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Forget Vista, compare Windows 8 to the original Windows

Windows 8 has been out for a month now and I've been hearing too many comparisons to Windows Vista. Many people considered Vista a failure because most corporations didn't upgrade to it, and Apple and others made fun of it. (Never mind that it sold hundreds of millions of copies).

When I look at Windows 8, though, I am reminded more of Windows in the 1980s. Remember that when Windows first came out in 1985, Apple was already shipping the original Macintosh, with a more modern user interface. The first Windows was quite clunky, with a tiled interface instead of overlapping Windows. Windows 2 got a bit better with overlapping Windows, but it was still mainly an add-on rather than its own operating system. Windows/386 got closer, but it wasn't until Windows 3 arrived in 1990 that Microsoft's OS really became an environment that most people could live in. Even then, I heard a lot of complaining about switching between the graphical user interface and the old DOS command line.

In some ways, the parallels between Windows 8 and the first version of Windows are striking. Again, Apple has adopted a new user interface more swiftly; in the 1980s it had the mouse and graphical user interface, and now it has touch and sensors. Microsoft's first response offers tiled windows. There are a lot of complaints about switching back and forth between the older way of working and the newer one; back then it was between DOS and Windows, and now it's between the desktop and the newer Windows 8 UI.

As before, the first version of the OS is a bit clunky and needs to evolve. While we're used to Windows and Office releases that are years apart, back in the day, there was a much more rapid rate of change. Windows 2.0 and Windows/386 (with overlapping windows and the ability to run multiple DOS applications) came out in June 1988, Windows 3.0 came out in May 1990, Windows 3.0a (with multimedia features) came out in October 1991, Windows 3.1 came out in April 1992, and Windows for Workgroups (which added networking features) came out in October 1992. With Apple offering new features in its operating systems (both iOS and OS X) every year, Microsoft will need to move much faster than the every-three-years cycle it has been employing if the company hopes to compete.

The Word

But it's not just the OS itself. I'd argue that the bigger problem is the same one that really held back Windows in the 1980s: A lack of compelling applications. For years, the one really compelling Windows application was Excel. It wasn't until good Windows word processors – Microsoft Word of course and Samna (later Lotus) Ami Pro – that there was enough reason for people to consider Windows as a primary working environment.

Until the word processors, at best, people used a couple of Windows apps, but spent most of their time in DOS. After those applications started to develop, and Word, Excel, and PowerPoint evolved into Office, other developers followed suit and Windows became the default environment for new applications. It was that which helped make Windows the standard.

That's true of the way I expect most people are using Windows 8. There are a few nice new Windows tiled applications that take advantage of the new touch paradigm, but right now, most of them are more limited than their desktop equivalents. A few desktop applications – Office 2013 and Internet Explorer 10 come to mind – have had minor adjustments to work better with touch, but it's clear that this wasn't the design goal. Microsoft will need compelling new applications to get people to use the new UI.

Can this happen? Of course. It took Microsoft 10 years (between the shipment of Windows 1 and Windows 95) to come up with all the pieces it really needed, but the company kept working on it through the late 1980s and early 1990s. The competitive environment seems much tougher nowadays, however, with Apple much stronger and Google's Android a new, open competitor. Indeed, Microsoft seems to be fighting on more fronts than ever. But then, at the time, Apple and IBM with OS/2 seemed much stronger competitors to Microsoft than they look in retrospect.

All this isn't to say that the new Windows interface will become as successful as the desktop interface was back in the day, as there is too much competition to be sure of that. Still, it is way too early to write Windows 8 off.

Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.