Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Windows Woes

I actually like Microsoft Windows.  It provides a reasonably intuitive interface so that non-techies can harness the incredible -- and ever-increasing -- power of a computer, which is probably the most useful productivity tool in the world today.  Everyone knows the software empire that is Microsoft, and Windows has been the flagship product driving its success for years.  But boy, how things change...

The real take-away from Net Applications' May 2013 release of NetMarketShare monthly operating system statistics is that, as PC sales continue to collapse, Microsoft's Windows 8 could be a factor behind the plunge.
Windows 8 falls further behind Vista at similar points in their life-cycles. Numbers on the bottom reflect PC market share. (Data from NetMarketShare)
While Microsoft apologists focus on Windows continuing to be the dominant desktop operating system, they keep missing the two elephants in the room: Windows 8 continues to fall behind Microsoft's previous top operating system failure, Vista, and Windows is no longer the dominant end-user operating system when PCs, smartphones and tablets are considered.
True, on the desktop, Windows 7 still ranks as the top operating system with 44.85-percent of all PC users, followed by the still popular Windows XP with 37.74-percent. Vista—yes the never-loved Vista—comes in at third with 4.51 percent. Despite the fact that finding and buying Windows 7 PCs has become increasingly more expensive and difficult, just try finding one in a retail store, Windows 8 share is growing but still comes in last at 4.27 percent.

Let's dissect this info a little bit.  Personally, I would disagree with a couple things here.

I don't think that smartphones and tablets should be considered in the same class of computing device as desktops and notebooks.  They've come a long way over the past 3-5 years, yes, but they're not fully capable replacements (yet).  They lack the sheer computing power, the upgradeability, and the vast array of connectivity that is essential for functioning in today's office environment.  They're terrific peripheral devices that allow easy portable access to everything you could need on your main system...which is still a desktop or laptop.  Every few months a new tech blogger tries to use only a smartphone or tablet to do his job for a period of time, and documents the experience.  Invariably, they figure out a way to brute force their way through with a mish-mashed amalgamation of products and services, but that sort of experiment is really not possible in a corporate environment with thousands of users and a finite IT support staff.  Aside from the problematic hurdles in simply getting everything working, there's still the question of full functionality.  When there's a tablet that has 1TB of storage space and is capable of driving the graphics for dual monitors, as well as allowing a user to perform a memory upgrade in less than 2 minutes, then we'll talk about being in the same space as a desktop or laptop.  Until then, I think they should be considered separate technology segments.

That being said, I think this article still paints a pretty dismal picture for Windows.  Not only has the adoption rate been abysmal, but it's actually getting worse as time goes on.  I'll let you read the whole article for the full scoop, but the bottom line is that Windows 8 has been rejected by pretty much everyone.  Microsoft fanboys (yes, they do exist) will boldly proclaim that Microsoft has sold well over 60 million licenses, blah blah blah.  That's an argument that is as simplistic as it is irrelevant.  I know my company has purchased thousands of licenses from Microsoft that allow the installation of Win8...or Win7.  I can assure you they're not installing Win8.  Not only is the ridiculous UI change going to be a support nightmare -- "Where's the Start button?!" "Where did my programs go??" "How do I print??" -- but it hasn't been all that long since we finished rolling out Win7, and there's no way they're moving on anytime soon.  But they still have to be prepared for the future from a licensing perspective.  I'm guessing most large corporations are following much the same pattern - buying licenses all the time, but not actually using them until it's beneficial (or necessary, as in the exit of Windows XP).  The number of licenses sold is an empty shell of an argument.  You could also look at it this way - how many people do you know who are using Win8?  I can think of only one, but that's on a tablet rather than a "real" computer.

And that brings us to another argument.  Win8 is supposedly a really good experience on touch screens.  Emphasis on the supposedly.  If it really was for most people, then Windows 8 smartphones and tablets would be going like gangbusters.  Instead, the pathetic adoption rate of desktops and laptops actually towers above the adoption rate of smartphones and tablets.  And there's still the nagging little problem of having to replace tens of millions of monitors on the desk of every corporate environment and home office in order to take advantage of it, and that is not a cheap or fast process.  The idea of a unifying platform for all devices is certainly good (and we'll probably get there eventually), but it's not there yet, as the Windows experiment demonstrates in spades.

Also, did I mention the customer experience disaster that is Windows 8?  Just go look on YouTube and you'll find more videos documenting how horrible Win8 is than you can shake a memory stick at.  It's counter-intuitive in many respects, and the interface is even worse than that of iOS.  Sure, there are a handful of people who love it...but most don't.  Like iOS, there's little customization that can be done to it, but iOS is far more polished in terms of a slick-looking and seamless visualization, so without customization all you have is a bunch of solid colored blocks cluttering up your screen.  What's that about real-time updates?  Big deal.  Android has these things called widgets that give you real-time information in a vast array of configurable and customizable tools that give you everything you could possibly imagine, but in a theme and/or design that looks damn good and fits with the smartphone environment of your choice.  Win8 falls short again.  In fact, several hardware manufacturers have publicly blamed Win8 for the roughly 14% decline of PC sales over the past year, though the changing nature of what exactly constitutes a "PC" does obscure the field quite a bit.  Regardless, Win8 is clearly a loser in terms of market success.  There's been some recent signs of hope with the 8.1 upgrade, but even that is too little too late, I think.

So here's my take on what's going on.

Touchscreens are where the industry is going, and the blending of "PC" and "tablet" is only going to continue.  Microsoft is right about going for a single unifying experience, they just did an atrocious job of it on their first attempt.  But let's be honest - any time you have that radical a change to something people use daily, it's going to cause some waves, especially with users who don't understand the difference between a hard drive and the tower, or who can't figure out when their monitor is simply turned off.  That's different than what Win8 has done, though - it's frustrating and annoying savvy, technically proficient power users, leading me to believe that any realistic chance of rolling out to the mass public or corporate America is slim to none because of the literal nightmare that would ensue for IT departments everywhere.  This is not unprecedented, though.  Vista was such a terrible release that almost no one actually used it in the corporate space, and people got away from it as quickly as they could in the consumer space.  It is not normal for a desktop operating system to be supported for 15+ years, but the mass rejection of Vista is what prompted XP to have such a long and successful run.  If you look at Microsoft's history, you see a pattern developing:

Win 3.1 - great
Win95 - decent
Win98 - great
Millennium - awful
XP - great
Vista - awful
Win7 - great
Win8 - awful

I can't imagine it's intentional, but it sure seems like they alternate between great success and great failure.  Does it just take that long to really build all the necessary features into a release and get them working properly?  Do they not pay enough attention to their user base until too late in their development process?  Do they want to let their good releases linger for as long as possible in order to really lock up the segment?  Something else?  I have no idea, but this is the pattern we see.  So, in the context of Win8, here's what I think happened.

Microsoft knows the industry trend is toward touchscreens.  They know they have a lock on the desktop/laptop OS segment.  They know that a unified environment will eventually be the ace in the hole (think about how both Apple and Google have worked long and hard to create an ecosystem where all your content is provided by one unified platform for all your services).  They know Win7 is highly regarded, and they're due for another clunker release.  They know the number of touchscreens in both the consumer and commercial space is vanishingly small.  In short, they can't possibly succeed right now with Win8.  Thus, I think they're positioning themselves for Win9, and threw Win8 to the wolves from day one.

And really, it's not that bad an idea.  What better beta test can they run than actually releasing it and getting real feedback from real customers over the course of several years?  They're still making a ton of money off of it from those purchased licenses, and they already own the only viable alternative (Win7) if people don't like it.  Where's the down side?  Some negative press, sure, but Microsoft is hardly a stranger to negative press, and raking in billions of dollars a year is a pretty soothing balm for negative press.  In reality, they've just bought themselves a few more years to really refine and develop the unified Windows platform into something that will be polished, comprehensive, and an ecosystem capable of going toe to toe with Apple and Google.  They have a ton of work to do to get there, of course, but that's the only thing that makes sense to me.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. ou couldn't pay me to convert to 8- I've tooled around with it on a desktop and a touchscreen tablet, and cannot imagine taking serious time to learn the new interface. When I answered phones for the "Buymore", it was far from uncommon for me to be talking with a customer in tears over how frustrated they were with how unintuitive and confusing Windows 8 is. I hope you're right about them using Windows 8 as a beta for9. I would love to upgrade to a touchscreen computer and tablet in the future, but am not likely to do so unless they can develop something more user-friendly with a lower learning curve.