the back of his hand: LESS IS MORE.

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