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Do You Really Need – or Want – Windows 8?

Do You Really Need – or Want – Windows 8?

Some tech writers are calling Windows 8 Microsoft’s “most vital launch in years.” That may be. But I question whether it’s an update that’s really needed, or that consumers will embrace.

First off, are you (and your friends, family, and colleagues) actively clamoring for a radically revamped version of Windows? I don’t think that’s the case. Most people are happy enough with their current version of Windows, and at best are asking for bug fixes and the like – not for something that looks and acts completely different than what they’re used to. I don’t hear anyone, anywhere, pleading with Microsoft to dump the establish Windows desktop so they can learn yet another “new and improved” way to perform their daily tasks.

You can see this by examining which versions of Windows are being used today. As of January 2012, market research firm Net Applications claims that Windows XP remains the dominant operating system, with 47% of computers still running the eleven year-old OS. After two and a half years on the market, only 36% of computers are running Windows 7, the latest version. That says a lot about the unwillingness of consumers and corporate IT staff alike to upgrade just because there’s a new OS available. With XP still ruling the world, I don’t see that many people making the jump to Windows 8.

Then there’s the issue of where Windows 8 comes from. With Windows 8, Microsoft is basing its core operating system on the Windows Phone 7 OS for mobile phones. Now, Windows Phone 7 has received some good reviews, but has not been widely accepted in the marketplace; it’s a distant number three behind Apple’s dominant iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. Basing Windows for PCs on Windows Phone is definitely the tail wagging the dog; it’s as if a restaurant had a failing Spam burger on its lunch menu then decided to base its entire dinner menu on Spam. There simply isn’t a multitude of Windows Phone users clamoring to port that interface to the desktop. It’s either a gutsy move on Microsoft’s part or a very stupid one.

This brings us to the reasoning behind the drastic changes in Windows. Microsoft has seen the success of Apple’s iPad and has apparently decided that tablets and touch devices are the future. If this is the case, Microsoft’s desktop-centric version of Windows becomes irrelevant. Microsoft is pinning its future on some imagined merger of handheld and desktop computing and has designed an operating system that can run on all permutations – desktop PCs, notebook PCs, tablets, smartphones, and even combination tablet/notebook devices. One can certainly argue whether tablets will totally replace traditional personal computers, and can further question whether a single operating system can best serve all devices, but Microsoft seems to believe in a one-size-fits-all solution and obviously wants that single operating system to be Windows. While that’s nice for developers (create just one app for multiple device platforms), that may not yield the best results for users of those different devices; what works when using a handheld tablet might not work as well when using a desktop PC. The reality may be that having one OS for tablets and another optimized for notebook/desktop PCs is the better approach.

One also has to ask whether Windows 8 and its Metro interface is really that effective for today’s users. While I think that Metro is an interesting approach to touch-based computing, I would argue that it’s not the best approach for mouse- and keyboard-driven computing – which is how most of us use our computers today. The mouse-driven desktop is a proven approach to doing important tasks, such as word processing and spreadsheets; removing the Start button and relegating the traditional desktop to a subservient role only makes it harder for users to do what they need to do.

Microsoft, of course, will argue that Metro is designed for touch-screen devices, which it is. But a miniscule percentage of today’s desktop and notebook computers have said touch screens. If using Metro is a step backward for users of traditional PCs, Microsoft shouldn’t expect existing users to upgrade.

And even if the computer market totally changes and hybrid touch-screen tablet/notebooks catch on (there aren’t any on the market yet, remember), there’s nothing that says that Microsoft’s Metro is the best approach. After all, Apple not only has a several-year lead in developing touch-screen interfaces, but also does it really well. If users truly are abandoning their mice for touch screens, or notebook PCs for tablets, betting against Apple may not be wise; Microsoft does not have a good track record in this area.

Now, we’re still in the early stages of things; the general public only just got access to the Consumer Preview of the new operating system. Windows 8 will certainly attract a lot of attention, and may prove successful with some user segments. But my concern is that in spite of its obvious innovations, Windows 8 is a solution in search of a problem. If that’s the case, Microsoft won’t see a lot of existing users upgrade their systems, and could even see new PC sales affected unless hardware manufacturers offer the older Windows 7 as a purchase option.

So, as all articles of this type always end, only time will tell. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment on this article.

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