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By | Tim Anderson 24th October 2014 14:04

Happy 2nd birthday, Windows 8 and Surface: Anatomy of a disaster

Heart of Windows 8 lives on in Windows 10

Analysis This weekend marks two years since Windows 8 and Surface were launched at a press event at Pier 57 on the Hudson River in New York.

The invitation for the Windows 8 launch in October 2012

“It is today that with great pride we unveil this new generation of Windows. Starting at 4.01am worldwide, the next era of Windows computing begins. Windows 8 is simply the best release of Windows ever,” said Windows President Steven Sinofsky.

“For the first time, Windows has first-rate tablets in addition to desktops and notebooks,” said CEO Steve Ballmer. “All of these form factors will transform what you know and experience today into something quite new and quite wonderful.”

Surface RT, Microsoft’s first effort at an own-brand PC and tablet, was unveiled at the same event “It’s the ultimate expression of a Windows PC for us,” said Sinofsky. The device went on sale at midnight in Times Square, which Microsoft took over for the night. Ads were everywhere, enticing customers to “click in”.

They did not. Surface RT was a disaster, and the following year Microsoft wrote off $900m from the value of its Surface RT inventory.

Steven Sinofsky at Surface launch event

Sinofsky, the forceful executive who drove the conception and delivery of Windows 8 and Surface, announced his resignation on November 13 2012. No reason was given, though it would already have been clear that Windows 8 and Surface were not the immediate success for which the company had hoped.

Windows 8 has sold in large numbers, of course, but its reinvented Start screen has been sufficiently unpopular that Microsoft is restoring something more like the old Start menu in its successor, Windows 10.

Businesses buy PCs with odd descriptions like “Windows 7 Professional 64 pre-installed (available through downgrade rights from Windows 8 Pro 64)” as OEMs wrestle with widespread preference for the older version. The Windows Store is a sad and lonely place compared to Apple or Google’s stores, or even that for Windows Phone.

On Monday 29th October Hurricane Sandy swept into New York. Among its casualties was “Microtropolis”, a blocky model cityscape at Pier 57, adorned with Windows 8 tablets. An appropriate fate for the new operating system?

Microtropolis, a model city made for Windows 8 at the New York launch

Microtropolis, a cityscape made for the Windows 8 launch in New York but swept away by Hurricane Sandy

Bold ambition

It’s complicated. Microsoft and in particular Sinofsky saw that the Windows client was losing to simpler, safer, more usable devices like Apple’s iPad, especially in the consumer market. Apple’s success with its app store also showed a better way to distribute software than the traditional Windows setup files. Cloud settings that sync seamlessly across multiple devices were also part of the new wave. Windows had to change, or else it would suffer a slow, long decline.

Microsoft already had Windows Phone, designed for touch, with store-delivered, sandboxed apps. Could the company have adapted that for tablets, and made Windows 8 a better version of Windows 7?

Sinofsky believed he could do better. He wanted first-class support for native C/C++ code, rather than .NET and Silverlight used in Windows Phone, as well as for HTML and JavaScript, intended to be a bridge to Windows 8 development for developers from other platforms. Windows Phone was an also-ran, whereas Windows could build on its existing success.

His plan then was to reinvent Windows as a tablet operating system, but one which retained full compatibility with desktop Windows. Tap the desktop tile in the new Start screen, and there it was. The new sandboxed app model, supported by the Windows Store, let developers choose between C++, HTML5 or .NET and XAML - XAML being the XML based user interface definition language also used by Silverlight and Windows Presentation Foundation, but in an incompatible version.

Windows 8 also featured a new design style loosely based on Windows Phone and once called Metro. The concept included blocky, touch-friendly controls and an “immersive UI”, where the app occupied the full screen without the distraction of menus, toolbar and operating system screen furniture; and “live tiles”, app shortcuts that lit up with dynamic information like news headlines or weather alerts.

It was a lot of change; but Sinofsky and fellow executives like Julie Larson-Green had pulled it off before, when working on Microsoft Office. Office 2007 removed the pull-down menus seen in previous versions and replaced them with a fat toolbar called a ribbon, or the “Fluent user interface.” Despite some grumbles, sales had been fine and users adjusted.

What went wrong?

Why did Windows 8 fail? From an engineering perspective it was a solid release – as you would expect from the same team that came up with the all-conquering Windows 7 – and it did perform as advertised, working well with both new-style touch apps, and existing desktop applications.

Users can accept major change, but only if the benefits are sufficient and obvious enough to give them incentive. Microsoft – desperately – needed a tablet operating system; but users already had one; an iPad or Android device. Those users who did come to terms with Windows 8 spend most of their time in desktop Windows, because that is where the applications are.

Microsoft failed to get compelling apps into its store at launch, and saw little improvement thereafter. The same factors which drive a successful platform – more apps, drawing in more users, creating a strong market for more apps – also operate in reverse.

The boldness of the Windows 8 experiment also looks in hindsight like stubbornness. The initial release made no effort to draw existing Windows users in; it was almost the opposite, thrusting them into the “modern” environment with few clues about how to get out of it. For some who knew and liked Windows, it could be a humiliating experience, especially for those with only keyboard and mouse; humiliation turned to anger and the new tiled user interface was deeply unpopular.

The Windows 8 Start screen

There is also something wrong with Windows 8 aesthetics. The pervasive Start screen is not beautiful, and the flickering Live Tiles make design consistency difficult. “We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them,” said Steve Jobs of Apple’s OS X Aqua user interface; you cannot imagine such a comment on Windows 8, despite all the design research that went into “Metro”. These things count, especially in retail environments such as the ever-dwindling displays of laptops or Windows 8 tablets in airports, for example.

The “immersive UI” was sufficiently extreme that users had difficulty using apps and navigating the operating system. Users complained that the Wikipedia app had no search function; it did, but you had to make the Charms menu appear somehow, or know to press the Windows key and S together to bring up Search.

Since the launch of Windows 8, Microsoft has worked to bring back users. A Start button reappeared on the desktop in Windows 8.1, as well as window bars with close buttons in modern-style apps. Windows 10 goes further, showing new-style apps in resizeable windows on the desktop. “If Windows 8 had been like that …”, you may think; but for Microsoft it has been a painful journey.

Windows 8 fallout – and hope

Was Windows 8 a major disaster for Microsoft? Yes – though the company has still prospered, delivering consistently good financial results (not least yesterday) thanks to the breadth of its products, solid server and cloud performance, and the strong hold of Windows (although mostly in version 7) and Office in business.

The company hoped to compete strongly against the iPad and introduce an app ecosystem to rival that of Apple and Google, but Windows 8 failed in both these goals.

Another consequence is that Windows 8 accelerated the drift of developers and influencers (such as journalists) towards Macs. Corporate Windows development is still strong, but beyond that Macs dominate. Microsoft’s Visual Studio development tool runs only on Windows so this is a significant barrier to app development, though a Mac can run a Windows environment on a virtual machine.

Microsoft now embraces an “any device” policy and is delivering keys apps like Office for Apple and (soon) Android devices, accepting the decline in the Windows client.

All eyes are now on Windows 10, currently in preview. This looks superficially more like Windows 7; yet Microsoft is not discarding its Windows 8 technology. The heart of it, the Windows Runtime layer which runs sandboxed, touch-friendly apps, is even more important now it can run apps that appear to the user as desktop apps. The company is integrating its Windows Phone and Windows 8 app platform with a new Universal App model for Visual Studio, and a unified Store.

If Windows 10 is a hit, it will be because it refines and makes usable the bold changes that were made for Windows 8, and for which Sinofsky and his team will deserve credit. ®

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