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What Microsoft needs to do to convince a generation to adopt Windows 9

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I guess I’ll come right out and say it: I’m a millennial, and Windows(s msft) confuses me.

Not from a technology standpoint — after a few minutes on a modern computer running Windows 8, I can navigate around and work with it happily — but from a strategic standpoint. It’s clear that Microsoft wants to embrace the future with Windows 8 and 8.1, I’m just not exactly sure what that future is supposed to look like. And that’s not a particularly encouraging thing to say, especially because — with all apologies to those who have come before us, but you had your day too — young people are in the driver’s seat when influencing buying habits in the 21st century.

2014 is a new year, and it could be a big one for Microsoft: According to a tip-off from noted Microsoft watcher Paul Thurrott, the company will release a new OS with the codename “Threshold” sometime in 2015, which he suspects will arrive as Windows 9. It’s another chance to prove that Windows can attract a young, digital-savvy, tech-loving clientele.

Surface 6

Or, it’s another year for the company — which is still trying to find someone to replace lame-duck CEO Steve Ballmer — to scramble while trying to marry the Windows of yore, which still maintains a presence on many PCs, with the cutting-edge Windows that Microsoft needs to compete with Apple(s aapl) in the hearts and minds of those too young to remember the days when people actually got excited about Microsoft OS releases.

Cutting edge? Not so much…

If I’m going to be completely honest, Windows 8, billed as a “No Compromise Experience,” was certainly a compromise, and one that didn’t satisfy . Although it tried to take a step forward in merging the traditional desktop experience with Surface RT, it proved too confusing for desktop users and not deft enough for mobile users. This disconnect led to fixes (or concessions) in Windows 8.1, such as bringing back the “Start” button and changing some of the gestures.

Microsoft’s good intentions were clear, but morphing Windows into a lean, mean, unified platform while keeping the enterprise IT customers it worships happy is proving to be a difficult task. It needs to figure this problem out now more than ever, especially as Apple’s iOS and Mac devices are expected to reach usage parity with Windows by next year, according to Asymco.

Speaking as a person in the (often admittedly annoying) Millennial age bracket that all tech companies (and heck, all companies in general) want in their corner, I’ve compiled a list of expectations for the upcoming Windows 9. Since very little is known about the actual product, much of this is wishful thinking. But there are some common-sense items that I hope Microsoft has kept in mind in its latest OS development period.

Keep Windows simple

Keeping Windows simple has been easier said than done. Windows 9 doesn’t just have to juggle the carryover from Windows 8.1 — it has to be seamless with the Windows Phone interface, provide a similar experience to Windows RT (if not eclipsing it entirely), and look like a proper cousin to the Xbox One interface. Windows 9 has to work for desktops, tablets, conversions and all-in-ones, handling both touch screens and the keyboard/mouse combo to boot.

But most importantly, it still has to evoke nearly every OS Microsoft has ever made, so not to completely disorient late-comers. Microsoft has backed itself into a corner by trying to satisfy different factions of its audience while still remaining very, well, Windows-like.

windows 8.1

The result is a complicated system that never quite commits to one thing: The traditional desktop mixes in with the slightly edgier Start Screen and Live Tiles from Windows Phone 7’s acclaimed Metro design, conflating signals about which screen is the true “home.” Even worse, Windows 8.1’s reintroduction of the Start button may have pleased some users, but it works nothing like the way it used to on previous OS iterations. Given how fragmented the Windows environment currently is, Windows 8.1 is unintuitive for a casual computer user of any generation — everything that is familiar now works differently.

Windows 9 needs to address the needless complexity head on, and can start by fully committing to one idea: Make the Start Screen more capable of handling non-Microsoft programs and nix the traditional desktop, or relegate the Start Screen to a widget add-on that amplifies (but not competes with) the desktop. A single decision like that could not only separate the new OS from the old, but also make everything much clearer.

Don’t make a full experience inaccessible

Speaking of all-in-one computers, I will not lie: my personal frustration with Windows stems from the fact that its best experience is saved for a small number of devices (pricier “Full Windows 8” tablets or giant all-in-ones). In fact, I’ve never actually felt like I’ve gotten a “true” Windows 8 experience, because I’ve only spent time with it on a traditional laptop or more wallet-friendly RT tablets like the lower-end Surface. The truth — both for me and many members of my generation — is that when it comes down to spending $900 for a Surface Pro that runs full Windows 8.1 or spending $499 on an iPad (or even $999 on a comparable lightweight netbook) why bother?

surface pro 2

For example, Windows 8 focuses heavily on touch capabilities, but those capabilities do not translate to traditional computers. In an effort to make navigating with a traditional mouse “accessible” and the touch screen “cutting edge,” Microsoft missed out on an opportunity to create universal, simple gestures in Windows 8 to use on both a tablet and a laptop — a glaring oversight considering that the PC laptop market is still moving a lot of units and the Mac has had universal gestures for a long time.

Windows 8.1 alleviated this problem to some extent with new touchpad gestures, but they were minimal at best and complicated. It’s most prominent when you consider Microsoft’s dream of a user who owns multiple Windows products: A single user has a completely different set of inputs on a Windows tablet versus a traditional Windows computer, even though it’s (nearly) technically the same OS. Why can’t the Start screen have a universal gesture, like a three-finger swipe upwards?

My colleague Kevin Tofel believes that Windows 9 may do its part in killing Windows RT, and that would be the right step forward: if Microsoft is determined to put mobile-like features on something intended to behave as a desktop OS first, then it should show up as-is on as many tablets as possible. But the “full” Windows experience is too bloated to run on a lower-cost, modern piece of hardware. How can you unify an experience with an OS so large that it disqualifies most mobile users?

In the meantime, gestures and behaviors need to be as unified as possible, across multiple platforms, to give consistent usability across all devices. In short, if Windows 9 is expected to serve the needs of multiple platforms, and take cues from multiple device structures, then it needs to present a simple, bold statement that is easy to understand, reliable to use, and relatively inexpensive.

Commit to apps

But if Microsoft really wants to create a more minimal experience on Windows, now is the time to follow through: Windows Store Apps should be expanded on with Windows 9. Introduced with Windows 8, these apps are perhaps the most dynamic part of what the system offers: they offer smart experiences that actually do a good job of bringing that “mobile” feel — and they transition smoothly onto the desktop, snapped alongside programs.

Right now, there is a distinct difference between Windows apps and programs — apps have the benefit of flexibility and minimalism, while programs are desktop-only software. Microsoft should not only consider expanding the number of apps available for the PC, it should also eliminate the idea of separate “programs.”

HTC Windows Phone 8X

First, the apps available in Windows 9 should behave more like modern apps — available from the Start Screen and easy to access at all times, not hidden away in a separate place unless pinned for priority. In turn, independent software developers should be encouraged to do more mobile-like things, like more sophisticated push notifications or smarter always-on interactivity that mimics the way that Windows uses Skype. Right now, “apps” are separate from traditional software in a way that makes it too confusing. Even if more traditional software doesn’t have an “app,” per se, the Windows 9 experience should go out of its way to not separate the two.

The important thing here is that Windows is, by and large, fixable. In my lifetime (near as I can remember back to, well, Windows 95), Windows’ progression has always been a sort of “one step forward, two steps back” dance that often leaves my generation exasperated. Rather than stick with an awkward blend of familiarity and cutting edge, Windows 9 could benefit greatly from a modern, simpler experience.

I fully recognize that with with a generation of business computing developed around its older operating systems, Microsoft cannot please everybody. But the relevance of the PC relies on the company to pare down its iconic product to produce usable, functional software.

Microsoft needs to make a clear decision about which group of users — stodgy CIOs, aging baby boomers or the generation born after Chairman Bill Gates’ famous 1995 internet memo — it wants to court in 2014 and beyond.

24 Responses to “What Microsoft needs to do to convince a generation to adopt Windows 9”

  1. Have to agree with much of what this blog argues. I’ve used Windows since I was in university, through three degrees in engineering, and now as a professional. And I’m more familiar with tablets than many since I was an early adopter of the Tablet PC in 2003 and still use it to this day.

    About 2007, after much frustration with system lock ups, error messages, and the now mythical blue screen of death, I switched to Apple, using only a Windows tablet for teaching. Apple has its own issues, but I find it much more stable and consistent. Even now, with my MS Surface Pro only 7 months old and not used for much more than office duties, email, and web, I’m starting to receive runtime errors. From what? No idea. I’m not a computer programmer, but as a nominal user, I cannot fathom why Windows cannot work “better”.

    I love the Metro look and concept, but frankly, it’s frustrating as hell. Go here, go there, swipe this, swipe that – gah, what a mess. Things are now “hidden”. The palm rejection works – most of the time. It almost seems as if things peak with Microsoft, and then they take two steps back. Windows XP finally got it right; Vista was a big stumble; Windows 7 finally made things a whole lot better; Windows 8 just messed things up again. Thankfully, my Macs just keep trucking a long. My 6 year old Apple desktop is slow, but it’s actually still usable and surprisingly so. My 6 year old Vista machine – good luck.

    The kill is that there are some things that do make more sense on Windows than Apple, but it just seems MS cannot capitalize on them. I think MS needs to either make a clean break or else embrace its legacy: don’t bother with something halfway inbetween.

  2. dennisvjames

    Can’t resist this.

    This will be like throwing gasoline on a campfire.

    I have a Windows Phone 8 from Nokia (920) and it’s the best piece of hardware I have ever owned. If everything else worked as well for me I would be happy. I can do any of my email accounts from anywhere, I can open and review Microsoft Office documents, etc. Basically I can do all of my work from my phone. In fact I can do most of my work from any device I own including Android tablets. I don’t own an Apple device basically because I didn’t want my data to get siloed in the Apple ecosystem. The only time I go to my PC is when I have to do heavy editing on a big screen or use a software product that doesn’t have a tablet version. If the Surface 2 had all the capabilities and a Wacom stylus so I could take OneNote handwritten notes I would buy that in a hot second.

  3. Brett Turner

    “start by fully committing to one idea: Make the Start Screen more capable of handling non-Microsoft programs and nix the traditional desktop”

    No, no, no. Absolutely 100% wrong.

    Microsoft brings one strength to the OS War: the traditional desktop. Without the desktop, Microsoft is avery distant third to iOS and Android and will never catch up. Microsoft must embrace the desktop, not reject it.

    The “one idea” idea is wrong when applied to user interfaces. Mobile and desktop are separate ways to use a computer which cannot be combined into one interface. Apple knows this and keeps iOS separate from the Mac OS. I understand why MS wants the software under the hood to be the same for all versions of Windows. But two UIs makes sense. The traditional desktop for laptops and desktops; Metro for tablets and phones.

    Two UIs will NOT confuse anyone, any more than Apple users are confused by Mac OS and iOS.

    Fundamentally, the traditional desktop works. Microsofts needs a new UI for tablets and phone, but the way forward is NOT to ditch the desktop. MS already made that mistake with Win 8 and it won’t go there again.

  4. making apps and programs the same thing is the WORST idea i’ve heard in a while. even Mac doesn’t do that. see Reason + Figure. the mobile experience shouldn’t have to mirror the desktop experience. you would only be limiting what you could do at the desktop… very biased opinions in this “review”.

  5. Everyone enjoys using their sexy ios/android tabs/phones but before the day is out they will all have made love to a homely start button at some point. If microsoft doesn’t realize this and release a single common x86/win32/64 OS core for desktops/tabs/phones soon, they deserve to go under – the same way as a fool who folds holding a royal flush. I hope its founder puts the vaccines on hold and rescues his own baby – now that that cancer of a CEO has left.

  6. I’m 15 and I got a Lumia 2520 RT tablet and a Lumia 1520 phone for xmas and I LOVE EM!!
    USB, LTE and NFC

    IPADS are from my parents generation, and I reject that, Google is something my granpaw uses.

    Modern interface works for me, and I can connect to my high schools exchange server using Outlook, and gaming is great on these devices. Bing on a touch based browser like IE11 works great. Hyper-V is very exciting and built into the OS.

    Microsoft will rise from the ashes like a phoenix in 2014.

    Microsoft FTW

  7. Ugh… people still whine about windows XP, no wonder this market isn’t moving ahead as it should. If anything, windows 7 should be your default ‘revert-back-to’ system, XP belongs in a museum already, time to move on.

    For me, I’ve just turned 30, used PC’s since it’s only operating system was MS-DOS paired with Norton Commander, followed by all iterations of Windows. Used it for work, research, design and entertainment, personally I don’t have a problem with 8 altho the separation of desktop/apps looks certainly fragmented.

    I’ll stick to PC for as long as I can see ahead so far, because my entertainment is also gaming, high end high detail gaming on latest high powered hardware, that I buy, modify and assemble myself, I’ve NEVER bought an off the shelf pc, first one we’ve used was indeed off the shelf since my parents bought it, each one after that was built by me.

    It’s a hobby and a cost effective way of getting a PC. For often far less money that your ‘labelled’ PC box of some brand you can build twice faster machine without all unwanted bloatware… Linux isn’t for me, poor choice for gaming while it’s hardware compatibility is growing, not even looking at Apple, completely not interested with their platforms, can’t modify these, it’s a closed eco system where user is expected to just cheer at what’s given to him and not even wonder how it works or what’s inside. Gaming experience is even worse than Linux… not interested in watered down consoles.

    While I may be slipping into minority market share wise, it’s still a huge number of people where Windows is still the one system of choice to gives me the most complete experience, work, education, entertainment, communication without distinct compromises.

    Hopefully they get their act together post Ballmer, they do need it indeed…

  8. Putting the Windows phone interface on the Desktop was a TERRIBLE idea. Even Apple wasn’t so foolish to have done that. MS has helped kill Windows and has accelerated the move to other platforms.

  9. I’d pay good money to know that XP would be supported for another 10 years, but they won’t sell me that. Later systems don’t do anything that I want to do that XP doesn’t do.

    It wasn’t broken. Why fix it?

    Make another system for mobile devices that just interfaces well with a PC at home, and the consumer would be happy.

  10. 1) Gather ALL Winders-based hardware and stack neatly on shelves near the spare bed in the guest room…
    2) Gather ALL Winders software CD’s that have accumulated in your home over the last 20 years… Stack all neatly ON the bed in the guest room.,,
    3) Place 3 (three) hand grenades in the middle of the pile of CD’s on the bed.
    4) Pull all three pins simultaneously
    6) Bring a shovel later to start the re-build.

  11. You’re confused about microsoft thinks about millenials, and what older workers think about win8.

    Win8 is an ‘experience OS’ meant to feed Social Media addiction. Apple and Facebook figured out that if you beep and flag and announce people to death, they’ll never leave the device. It’s the buzzfeed device. The previous short attention span generation was called the MTV generation.

    This is the greatest thing in the world for market metrics since you’re sitting staring at a screen for hours waiting for something interesting to appear. You spend hours staring at facebook and you return ad naseum. Win8 was designed the same way. The tiles are supposed to mesmerize you with constant information so you never get bored and put it down.

    Now, contrast that with you average work environment. You’re not going to be on social media long before you get fired. You’re typically shuffling between Outlook, Excel and browser and some other custom program. Now instead of being able to see everything at once, you’re having to swipe back and forth (with your mouse, few have a desktop touchscreen at work). It’s win3.1 all over again and the social media flashes make you less productive if they’re even enabled at all by IT. Now your MSOffice bloatware has hidden your key menu items even deeper.

    • Lauren Hockenson

      You know, I often wonder what that would look like — especially if it stuck true to Android’s mobility and open source roots. Maybe a more robust Chrome OS might not be a bad place to start?

  12. Donovan Fletcher

    Windows 8/ 8.1 are awesome, those who are “confused” by it for more than an hour should use a device running a smartphone OS, like an Ipad.

    The “Enterprise” build shouldn’t have the modern UI at all, I’m fine with that. Especially since I’m using my work computer right now, and it run XP and is missing a bunch of features. So Enterprise computers being behind is nothing new.

    Windows RT IS Windows, and MS should continue to develop it. With every passing day the desktop, and desktop specific OS become more of an anachronism. Fewer and fewer users are carrying around devices that require a trackpap, or a mouse, or a stylus, if that weren’t so Win7 would be sufficient and nobody would be having this conversation.

    I use a Surface Pro, haven’t really touched my Win7 laptop since I got it, does everything that machine does PLUS I can run cool apps, like Flipboard. My Android tablet, which took me a lot longer to get used to, I just saw last night, uncharged, face down on a corner of my desk. The only ‘compromise’ I’ve made with Windows 8/8.1 is screen size. But with pinch to zoom even that hasn’t been a problem. What MS needs to do is make sure they have a product that people can use on the go, and (outside enterprise users) people that insist their tower PC and 5 pound laptops should be catered to need to run Linux.

    • Lauren Hockenson

      I’m not confused by the actual navigability or design choices made by Windows at this moment, I am just bewildered by the direction the company is going in. Perhaps its because I’ve come of age outside the Microsoft heyday, but a lot of what puzzles me is close to what you mention above: why not just make a choice (or choices, depending on how much you want to split your audience) and stick to it?

      If Microsoft is so convinced that the traditional desktop experience won’t be viable for the mainstream consumer, then it should make stronger choices to indicate that while offering a lower-cost, full-experience option that makes it worth while for a younger audience. The Surface Pro (and Surface Pro 2) do mostly well to make that point, but with a $900 price tag, it’s a gamble of an entry-level product that isn’t “fully” a laptop.

      • How is the “direction of the company” a concern for millennials?

        There is no way to serve both masters by the way. Either Windows 9 infuriates the Windows 7 world by being a clean break, which accelerates momentum away from it… Or it doesn’t, and it sets the stage for Windows long, slow ride into irrelevance.

        There is no winning, only different forms of losing.

        • I disagree; there’s a third way. Why not go the direction Apple has done with their desktop and mobile OS’?
          Apple has MAC OS and iOS. With each upgrade they’ve taken pains to slowly merge the two towards the same point and it seems to be working well for them. However, it’s important to note that iOS is already a widely known piece of software. Large numbers of people are familiar with at least the basic functions of it.
          Microsoft, on the other hand, decided to take their staple Windows OS and immediately fully integrate their mobile OS that almost no one had ever seen or used. No slow progression a la iOS, they jumped on in thinking people would just deal with it. That doesn’t seem to have worked so well.
          I think a slower progression would do Microsoft well. That way their massive desktop OS user base would slowly be introduced to their mobile OS in a way that isn’t completely jarring or off-putting. Maybe start by introducing a few gestures to the OS that work the same as they do on mobile and push a touchpad along with it?
          I don’t think that Microsoft’s problem is with the direction they want to go, but that they tried to force its adoption to an unwilling customer base.

    • RobPaulGru

      I agree. Except that missing start button is sure annoying. What if you can’t remember the exact name of an app you only use occasionally. It will take you some time to find it on Win 8/8.1.

      Other than this serious, but easily fixed issue. I like a faster and more stable OS, which is what Win 8 is…