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Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs

Thanks to new apps and smaller, cheap devices, Windows 8 is primed for a rebound -- if Windows 8.1 delivers.

8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps
8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Research firm Forrester says IT isn't interested in Windows 8, and that the platform's success relies on consumers and BYOD. Given that consumers aren't exactly embracing the new OS, Win8's prospects are easy to dismiss -- so much so that Frank X. Shaw, Redmond's VP of corporate communications, recently felt compelled to reprimand the media for its emphatically bleak appraisal of his company's plight.

But here's the thing: Shaw could be right. Windows 8's consumer appeal is about to get a major upgrade.

An important note: this prediction presupposes that the OS's usability issues are addressed in Windows 8.1, a free update, formerly known as Windows Blue, expected to be revealed in June.

There's been some doublespeak from Microsoft on the usability point. Redmond executives have claimed that customer feedback informed Blue's development -- but they've also defended Win8's Live Tile start screen, which has been a significant driver of user criticism. There's a fine line between upholding one's convictions and alienating one's fans. Win 8.1 looks like it will land on the right side of that line -- but I'll come back to that later.

First, here are five reasons things are looking up for Windows 8.

1. New Intel Chips, Better Battery Life

Intel's Haswell core chips should be shipping inside Windows 8.1 devices by this fall. If you found the Surface Pro somewhat attractive but were deterred by its poor battery life and modest i5 processor -- your time is coming. Haswell is expected to deliver major improvements in power management, which means designers have more flexibility to balance CPU power and battery life. The result should be Win8 tablets and Ultrabooks that function like high-end laptops but can run all day on a single battery charge. Intel's chips are also expected to facilitate thinner, lighter form factors, and to deliver improved graphics performance -- perfect for the high-density screens that will be common on the next round of high-end, Surface Pro-like machines.

Intel's Bay Trail Atom processors, meanwhile, won't be on the market until later this year. But the new mobile-oriented chips are expected to substantially improve the graphics performance and central processing muscle of Atom-based Windows 8 tablets. Intel says the new processors are twice as powerful as the current ones, and Intel is clearly looking to challenge ARM, the chip of choice for smartphones and tablets. If Bay Trail lives up to its promise, it will enable the lightest and most portable of tablets to not only run the full version of Windows 8, but also, and more importantly, do so without a hitch. In a space dominated by cheap Android tablets and the iPad Mini, the ability to run Microsoft Office and legacy x86 apps could be a major differentiator.

2. Lower Prices

For many users, the first wave of Windows 8 devices was prohibitively expensive. The next wave, however, should offer options to fit all budgets. Intel has stated that Haswell-based Ultrabooks should reach the $600 price point. There will be more expensive options too. But given the improvements the new chips should facilitate, Intel's promise means that devices with more raw processing power and better battery life than the Surface Pro will soon cost only a little more than much-ignored, and x86-incompatible, Surface RT.

Atom-based Windows 8 tablets, meanwhile, could be much cheaper. The prospect of $1,000 Win8 Ultrabooks didn't entice many people -- but $300 for an extremely thin tablet that can capably run Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Angry Birds and most anything else? That could take a bite out of the iPad Mini's sales.

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/12/2016 | 9:37:31 PM
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User Rank: Ninja
5/20/2013 | 10:11:08 PM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
#4 is really the only thing that matters. Device prices are still high, but that is true for non-Windows devices as well when looking at the mobile market. On desktops licensing is way too expensive and that will not change. The biggest problem with Win8 is that it does not provide any value on the desktop. Even if Win8 would be for free there is not a single reason to install it. Microsoft needs to offer value and not drive loyal users raging mad. Maybe this year will be the year of the Linux desktop because Microsoft screwed it up.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/20/2013 | 7:24:12 PM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
Oh for cyring out loud already. I'm getting so tired of all the intellectually lazy posters who whine about "having" to work with a touch interface. Get over yourselves already. Use the desktop mode all day every day if that's what you want. And, never go into the Modern UI if you don't want to. It's doable right out of the box. If it's beyond comprehension to push the Flag key to switch modes, then by all means spend $5 and put Start8 on it and boot straight to desktop.
The vast majority of all the gripes and complaints are not REAL problems.
User Rank: Strategist
5/20/2013 | 5:40:27 PM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
I agree with most everything already said. If MS did anything with Win 8, it was move me closer to running Linux. They missed the boat completely in thinking that anyone working on a regular PC or laptop would want a touch interface. We want to use the keyboard - that's where we're most efficient. I've never been so frustrated as when using my wife's Win8 laptop, which she also rails against for its clunky interface. XP was the last great version, though I hear 7 is not bad either. I wish I had paid the extra 100 bucks to move back a version when I bought her laptop! (But on principal, I just couldn't do it.)
User Rank: Apprentice
5/20/2013 | 9:25:21 AM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
Windows needs to fix the glaring UI regressions that have steadily mounted since Vista. Get rid of the idiotic hidden controls.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/20/2013 | 7:07:39 AM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
Let see...

1) Help us Obi One Intel, you are our only hope, we are expecting a breakthrough in battery power since a decade, but all we get are small incremental updates that still let us disappointed, and what's worse, had killed so many time the hopes of umpcs that few still hopes.

2) Sheer geniality! They had a successful low cost device segment, and did everything to snuff it. They was called netbooks, sold like hot cakes, and since revenue seemed too low to OEMs in good ages they decided to kill them by stagnation and cease production. Again, how does they hope to regain consumer trust? our costless devices, so we can retire them, let you without support and sell pricey ones...

3) Sheer desperation. Do you remember ages when phones had countless form factors? How many successful form factors remain today? Quite simple math, if you release a plethora of for factor you will gain tiny margins of niche users, but there is not much juice here!

4) W8.1 UI refinements? We need to see it up and running before counting on it, especially, well, exactly because Microsoft succeeded so well in p1s*1ng off everyone with previous release! And this does not address the other big issues: Store threatens every single free developer and software distributor, Surface threatens OEMs (the one supposed to help MS, but that are actively blaming it and investing in Android product lines), and last but not least the new "services and devices" MS business strategy is not compatible with staying in business in enterprise environment "we need tools, not ads".

5) This is what is lacking. If you write a Store from scratch, you may attract developers. But if you try to impose it as primary software distribution channel, you are going to harm every Win32 developer and Win32 software distribution channel.

Moreover, if you are going to write sw for wintel, would you go for the 99,9% of win machines that runs Win32 (excluding WinRT arms) or would you go for the 4% machines running WinRT alongside Win32 as MS wants you to do?

That would be a so clever move that every single one of your competitor would like you go the MS way, you can bet it!

That's why iOS had 50 billion downloads from Store and W8 one is struggling.

And finally, usability again. No, no and again no. W8/Metro is not an evolution, a breakthrough, an improvement.

Touch exists on Win32 since '90s. Voice control exists since '90s. Eye/movement tracking exists.

The whole point of W8/Metro is an ADS centric UI with artificially limited networking and usability features, to deploy a sub par API for simple apps development, no more of what DHTML was in W98 and gadgets was in Vista, it is the MS dream of every single competitor using a sub par environment they can cut when they like as sole distributors (see OpenOffice and Firefox in this perspective? good luck?).

That's all, thank you Ballmer to have tried so blatantly to take over the IT world, it was a pleasure, now goodbye: you are the next IBM.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/20/2013 | 4:10:34 AM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
Here is what I want to know. Has Microsoft done anything about the inability to run native 8 apps in multiple windows? I use my computer for work. As such, it is normal for me to have 20-40 separate, individual windows open at any given time. This includes about a dozen Office app windows, two dozen RDP sessions to manage servers, about a dozen browser windows, (IE, Firefox and Chrome) and a dozen or two notepad windows. *ALL* of these windows exist autonomously on my screen. I need to see two or three office documents and an RDP session at the same time. I need to see 3 RDP sessions and 5 notepad windows at the same time. I need to see 3 browser windows and several office windows at the same time! Currently, with windows 8, this is impossible. Is Microsoft going to do something about this?
Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/20/2013 | 3:16:52 AM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
Not that I'm rushing to defend Microsoft here, but I've come to realize something lately - Windows is an OS that has to be all things to all people. It's everywhere and does everything. Therein lies the problem - nearly everything is a compromise.

Now, how should Microsoft fix that? I think that's the question that they need to find an answer to. Here's how I'd do it, and not simply DX the Metro interface and get a Start Menu button back - Microsoft needs to find a way to make Windows more easily customizable so that everyone can either use what comes straight out of the box or dive deeper into it (easily) and build out the UI that they want and create the user experience that they want with ease.

If I want to strip down the Windows UI to the point that it makes Win3.1 look modern in order to improve my system performance, I should be able to do that via the Control Panel, a widget somewhere or something else that comes with the OS. Additionally, if I want to add all of the doo-dads and build a cluttered machine, I should be able to do that too. If you want a machine with touch enabled, go for it. If you don't need touch enablement, turn it off and optimize your system - that sort of thing.

Sure, there are ways of doing both of those things - shell replacements and the like - but that's beyond the scope and grasp of the average user. If Microsoft could put that kind of power in the hands of the average user, I think the complaints about the UI would be over.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
5/19/2013 | 7:50:07 PM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
No question, the UI is THE major issue-- and the article uses this precise point as its bookends. That said, I don't think Point 3 is ridiculous. There's evidence that Windows 8 has a better adoption rate on tablets than it does on more traditional computers, and the holiday sales were hampered not only by complaints about the UI but also the fact that the few touch-enabled Win8 devices on the market were not only compromised (e.g. battery life) but also expensive. If Win 8.1 accompanies a great diversity of device types, a greater diversity of price points, and fewer compromises, then Microsoft will have removed several of the barriers that blocked adoption. The UI issue remains, so price, battery life and all the rest doesn't constitute some sort of panacea. But a panacea should deliver HUGE gains, not the sort of organic progress I'm talking about.

To be clear, this isn't to say that these barriers are as important as the UI. As I wrote in the article, if Win 8 can't immediately engage the user, a lot of people simply won't bother with it. But will more options and more price points encourage some fence-sitting would-be consumers to buy? Of course it will. It's useful to have x86 in a highly portable package with great battery life. If Microsoft can hitch that capability to an improved tablet interface, that appeal will only grow. Do tens of millions of people value this utility? Maybe not. But it's pretty tough to say that it doesn't matter to anyone, and that it won't have a positive impact on Win 8 adoption. As the article said, we're not talking the kind of growth that Android had over the last year. We're talking about Windows 8 becoming a legitimate third option on tablets. The reasons I cited might not be colossal game-changers individually, but the aggregate effect of a series of small enhancements can still be pretty big-- especially if the UI is good enough to avoid distracting users from the other benefits.

And about that "good enough" argument. One of the ideas implicit in that argument is that I'm NOT defending Windows 8 as a triumph of user design. I'm saying that Microsoft has some built-in advantages that it can leverage-- like access to x86 apps. To an extent, Windows 8's tepid sales suggest that Redmond assumed these advantages were more powerful than they actually are. But even if Windows 8 doesn't delight users like iOS and Android do, it also offers use cases that neither iOS nor Android can support. That makes the OS useful and provides a case for buying a Win8 device-- especially now that they're cheaper, faster and more power-efficient.

As for 'touching" one's way through the work day-- you have a point, but only for certain kinds of users. For someone like me, who spends most of the day pounding on a keyboard, the idea of relying on a touch UI is terrifying. And though I value tablets with attachable keyboards when I have to do reporting at a conference or something, I still want a real monitor and real keyboard whenever I can get one. For lots of tasks, traditional computers are still more preferable than any of the touch-oriented options.

But a lot of business tasks aren't above heavy content creation. They're about having the right information at the right moment-- about optimized content sharing and consumption, in other words. For those users, touch-oriented devices make the workday better, not worse. PCs aren't going away, but the workplace won't be dominated by a single device type either. Work will flow around a variety of endpoints, with touch a bigger deal for some people than for others.

I don't think Microsoft needs to make a version of Windows without touch. Instead, I think Microsoft needs to make sure that all the touch-oriented stuff doesn't get in the way of the desktop experience. It was a poor decision, for example, to force users - even those on traditional PCs - to boot to the Live Tile start screen. But Windows 8.1 is most likely fixing that problem, and as long as it fixes a few others, the reasons to buy won't be as outnumbered by the reasons not to buy.

That's not to say Windows 8 will suddenly be a huge success. I don't think it will EVER achieve the market penetration that Windows 7 has, for example. But do I believe there's a market that would value cheap tablets that also handle work-related tasks? Not when most models are deeply compromised and/or expensive, no. But when some of the compromises go away and prices drop, yes, I think that market will be there.

To be clear, Windows 8 will still be a sort of "jack of all trades, master of none" in many respects-- but unless the user has specific needs (i.e. "master" needs), new Win8 tablets will offer undeniable value propositions. Will that be good enough to stimulate meaningful Windows 8 adoption? It depends on how you define "meaningful" -- does Redmond need a 10% market share by 2014? 20%? 30%? As long as "meaningful" isn't defined in particularly lofty terms, and as long as Win8.1 isn't a complete flop, I think the setting is right for Windows 8 to make gains.

Michael Endler, IW Associate Editor
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