Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why Windows 8 Will Fail, at Least In the Desktop Market...

Well many of you are probably windows users, in fact estimates are that around 90% of all computers are running Microsoft Windows. Of that, nearly 50% of users are still using Windows XP. That means 50% of users are using Windows Vista, Windows 7, and even older versions like Windows 2000 or maybe something even earlier. If average consumers are anything, its frugal. Most consumers take a "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude, especially when it comes to something that is so expensive. The Operating System (OS) can cost 30% or more of the purchase price of a computer. Early adoption of these OSes by consumers is nearly impossible, most consumers opt to stay with what they are comfortable with, even after support has long since expired. This is probably the reason why most users are still using Windows XP today over ten years after it was introduced to consumers, its easy to use, requires little training, its very stable, and runs almost any application you throw at it. It's also full of security issues, is a major target for attack by hackers and exposes you to the world with almost no protection built in. A firewall was included with it at release but hidden to the average person, and not even enabled by default until a later service pack release. Although still considered a security risk, a well hardened Windows XP machine is still considered one of the most stable platforms to run.

As consumers purchase newer hardware they are forced into using OSes that come bundled with their hardware. Hardware manufacturers do not want to support older OSes so they deliberately do not create drivers for the older OSes, preventing a more tech savvy user from simply wiping the new OS and putting an older one in its place. After Microsoft released Windows XP, they went on to release the colossal flop Windows Vista. Windows Vista had many problems. For one, it introduced users to a new idea, security.

Most users had been using an OS which was considerably lax in security, evident by the amount of malicious software infection vectors available for it. Viruses, Worms, Trojans, Rootkits and Spyware are all part of a class of software know in the security industry as malware. Most malware created today take advantage of users through a technique called social engineering. Social engineering as it relates to computers, is the art of manipulating people into performing tasks or divulging information without even needing to meet them. A common practice is to get users to click on a link in a web page by convincing the user that its in their best interest to do so. Often times the user sees an image that shows them they are infected by a virus and they must click the image to clean it. This image will often look exactly like a security pop-up, even marked with the words "Microsoft Windows", making the user believe it to be legitimate. Once the user has clicked the image, they are infected with malware. On older OSes, even visiting the page to begin with would often cause your computer to become infected, achieved mostly through an exploit in the browser being used to view the page.

When Windows Vista shipped, it included a new tool called the User Account Control (UAC) which was enabled by default. A user only had two options available to them, enabled or disabled. Leaving the UAC enabled caused the user to get prompted by a dialog box whenever a program attempted to access a part of the OS which was considered to be protected. Protected parts of the OS included the Windows folder, the Windows Registry and the User folder. A user who upgraded from Windows XP to Windows Vista would suddenly find out that everything you install touches the OS in a way that requires privileged access. Unlike its Unix and Linux counterparts, which were designed to give access to a privileged account called Root only as needed by an application, Microsoft Windows needs it for nearly everything. While a user of Mac OSX may get prompted only once per session to give something Root access, a user of Windows Vista may get prompted frequently, often many times for the same application. This annoyed average users and caused them to turn the UAC off, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by malicious code. Windows Vista was also one of the most resource heavy OSes ever made, an average machine could simply not run the OS without needing major upgrades. Worse still, a practice of computer manufacturers has always been to include the least amount of available ram in a machine that was needed to boot the machine and include not a stick more. The minimum specs for a Windows Vista machine were extremely under estimated and so manufacturers were including as little as 256MB of ram with newly purchased machines. Sure, this would allow the machine to boot into the OS, but make it usable, was another story. Windows Vista would run "OK" on a machine with a modern processor and 2GB of ram, but anything less would cause major problems. This practice of making consumers purchase additional ram just to make their OS usable hurt the industry and many consumers would not purchase a machine that was bundled with Windows Vista.

Well no one would contend that Windows Vista wasn't pretty, its inability to grab consumers to early adoption of the OS led Microsoft to speed up its release of its next generation of OS, Windows 7. Windows 7 while still a very pretty OS, was much easier to use. It gave users more options to control the UAC, by giving them a slider to determine the frequency of dialog boxes they would receive when installing and running certain applications. While the UAC in Windows 7 still pops up occasionally, its considerably less due to changes in the OS that allow certain types of applications access to certain protected parts while not to others. Windows 7 while still having the same minimum requirements of Windows Vista was easily installable on older machines that Windows Vista was not. This allowed consumers with older machines who wanted to adopt a newer OS, the ability to install the OS without having to make considerable upgrades. Although Windows 7 runs better on a machine with a modern processor and healthy amount of ram, it is quite adequate with less. This helped Microsoft to sell more copies of the Windows 7 OS than they had sold of Windows Vista.

Most modern machines are now running Windows 7, and I'd say 99% of their owners are very happy with the OS. Although Windows 7 does run on tablets, the interface was not specifically designed for it, as compared with something like iOS, available on Apple IPads. This led Microsoft to a new design plan for their new version of Microsoft Windows, called Windows 8.

Windows 8 will release either sometime late this year or early next year and I believe it will be a colossal flop just like Windows Vista was. For one, its ugly. While this may seem like a matter of opinion and it probably is, its an opinion that most people who see it, with the exception of Microsoft Executives, actually have. With the release of a developer preview and soon to be released, consumer preview users will get a real glimpse of the new OS and find a lot has changed. No longer are we using the desktop interface users have been used to since the beginning of Microsoft Windows 95, nearly 17 years ago, but a new style of interface called Metro. Metro is layout of familiar applications that are tiled together on the screen to allow a user easier access. Gone are the desktop and start button so many of us are familiar with. Sure you can still access them, but you must go through the Metro interface to actually use them, and once you are done, the Metro interface returns to the foreground covering the screen again.

While this interface will make using a tablet much easier as the Metro icons are very large and you can drag the metro interface from screen to screen with your finger, it makes using a mouse and keyboard much harder. Microsoft has designed an OS here for one purpose, tablet computing, disregarding the market that they built their entire business on. This will be a huge mistake, for one thing, your average consumer doesn't even own a tablet, most consumers find them too expensive, choosing to purchase a new computer which is a more useful tool for doing everything from creating documents, printing documents, playing games, browsing the web, installing applications, or playing music. A computer does everything better than a tablet does, with the exception of mobility. However, since most modern mobile phones are smart phones, being able to bring things like pictures, documents, music and the Internet with you is very easy. This leaves a small market of mostly tech savvy users available to Microsoft with which to adopt a new tablet. Unfortunately for Microsoft, this market is dominated by Apple with the IPad. Anyone who has used an Ipad would not trade it in for another tablet, for one its very expensive so buying one is an investment most users are not willing to simply set aside for something new, especially since it means investing more money into something they have never used before. Had Microsoft been earlier to the game, they might have had a chance to get in on the ground floor giving users a choice and creating a market that is more diverse. But simply put, the IPad is very usable, its very pretty, and its from a company that has dominated the hardware market since it began releasing the first Ipods in 2001.

While owning Apple hardware was once considered to be a part of the market reserved for elitists and the very non-technical people, through innovation and an ability to convince consumers of a need they didn't know they had, Steve Jobs took a once failing company and turned it into an empire. Apple hardware is now found everywhere. Everyone, from the very young to the very old, own something made by Apple, whether it be a mac, Iphone, Ipod, IPad or Apple TV. Since the early days of the Apple II, Apple has always been ahead of everyone else in innovating and adopting new technology. This has allowed them to create a market for things where none had been before. This gives them both the advantage of grabbing a huge market share, but also holding on to it as newer technologies are released to compete. Because Apple has always been ahead of the game, other competitors are always playing catch up, and consumers don't really like that game. Consumers tend to stick with the technologies they are used to and companies that give them the most innovations.

In such a market Microsoft will have a huge disadvantage, one they have always had in trying to take over something they didn't dominate first with. Examples of this are the Zune, their attempt at competing with the Ipod and to a lessser extent Bing, their attempt at competing with Google. They also made this mistake when they tried to bundle Internet Explorer with Windows. Although newer versions of Internet Explorer are way better than earlier versions, they are always behind the technology curve releasing a browser that is outdated  the day it is released.

While I applaud the attempt by Microsoft to try and bring consumers more competition and a more diverse market, they should stick to the technologies they dominate the most. After all, this is their bread and butter. They dominate in OSes with Microsoft Windows as well as productivity software with Microsoft Office. Both of these are examples of Microsoft taking something they are good at and sticking to that formula. Microsoft Windows though its gone through many iterations, has maintained a look and feel to it that has made many consumers comfortable with it since its inception. Microsoft Office has similarly changed very little since its inception, only making minor changes with each release, making its most significant change to the interface with the release of Microsoft Office 2010, introducing users to the ribbon. But even with the introduction of the ribbon, the core of the software hasn't changed and that's important.

We shall see if my predictions come true by next year and I believe they will. And when they do come true Microsoft will be left in a very tough position. For the first time they will have alienated their users beyond a simple change, like moving icons from one place to another, or taking a familiar application out of the OS. This time users will lose confidence in a company they have been buying products from since the mid 1980's and I believe it will harm Microsoft. Although they may recover by quickly releasing a new OS that returns users to the interface they most love and are most used to using, the damage will be done. Users will wonder when Microsoft will try and change their interface again.

If Microsoft should learn anything from this, it will be that consumers do not like change, they didn't like it in Windows Vista and they won't like it in Windows 8.

The Metro Interface

Metro Apps from the Microsoft App Store

A Video I created of me using Windows 8.

UPDATE: After the release of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, I created another blog post The Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Just a Tad Shinier Than The Previous Turd. Please check it out. 

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