I know it’s a little crazy to talk about how well a future operating system will do, especially when Windows 10 hasn’t even been officially announced yet. But we do already know a fair bit about Windows 8.1’s successor and that, I think, is enough to build a reasonable case.
Windows 8.x is a flop. As much as I love it, I’m a realist. The operating system has taken 20 months to grab just 12.54 per cent market share. Windows Vista, the previously used example of a failed OS, was at 19.82 per cent in the same time frame. Windows 7, which followed Vista, has been a great success, and there’s every reason to think Windows 9 will do much, much better than Windows 8.x has.
Microsoft intends to re-introduce the Start menu into Windows 10 (or "Threshold" as it’s currently being referred to), on desktop systems at least. Although it’s unfair to single out a solitary reason for Windows 8.x’s failure, the lack of a traditional Start menu has proven to be a rallying cry for haters of the new OS. The Start menu we get in Windows 10 likely won’t be the same as the one in Windows 7, but rumours suggest it will be highly configurable, with the option to include or exclude Windows Store apps, and that should be enough to win over a decent number of desktop users.
Of course it’s not just the absence of the Start menu that people don’t like - the Modern UI isn’t hugely popular either.
ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley says the next version of Windows will look and work differently, depending on the hardware it’s running on. The Modern UI (or a variation of it at least) will remain front and centre on touch devices, but will be relegated to a supporting role on desktop systems. Two-in-one devices will allow switching between the different user interfaces.
Foley says: "Microsoft is basically 'done' with Windows 8.x. Regardless of how usable or functional it is or isn't, it has become Microsoft's Vista 2.0 - something from which Microsoft needs to distance itself, perception-wise. At this point, Microsoft is going full-steam-ahead toward Threshold and will do its best to differentiate that OS release from Windows 8".
I think she’s hit the nail on the head. Windows 7 is, essentially, Vista done right, and with Windows 10 Microsoft can use all the lessons learned from Windows 8.x - and the tech giant has a lot to take away from the bruising experience - and build something that works as users would like it to, in different ways on different devices.
So how will Windows 8.x’s failure help Windows 10 to succeed? By providing a solid foundation.
A desktop-first approach for keyboard and mouse PCs will help to win over all those users still on Windows 7 and XP. Sure, some of them won’t move on to a new OS regardless of what Microsoft is offering (the fact XP still has a 25 per cent market share, despite having reached its end of life months ago is testament to that). But a large portion will be tempted to move to Windows 10 if there’s a good enough reason to do so.
For Windows 10 to succeed, Microsoft needs to get its core user base back onboard. If it can do that, then it can work on building decent share for Windows tablets and hybrids, something it’s desperately failed to do thus far.
The biggest alienating part of Windows 8.x is the new UI. Move that into the background on desktop systems (to the point where you need to really seek it out to use it) and there’s a good chance Microsoft can get people to make the leap.
The tech giant won’t, and shouldn’t, completely jettison the Modern UI. The problems that greeted "new Windows" at launch - an unfamiliar interface and a lack of quality apps - are no longer issues. People know what Windows 8.x looks like, even if they don’t use it. The Windows Store is still a long way from offering the depth of quality apps found in the Apple App Store and Google Play, but it’s decent enough now.
Keep the UI on touch devices, and hint at it on desktop systems, and you’ve a recipe for success.
Familiarity is a big part of what will help Windows 10 thrive. Make it familiar enough to users of Windows 7, and familiar enough to users of Windows 8.x - without alienating either party in the process - and that might just be enough.
Earlier this week Satya Nadella published a long letter to Microsoft employees that is intended as a rallying cry but lacks anything close to substance. However, one thing that does stand out is where he talks about productivity.
In a pull out quote he says:
That’s interesting to me because with Windows 8 Microsoft produced an operating system designed to do the opposite. Instead of letting you multitask with loads of programs and multiple windows, as we were used to doing, the new OS switched the focus to working in one full-screen app at a time. Instead of quickly firing up a new program from an unobtrusive menu, it made you stop what you were doing, leave the desktop entirely, and play Where’s Wally on a colourful, and frankly confusing full-screen UI that was awkward to use with a mouse.
Windows 8 slowed you down, and reduced productivity. Windows 8.1 addressed some of those issues, and the recent update improved things further.
If Microsoft can remove the remaining speed bumps in Windows 10, then there’s every chance that Redmond will have a much needed winner on its hands.