Inside Business

October 24, 2012 8:44 pm

Microsoft goes for broke with Windows 8

Messing around with everyday product not something to be undertaken lightly

Will Windows 8 turn out to be Microsoft’s “New Coke”?

Messing around with one of the world’s most familiar everyday products is hardly something to be undertaken lightly – and with the new version of Windows, which goes on sale on Friday, there has been a lot of messing around. That almost guarantees some degree of user backlash. But it would be wrong to judge the outcome of what amounts to a bet-the-farm gamble by Microsoft on its initial reception.

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Not many consumer products reach 1bn users – a fact that Mark Zuckerberg pointed out when Facebook passed the magic ten-digit barrier last month, allowing him to claim kinship with a small group of companies that includes Coca-Cola. Windows is also in that rarefied camp, even if many of its users are on pirated copies of the software.

Microsoft’s attempt to drag its core product into the touchscreen era carries intriguing echoes of the New Coke debacle of the 1980s. At the time, Coca-Cola feared being sidelined, as its once-dominant share of the US soft drink market shrank to around a quarter. Deciding that tastes had changed and a younger generation wanted sweeter drinks, it adjusted its hallowed formula, then marketed it using the time-tested “new and improved” approach. The subsequent backlash and U-turn became part of consumer product lore.

Microsoft’s dominance of its own market has eroded in even more dramatic fashion. Five years ago, its software was being used on more than 90 per cent of the world’s personal computing devices – which, at the time, meant PCs, give or take a PDA or two. By this year, with Apple and Google setting the pace in mobile computing, that share will drop to just 30 per cent, according to research firm Forrester.

So it is time to remix the old formula for a new age – please welcome the old Windows you know and love, now with extra added Touch.

Radical new interface

Users of Windows 8 could take up to two weeks to find their way around the radical new interface that Microsoft has put on its PC operating system, a senior Windows executive has said.

The new software, which goes on sale on Friday, marks a departure from the traditional PC “desktop” as Microsoft seeks to catch up with Apple and Google in touchscreen computing. That has drawn warnings from some analysts that the software company risks confusing many PC users, who will be presented with a new touch-centric interface but will also have the option of switching to a traditional desktop view.

“You’re either going to feel proficient in a couple of days or a couple of weeks,” Julie Larson-Green, head of user experience in Microsoft’s Windows division, said of the new interface. “We’re asking people to give it a couple of weeks before judging.”

In one design choice criticised by Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at tech research firm Gartner, opening one of Microsoft’s own apps in the new interface will automatically send users to the old desktop view.

“That’s the part they’ve done badly and will affect the experience you have [with Windows 8],” she said.

Defending the new design – including the abandonment of the “Start” button that has appeared in the bottom left corner of Windows desktops until now - Ms Larson-Green said Microsoft had carried out extensive research to make it easy to learn the new operating system. The software has been designed to be intuitive and easy to use from the outset, with users becoming increasingly proficient as they feel their way around, she said.

This is guaranteed to cause considerable confusion. Some Windows 8 machines will have touchscreens and others will not, leading to plenty of futile groping as users sort out which are which; two different software interfaces will come as standard, with the one designed for touch winning primacy – even on machines without touchscreens; two different types of processor will essentially create two different classes of Windows PC, with only one type running older Windows programs.

Even setting aside the confusion, it is far from clear that merging old-style PCs with new-style touchscreens will produce a satisfying experience capable of rivalling the best that Apple has to offer.

The parallels with New Coke extend only so far. When it comes to selling sugared water, marketing is all – as Coca-Cola belatedly realised. Microsoft, on the other hand, had no choice but to overhaul its software to stay relevant. Nor, unlike Coca-Cola, will it be able to revert if Windows 8 falls flat.

It would also be wrong to judge the outcome of Windows 8 on the initial reaction it produces. Consumers are always the first adopters of each new version of the operating system, but it is the business users who turn to the software later who really determine whether it succeeds or fails. The IT departments of many big companies, which have invested heavily to back PC technology, would love nothing better than to see Microsoft come up with a real alternative to the iPad in touchscreen computing, saving them from being forced to adopt Apple’s iOS software.

A whole ecosystem of hardware and software companies, which has sustained the PC industry for three decades, is also urging Microsoft on – even if the software group has trod on some toes by producing its own hybrid tablet/PC.

With that sort of backing, and an operating system that has finally been developed primarily for touchscreen devices, Microsoft stands a good chance of reaching across the chasm that has opened up in personal computing since the arrival of the iPad.

But it will not come without controversy or pain. Some degree of backlash – and backtracking – seems likely. Most obviously, Microsoft will come under a lot of pressure to make the new Windows work better for the millions of people who use it on desktop computers and laptops that don’t have touchscreens and who will have no patience for a new interface that is hard to navigate with a mouse. With Windows 8, Microsoft may just have done enough to ensure its continued relevance in personal computing. But it will be a bumpy ride.

Richard Waters is the Financial Times’s West Coast managing editor

richard.waters@ft.com

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