Microsoft Takes a Mulligan with Windows 8.1

As anyone who has not been living under a rock already knows, Microsoft has released a beta version of its pending reboot of Windows 8, cleverly dubbed Windows 8.1. (Where do they come up with this stuff?) Retail versions of this much-anticipated makeover should be hitting the channel by October. Windows 8.1 promises to restore popular and useful features deleted in the initial release of Windows 8, while tempering some of its more irritating features. The public preview of 8.1 is available here.

With the release of 8.1, Microsoft has tacitly acknowledged what the industry has been saying for months: Windows 8 is a flop.  It is now generally conceded that Windows 8 has been a huge failure, responsible for, among other things, depressing the sales of new desktops and laptops by as much as 30 percent. Some have suggested that the Windows 8 debacle has permanently altered the computer space, tipping the balance irrevocably away from traditional laptops and desktops and toward handheld devices. In my business I see the impact nearly every day, in the form of customers who say–and here I quote exactly– “I HATE Windows 8.” Sometimes, though, they put it a bit more coarsely than that.

Thinking Different

With Windows 8, Microsoft pretty much reinvented the wheel. This is not, generally speaking, a good thing. In place of the desktop and start menu, fixtures since Windows 95 (approximately 200 computer-years) was a visually striking but initially confusing collage of “tiles,” each of which represented categories, applications, or portals. The tiles were designed for use with a touch screen interface, although a mouse may also be used. As an added irritant, many of the tiles seem to have no purpose other than to deliver advertisements, merchandizing opportunities, and other unwanted solicitations. Eminently useful features like the Safe Start option and Help and Support have been removed, radically altered, or made essentially inaccessible. Though not without its appealing elements, perhaps the most common reaction on seeing Windows 8 for the first time has been some variation of “WTF?”

That’s not entirely fair. Among new users of computers, that is people under the age of 10, the reaction has been pretty positive.

To reduce illegal copying, the traditional product activation key has been retired in favor of a dynamic system that generates a key based on the computer’s BIOS. This might help Microsoft fatten its already healthy bottom line, but has the potential for complicating the process of reloading Windows, something almost every user will have to do sooner or later. Already we have seen, on multiple occasions, legitimate reloads of Windows 8 rejected on activation with the message “this key is already in use.” This is a problem.

On the one hand, you have to commend Microsoft for thinking outside the box. You can imagine the internal arguments that must have raged, with a traditionalist faction pushing for an improved yet familiar interface, and a visionary faction retorting that the future was in handhelds and touchscreens. Ultimately, of course, the visionaries won.

On the other hand, you could be excused for wondering what they are smoking these days in Redmond. Although the visionaries might very well be right about the future, we happen to live in the present, and in the present most of us still use mouses and menus. And we really, really like our start button. Furthermore, you have to seriously question the one-size-fits-all approach of Windows 8. Does it really make sense to have only one interface available to serve the entire range of digital devices: handhelds, tablets, laptops, desktops, and workstations?

So of the three major OS roll-outs shepherded by Steve Ballmer (Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 ) we have, respectively, one disaster (partially redeemed with two service packs and hundreds of hotfixes), one unqualified success, and one catastrophe. In baseball that might be a good average but in business, not so much. People are beginning to openly grumble: Why is this man still in charge?

It’s easy to play armchair quarterback in these situations, and almost everyone who has been critical of Windows 8 has had the luxury of not having been involved in its creation. It’s different, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, when you are the man in the arena. But seriously, a farm boy from the cornfields of Iowa could have told Microsoft that Windows 8 had major problems. Actually a farm boy from Iowa probably DID tell them that, but they just didn’t listen. I can only imagine the millions that Microsoft spent on focus groups, only to discard almost every bit of their input when it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

When in Doubt, Double Down

Microsoft has a long history of aggravating its blunders with aggressive, hardball tactics. For example, when it became clear early on that Windows Vista was a problem child, rather than working to address its many deficiencies Microsoft simply ramped up the pressure on OEM builders and hardware manufacturers to support only Vista, at the expense of earlier versions of Windows. And as the complaints continued to pile up, Microsoft circled the corporate wagons. “We have no plans to release a service pack for Vista,” Steve Ballmer famously declared a few months after the initial release. It took a virtual revolt by the biggest players in the business for Microsoft to concede its errors and move to rectify them. Quietly, Microsoft began offering downgrade licenses at no cost to those who wanted them. And to be fair, with two service packs and lots of hotfixes, Vista eventually became a pretty good OS.

With Windows 8, Microsoft seems to be following the same playbook. With the release of Windows 8, literally overnight copies of Windows 7 disappeared from retailer shelves and online inventories. At the same time, large OEMs began offering only Windows 8 on their new units, reflecting either pressure from Redmond, or mass buybacks (or cancellations) of remaining Windows 7 licenses. Or perhaps both. If Windows 7 were an embarrassing failure, you could understand the logic. But it wasn’t; Windows 7 might be the best OS Microsoft has ever made. Where is the logic in pulling a vital, viable product when it is still relevant? A sale is a sale.

What Microsoft seems not to realize is that forcing people to buy something they really don’t like irritates them very much, and leaves them feeling powerless and unappreciated. More importantly, it primes them to consider the competition. And yes, there is competition. Then again, maybe Microsoft knows all this but just doesn’t care.

Deep in denial, Microsoft has been quick to tout impressive-sounding sales figures as evidence of Windows 8’s success. What it fails to mention, though, is that the overwhelming majority of these sales were OEM copies bundled with new hardware. And in the vast majority of those cases, the customer had no choice. If you wanted a new computer you got Windows 8, period. These sales don’t really count. One is reminded of Henry Ford stubbornly offering one car model (the Model T), in one only color (black), even as the rest of the industry began to pass him by.

Although it is far too early to pass judgement, Microsoft may yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with 8.1.  However, the buzz is that Ballmer et al have already given up on it and are turning their attention to Windows 9, now in development. Word of advice: When you ask people to give you feedback about it, shut up and listen this time.

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