Windows 8 Fizzling, Time For Windows Classic?

If Windows 8 sales don’t improve soon, Microsoft might have to pull a Coke and cut its losses on its radically reengineered OS.
Windows: Goofs And Gaffes
Windows: Goofs And Gaffes
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The early results are in, and the news isn't good for Microsoft. Indications are that initial sales for Windows 8 are dismal. The question now facing Redmond is whether to stick with this radical reimagining of its veritable OS, or revert to the familiar Windows environment of old.

First, some background. Microsoft hasn't released official sales numbers for Windows 8 or related products, like Surface RT, which hit stores in late October. But evidence is building from numerous sources that consumer response to the new products can be summed up as: "Meh."

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster and his team spent Black Friday monitoring foot traffic at Microsoft and Apple stores at Mall of America in Minneapolis. They found that customers in the Apple store bought 17.2 items per hour, while Microsoft's customers purchased just 3.5 items per hour, and most of those were Xbox games. Over two hours, the Apple store sold 11 iPads, while the Microsoft store sold exactly zero Surface tablets, according to an account of the exercise published by Fortune.

Meanwhile, 29% of the more than 20,000 would-be tablet buyers surveyed this month by Vuclip said they plan to purchase an iPad. Some 22% said they would opt for a Samsung Galaxy Tab. Only 4% said they would choose Microsoft Surface. That doesn't even come close to the 15% that plan to buy a BlackBerry PlayBook (apparently still on the market for some reason).

Last week, Topeka Capital Markets analyst Brian White said that his checks of the Asian supply chain revealed that Windows 8 is off to a slow start. "Much lower than ... PC makers originally expected a few months ago," said White, in a report. Also last week, Deutsche Bank cut its estimate for PC sales in the current quarter, due to "lackluster initial uptake of Windows 8," according to analyst Chris Whitmore.

[ Windows does provide a variety of options. Check out 8 Cool Windows 8 Tablets. ]

So, with all the evidence pointing to an astonishingly weak start for Windows 8, should Microsoft ditch Modern UI (aka Metro) and bring back Windows as most people know it. Such a move would be an admission of massive failure on Redmond's part, not to mention a waste of billions of dollars spent developing and promoting Windows 8.

But huge corporate about-faces are not without precedent. The most famous example of a major company cutting its losses on a widely-hyped, but ultimately failed, product is Coca Cola. The drink maker introduced New Coke in April, 1985, but reintroduced regular Coke as "Coke Classic" just three months later after bowing to consumer feedback that could be summed up as: "Blech."

Steve Ballmer himself has shown that he's not afraid to admit mistakes and kill a product that's bombed. Microsoft axed the KIN phone in 2010 just months after it was released. Aimed mainly at teens and 'tweens, it didn't catch on with anyone.

So, is it time for Windows Classic?

I'd be surprised if such a move isn't at the very least under discussion in Redmond. The sudden exit earlier this month of Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, who championed Windows 8 and Metro, means Windows' future is in play. (It's worth noting that J Allard, former CTO in Microsoft's devices division and KIN project leader, stepped down shortly before the company announced that product's discontinuation).

Here's how I believe it will play out. Microsoft will give Windows 8 at least until next summer to show it can gain traction. In the meantime, the company can start to address numerous complaints about the OS. I find Metro to be an innovative, attractive interface that sets Microsoft products like Surface RT apart from me-too Android competitors in the tablet space. But it needs a good polish.

One of the most aggravating issues about Windows 8 is that there are two ways to do almost everything, depending on whether you're in Metro mode or on the more conventional Windows Explorer desktop. What works in one often doesn't work in the other, meaning that Windows 8 users must learn two sets of commands for a whole host of tasks.

For example, both Metro and Explorer offer Ease Of Access settings. But they're completely different. In Metro, you can select a button to "Make everything on your screen bigger." It does just that. Text on news sites gets larger and so on. In Explorer, there's an Ease of Access Center that can be gotten to from the Control Panel. It has a tool to "Change the size of all items." But it only appears to affect desktop icons and text in documents, not websites. That's just one small menu item from Windows 8's rather extensive recipe for confusion.

Then there's Internet Explorer 10. Windows 8 devices come with two versions of the browser -- a desktop version and a Metro-style version. Their interfaces and command structures differ significantly. In Metro Explorer, a vertical, upwards swipe brings up tiles representing favorites and frequently visited sites. There is no corresponding command in the desktop version. That and other discrepancies could be an endless source of frustration for users, who need to remember which mode they are in, and the right commands.

Here's another example. To close a Windows 8 desktop application, you can click the familiar X in the upper right corner. Want to close a Metro app? There's no X. You must swipe from the top of the screen to the bottom. Or you can press ALT-F4, which works for most apps, but not all.

Microsoft needs to unify the user experience between Windows 8's Explorer and Metro modes. That could go a long way toward making the OS more user-friendly and increasing sales. A richer app environment also needs to emerge. As of this writing, there are no Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn apps for Windows 8. I find the former to be a particular stunning omission, given Microsoft's marketing muscle and close relationship with the social network.

But if Windows 8's fortunes haven't improved by mid-2013, I'm doubtful that Microsoft will risk another lost holiday season. In that eventuality, I would expect the company to introduce what I'll call Windows 8 Classic. It would maintain Windows 8's numerous under-the-hood improvements in security and manageability, but would ditch Metro in favor of the familiar Windows desktop, with the Start button, Task Bar and other well-known features restored.

A few months later, I would expect the rebranded OS to lose the Classic tag, just like Coke did, and simply be called Windows 8. If this scenario plays out, Metro will quietly go the way of Kin, Clippy and New Coke. What do you think? Do you believe Microsoft will ultimately ditch Metro? Let me know in the comments section below.