Microsoft's stumbles continue while other options improve.
- By David W. Dodd
- November 1st, 2013
I love change. Technology is characterized by rapid change, which is one of the reasons it’s a great field in which to work. But sometimes in technology, as in the natural world, changes don’t go so well. In fact, most don’t work out at all — species and technologies both become extinct when their changes aren’t adaptive. With technology, it’s useful to wait a bit and see how it all works out, which brings me to Microsoft and Windows 8.
Microsoft essentially owned the franchise on operating systems for many years. However, Apple realized significant gains throughout the past decade with its Macs, iPhones and iPads. Google entered the operating system arena in a concerted way with its Android mobile OS and a strong browser in Chrome, as well as a strong cloud strategy for services and apps. At the same time, Microsoft’s share in the phone market fell and its tablet strategy floundered.
Apple’s and Google’s OSes were designed around a central core concept while Microsoft struggled, offering different OSes. By the time Vista appeared, Microsoft realized it had to take more serious steps on the desktop, but Vista was a disaster that was soon replaced with a respectable OS in Windows 7. Microsoft also had to deal with the fact that its tablet and phone business was losing ground rapidly to Apple and Google.
Enter Windows 8
Windows 8 represented Microsoft’s all-in attempt to move to one core OS and user interface across all platforms, from smartphones all the way up through large-screen interactive displays. It was intended to have a slick, interactive touch capability. Microsoft also reentered the hardware market with its own proprietary Surface tablet running on an embedded, limited Windows 8 OS called RT.
Did I mention that not all changes eventually work out well?
Microsoft completely reengineered Windows across all platforms in producing 8, which was released in October 2012. From a technical perspective, the new OS got good reviews for speed, efficiency, security, development APIs and other attributes. But from all accounts, users didn’t fare so well. Usability reviews of Windows 8 were generally poor. In 2012, InfoWorld ran a story with the headline, “Windows 8 review: Yes, it’s that bad.” In Feb 2013, MIT Technology Review stated, “Windows 8 is a computer science masterpiece trapped inside a user interface kerfuffle.”
The change for users was too great, particularly for PC users who utilize their computers to actually do work (the majority of us). The Start button was gone, replaced with a “tiled” interface that was incorporated throughout the Office suite. Most of us strive to become as effective as possible using technology, and we will welcome any improvements. Windows 8 was not an improvement.
By year-end 2012, Microsoft reported the company had sold 60 million Windows 8 licenses. But that was in the context of both holiday purchases and pent-up demand for PCs with deferred purchases. From independent accounts, Windows 8 sales and adoption didn’t go well. In July 2013, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer reportedly admitted to an internal Microsoft audience that Surface and Windows 8 sales were disappointing. Microsoft expedited work on its 8.1 release, which was largely designed to address many of the usability problems.
Windows 8 has remained problematic for all of us who depend on a good desktop OS both personally and for the enterprise. Windows RT has also struggled, with partners withdrawing from the platform and Microsoft taking a $900M loss on unsold Surface RT tablets.
Windows 8.1 has been released and reportedly has somewhat improved usability. The Start button is back, and there are more ways to customize it. But Microsoft is all-in with its existing interface and apps design. SkyDrive (Microsoft’s cloud) integration is featured. Essentially, it’s still 8. PC World magazine describes Windows 8.1 as “the great compromise” for both Microsoft and users.
PC sales data for Q3 2013 are in and Gartner, Inc., reports these reflect the sixth consecutive quarterly decline and the worst back-to-school sales quarter since 2008. An InfoWorld headline states: “PC shipments crater and tablets are the bogeymen.” Best Buy is offering up to $350 for Surface trade-ins, so it’s not all tablets…
Many organizations and decision-makers have deferred major desktop upgrades in order to wait for something better. Windows 8 isn’t it. With each stumble, the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) environment advances, alternative OSes improve significantly and cloud computing and virtualization shifts dependence away from the desktop OS. Microsoft’s time is running out on the desktop, and other options are increasingly attractive.
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of College Planning & Management.
David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or firstname.lastname@example.org.