Windows 8 Product Strategy: Right Idea, Poor Execution

Nick Petri

With Windows 8’s official release last week, many were shocked by the degree to which the new operating system departed from many longstanding Windows conventions.

The general consensus is that Windows 8 is a mobile OS in disguise. More specifically, some of the more mobile-friendly features are:

  • The start menu is gone, having been replaced by an entire start screen that displays Windows 8 applications only in a center navigation panel, similar to iOS or Android. This is the mandatory boot screen for Windows 8, emphasizing that it is here to stay so you’ll have to get used to it.
  • Many features have been redesigned for touch. One of the most stark examples of this is that right clicking on an icon on the start screen brings up a menu of options… at the bottom of the screen. This makes perfect sense for, say, a tablet, but is cumbersome for a PC user used to having the menu conveniently pop up right next to their mouse.
  • Windows 8 applications, like most mobile apps, are full-screen only. This contrasts with features in Windows 7 that made multi-window computing much easier.
  • Since only Windows 8 apps can be accessed through the start menu, many apps (including Microsoft Office) require exiting the start screen to bring up a desktop screen, which uses conventions much more like what we’re used to from prior Windows products.

While there’s likely a subtle UX decision behind each of these changes, the overall strategy is crystal clear: Windows 8 is a step towards a single OS that spans desktop, table, and mobile computing. By driving a consistent experience across a range of devices, Microsoft is looking to capitalize on their considerable market share lead in PC computing to further penetrate the mobile market. They’re betting that a person who uses Windows 8 on their laptop will go with what they’re familiar with when they choose a mobile OS.

I understand completely why this strategy would be attractive to Microsoft. A few months ago, I wrote that Converged Converged Devices — that is, smart phones that double as your laptop — were the future of computing. Windows 8 is an ambitious step in that direction, offering a more versatile OS across different device and screen sizes than has ever been attempted. If we’re ever going to live in a converged converged world, we’re going to have to figure out how best to solve this problem.

Still, I don’t think Windows 8 is the solution, for several reasons:

1) You can’t be everything to everyone. Mobile and PC users have extremely different needs, partially dictated by their hardware, and partially dictated by the context of their use:

  • Different screen sizes lend themselves to proportionally different icon and font sizes
  • The lack of a keyboard makes the one-click accessibility of a mobile app that much more attractive
  • Mobile devices are used fairly narrowly for consuming entertainment; they don’t need a complex file system to store
  • Lack of consistent access to wifi puts bandwidth efficiency at a premium in mobile

2) Windows 8 has clearly prioritized mobile. Many of the features of the start screen — especially the fact that it’s the mandatory boot screen — are clearly designed with the mobile user in mind and at the expense of the PC user. Since their customer base is primarily PC, I think this will have a considerable negative impact on their user experience. Why would I want to essentially learn two operating systems (the start screen and desktop) and toggle between them depending on what app I’m using?

3) Familiar customers aren’t an asset if they’re unhappy. Microsoft’s strategy appears to be to get their existing PC users to upgrade to Windows 8 and then stick with what they know for their next mobile device. But with a mobile operating system crammed into a PC’s hardware, Windows 8 might not promote enough brand loyalty to accomplish this strategy.

Microsoft sees the writing on the wall when it comes to personal computing, and is attempting to drive a more consistent interface across devices. I applaud them for that. Still, they haven’t quite figured out how to do this while still leveraging the hardware and use cases of those individual devices. It’s not that I think a single OS will never be able to work across mobile and PC, but I think it will have to be done with a much subtler touch than Windows 8. Microsoft is putting a round peg in a square hole and I think it will show in a loss of market share.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not writing this because I’m an Apple fanboy (although I do own its stock). When the majority of my company switched over to Macs this year, I kept my PC. While I recognize the usability is likely better overall on a Mac, I spend most of my time in MS Office products, and for those, the usability is much better on a PC.

That’s the thing about usability — it’s always contextual. What’s great in one scenario and on one device might be terrible in another. Future iterations of Windows should be more sensitive to this simple concept.

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