It used to be that new releases of the Windows operating system came out so infrequently that Microsoft could safely name them after the year of their release: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 2000. They were monumentally successful. Since the mid-1990s, roughly 90 per cent of the world’s desktops and laptops have run on some version of Windows, making it by far the most dominant commercial operating system of all time.
That was then. This month, Microsoft updated the latest version of Windows for the third time in 16 months. The sputtering saga of Windows 8 represents, simultaneously, everything Microsoft is trying to become – innovative, connected, forward thinking – and everything that’s standing in its way.
Microsoft’s cloud-first strategy envisages that customers will no longer buy software and services and run them locally on their devices. Instead, customers will rent everything from the Office productivity suite to server space. For a monthly fee, all that technology will be stored, run and updated in Microsoft’s own data farms, accessible from any computer with an Internet connection. Customers will become much more reliant on the company for their most vital technical needs, making it more cumbersome for them to switch to a competing company’s products and services.
As a cloud company, Microsoft is expected to address customer complaints in something approaching real-time, given that customers are now essentially technology tenants, and updates can be pushed to the cloud without delay. In that context, three major updates to Windows 8 in less than two years doesn’t sound unusual. After all, Microsoft’s cloud-based Office suite was the subject of 75 updates last year alone.
When it was launched in October of 2012, Windows 8 represented the most radical overhaul of the world’s most popular operating system since Windows 95 introduced the Start button. By combining two different user interfaces – a touchscreen-friendly one for mobile devices and a more traditional one for the 1.5 billion current Windows users – Microsoft hoped to give users the best of both worlds. A new tiled start screen, called the “Metro” interface, features apps that update and sync remotely via the cloud.
But almost every update the company has issued to the software since the launch has been a kind of partial retraction of that vision. Many users, it appears, were simply not willing to join Microsoft in its departure from the computing norms it helped establish.
“I miss the Start button,” said one user who logged in to a Windows users’ forum asking how to best remove a factory-installed copy of Windows 8 on his laptop.
“I don’t think I have any use whatsoever for the funny dashboard screen,” he added, referring to the Metro interface.
And so designers were forced to bring some of those norms back – they made it easier to switch from the mobile-focused user interface to the one that still resembles older versions of Windows; they made it easier to switch off the system using traditional commands; and they expanded the presence of the old Windows taskbar. In a way, they moved backward.
“Microsoft, to its credit, swung for the fences with Windows 8,” says independent technology analyst Carmi Levy. “In many respects, it was technology ahead of its time – it was exactly what Windows users needed, but Windows users are a very conservative lot.”
But simply continuing to provide customers with spiritual successors to Windows 95 is becoming untenable for Microsoft, given the growing consumer shift from desktops and laptops to mobile devices – a hardware industry where Windows owns minuscule market share.
Even in the world of traditional computers, there are signs the Windows era is coming to an end. Desktop sales have been plummeting for years, and the fastest-selling laptop today is the Chromebook – a laptop running on Google’s Chrome operating system that has almost no local storage capabilities, and instead stores all user data on the cloud.
A change in corporate culture