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5/18/2013
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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.

Windows 8 struggled partially due to a lack of elegance in the new interface. But a lot of that bad buzz came from people who ran the OS without a touchscreen. Some of these Win8 installations involved new licenses installed on old machines, which gain little value, if any, from the new UI. But OEMs exacerbated this problem when, heading into last winter, they managed to release only a handful of touch-enabled options.

By the time this year's back-to-school and holiday seasons roll around, store shelves should not only feature a great abundance of touch-oriented Windows 8 devices but also a greater diversity of form factors. This variety will include some novel ideas, such as 30-inch hybrid tablets that can be docked like a desktop but also laid flat to create a table display. But the entrance of mini-tablets is probably the most notable development.

As mentioned above, these devices -- thanks to not only their ability to offer legitimate productivity tools in a consumer-friendly tablet but also their low prices -- could be enormously popular. Microsoft might even debut a 7-inch Surface model as soon as this summer.

4. Windows 8.1's UI Refinements

Windows 8.1's biggest hurdle will be addressing core usability concerns -- more on that below. Aside from this point, though, the update will -- based on information gleaned from leaked Windows Blue builds -- deliver a more refined version of the Metro interface. Many of the tweaks, such as the ability to resize and customize Live Tile sizes, are small but welcome. Others, such as an improved Snap Views function that allows up to four Metro apps to be displayed simultaneously, are more functional. Other changes include deeper Sky Drive integration, Internet Explorer 11 and support for new touch gestures.

Nothing earth-shattering has come to light, but the numerous small improvements should contribute to a smoother, more cohesive user experience. Control panel tweaks aren't exciting, for example, but because Windows 8 currently forces users to jump between the Metro and desktop interfaces to access these controls, it's significant that Windows Blue will likely make these tools easier to access from either environment. It's not flashy -- but it makes the user experience significantly less frustrating.

To be fair, "less frustrating" doesn't exactly equal iOS-level user delight. But Windows 8 is still a new, radically different model, and it will take Microsoft some time to figure things out. Plus, to gain market share, Windows 8.1 doesn't need to be great. It just needs to be good enough.

Microsoft products are still an entrenched part of most businesses. It's one thing for a BYOD employee to use Google Apps and an iPad because he doesn't want to spend $1,000 on a Surface Pro that has lousy battery life, is relatively heavy and features an aggravating interface. It's another thing, though, to pay $300 or $400 for great battery life, complete compatibility with the office, a light form factor and a decent tablet UI that does most things it's supposed to do. If Win 8.1 is expected to disrupt the market, it's bound to disappoint. But if it's meant to lead to organic growth that could lead to future gains, then "good enough" could actually work -- at least until Google, Samsung or Apple does something to move the mobile goal posts.

5. Better Apps

The native Windows 8 apps weren't great, but Microsoft has already released updates to improve them, and Blue is expected to bring new alarm, sound recorder, movie and calculator apps.

It's unclear how useful these new entries will be, but Microsoft has also been actively encouraging developers to join the Win8 fold, and the effort has been paying off. The platform now boasts more than 73,000 apps, and developer activity, after trailing off during the first three months of the year, is nearly as high as it was at launch. Microsoft has also been building an elite team to develop next-gen apps that span the entire Windows ecosystem.

Win 8.1 won't change the fact that Metro still has only about one-tenth the number of apps that iOS has. Still, Redmond's new OS now has enough apps to compete; it can't do everything, but the Windows Store no longer resembles a bare cupboard.

But It All Hinges On Usability

As Windows 8's defenders point out, the OS is usable -- as long as you endure a short learning curve. The problem is, many users gave Metro only a brief look and dismissed Win8 without a second thought. To a certain segment of users, a tablet that can access x86 apps is a dream come true. But iPads satisfy most people's most common needs, and when they require something heavier, most of them still have a computer. Windows 8's merits, for many of these users, did not make learning the new OS worthwhile.

To be fair, some of this adoption hesitancy has to do with cost, and Microsoft and its partners are about to address that. But it's clear, fair or not, that the UI hurdle needs to be removed. That doesn't mean Redmond should kill Metro, but it means the devices need to be engaging as soon as users pick them up.

The extent to which Microsoft understands this is unclear. On the one hand, Windows CMO and CFO Tami Reller has conceded that the "learning curve" imposed by the new Live Tiles UI is "real and needs to be addressed."

But Windows chief Julie Larson-Green has defended the Live Tile start screen as a "dramatic improvement" over the familiar start menu it replaces. Microsoft is "principled ... but stubborn" about the new interface, she said, even while conceding that a resurrected start menu "might be helpful" to some users. Muddying the waters further, she also said that Windows 8.1 won't deliver "major changes," and that "some things" -- presumably, the stream of Win Blue rumors that had been steadily flowing for months -- "are wildly inaccurately reported."

Speaking of those rumors, with Windows Blue, users will likely gain the option to boot directly to the desktop interface, rather than being force-fed the Live Tiles start screen every time they start their machines. Window 8.1 might also feature a restored start menu, but rather than functioning like its Windows 7-equivalent, it's rumored to be a Live Tiles shortcut. There's also been talk of search charm enhancements intended to wean users of their old-UI dependencies, and better integration of tutorials and help functions. Whether any of these changes actually materialize remains to be seen.

But whatever Microsoft does, it must make the OS easier to use. If the company does so, watch out. Based on the five factors above, the conditions are right for Microsoft's consumer market share to jump.

Does this mean the next Surface will catapult to iPad-like sales, or that Windows 8 is about to explode the way Android did in 2012? No. But an important shift is nonetheless primed to occur. At launch, Windows 8 presented users with one very important reason to buy: a tablet UI and legacy applications, all in one device. Unfortunately, it also gave users many reasons not to buy: a counterintuitive UI, costly devices, uninspired native apps, lackluster app library, poor battery life, and so on.

Now, most of the deterrents have been eliminated. Ease of use is the big one that remains.

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moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
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.
AustinIT
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AustinIT,
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.
jrehg337
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jrehg337,
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.)
ANON1245867443530
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ANON1245867443530,
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.
Palpatine
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Palpatine,
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? ...buy 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.
Zod
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Zod,
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
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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
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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
JPolk
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JPolk,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/19/2013 | 7:04:48 PM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
"By the time this year's back-to-school and holiday seasons roll around, store shelves should not only feature a great abundance of touch-oriented Windows 8 devices but also a greater diversity of form factors."

So OEM's are chomping at the bit to send products to market that few people are buying now because Santa Clause is bringing them? Really!? "I wanted a real Windows laptop, Mommy!" "Well, Honey, Mommy asked Santa and he said Microsoft told him to tell us to shut up and learn the new OS!" This Christmas should be great! No one will get what they want...not even the PC makers are just want a decent profit!
JPolk
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JPolk,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/19/2013 | 6:58:44 PM
re: Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs
NONE of the other factors matter besides the UI. I don't care how many apps you have, how fast the CPU is, and frankly point number 3 is ridiculous. Touch is what killed this OS in the first place. Rather than embrace touch as an extension of the user experience MS decided to bank of dropping the desktop and arrogantly assumed it had the clout to force-feed touch on a public that, as it turns out, can't actually work in this environment and doesn't want to sit and "figure out" the OS. Without reverting back to a desktop-centric OS, Windows is dead. Period. No one wants to touch their way through the work day. Make the touch interface an extension of the OS that only presents when touch makes sense and keep the overwhelming majority of people in the desktop where thousands of apps, particularly WORK apps, live and thrive.
I'm very much aware people "can" learn the environment but why should they? With alternatives MS is just chasing people away. If they don't bring the desktop back, people will start looking to alternatives and somewhere, someone will fill that niche and the EOL of Windows 7 will see a migration away from Windows 8. MS had better learn a lesson here. Until the entire industry moves to touch (and other innovations come to make the migration intuitive and "workable"), Windows makes no sense as a touch-only or predominantly touch environment.
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