Windows 8 is a flop. It is a painful thing to say about one of the most ambitious operating systems ever released, but the stats don’t lie. It has taken half the OS market share Windows 7 did in its first 12 months (10% vs. 20%) and now the adoption rate is so slow it is barely gaining on its 4 ½ year old predecessor. Finally Microsoft has had enough.
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This week leaks flooded out that Windows 9 will be formally announced at Build, Microsoft’s annual developer event in April. If true this is an extraordinarily short gap for the company to jump between Windows versions and it is thought Windows 9 will formally go on sale in early 2015 as part of the ‘Threshold’ wave of updates it will apply to its Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox OSes.
But if Windows 9 is to avoid the pitfalls of Windows 8 it is going to have to make some major changes. These are my suggestions, and I welcome yours in the comments.
No more split personality
In merging the traditional Windows desktop with a finger-friendly touchscreen interface Windows 8 broke new ground, but the implementation was jarring. Speculation is Microsoft may formally split the platform into formal desktop and Windows RT only versions, but that would be a backwards step.
Instead the two need better integration. Syncing wallpapers between both was a step in the right direction, but the touch UI should have a transparent background to feel more like a flyover to the desktop and therefore never disorientating the user. It also needs to enable apps to operate on the desktop (not in a split window) to encourage greater use and spur on developers.
Remember most people still use a keyboard and mouse
The advances Windows 8 made in touch usability were negated by the ropey keyboard and mouse integration as Microsoft threw out the baby with the bathwater. Catering for new laptop and tablet form factors is well and good, but forgetting (or ignoring) 99 per cent of the market using traditional laptops and desktops was foolish. A new, universally accessible control method for Windows 9 is a priority – particularly for touchpads where compensatory gestures have become horribly fragmented between PC makers.
Learn to scale
Ever since the iPhone ‘Retina Display’ ultra-high resolutions have been all the rage – first in phones, then tablets, now in laptops and desktops. Windows 8 coders failed to address this and the increasingly wide array of high resolution laptops and 4k monitors result in a ludicrous Windows 8 desktop experience. Websites and text have to be blown up around 200% while menus, tabs and other crucial parts of the user interface shrink becoming microscopic (above Windows 8 on a 3200 x 1800 pixel display).
The flaw is a lack of scaling, something Mac OS X wasn’t immune to when Apple launched Retina Display MacBook Pros but it still works better than Windows 8. The trouble is not only does the Windows 9 desktop need to scale, but it needs to introduce upscaling for legacy software to also make these programmes useable. A huge, but essential task.
‘Hot Corners’ were introduced in Windows 8 to bring some of the touch navigation gestures to keyboards and mice, but they are horrible. Hot Corners are activated when a mouse pointer ventures near the top left, top right and bottom right corners of the screen or when the pointer gets to the bottom left corner then moves vertically.
Needless to say these areas of the screen are regularly visited by the cursor in normal use when looking to open, close, minimise or maximum windows and programmes. This causes endless frustration as users looking to manipulate windows are dragged off into touch gesture shortcuts and users looking for touch gesture shortcuts end up accidentally manipulating windows (image right – cursor over the close window option brings up the ‘Charms Bar’). At the very least there needs to be an option to disable Hot Corners, if not redesigning them completely.
Play nice with others
For Windows users part of the appeal is it is not Mac OS. That is Windows brings greater freedom to pick, choose and customise itself using the software you want in the manner you want. Windows 8 veers dangerously away from this imposing Windows Live accounts on all users, SkyDrive for backups, Bing for search and more. It is time Windows remembered where its appeal comes from in the first place.
Better Windows Phone/Xbox integration
Microsoft may have thought it was leaping ahead of the pack with its revolutionary Windows 8 UI but, in truth, both Apple and Google better integrate their distinct mobile and desktop platforms. With Windows Phone 8.1 lifting the lid on hardware restrictions and the Xbox One launching with bags of unfulfilled potential Microsoft needs far better communication between these powerful platforms.
This means synchronised media content, app purchases, remote control and if Sony can make PlayStation 4 content run on the Vita, Microsoft should be able to bring Xbox One gaming to Windows Phones and Windows 9 PCs and tablets. No company has Microsoft’s breadth of platforms, it needs to start capitalising on that.
While it has not met commercial expectations, the good news for Microsoft is Windows 8 has already done much of the heavy lifting for Windows 9. It is fast, efficient, stable and has excellent inbuilt security. With this foundation the list above feels far from wishful thinking and Microsoft should be looking to implement them all and much more.
Outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously said Microsoft “bet the company” on Windows 8. It didn’t. With its vast wealth Microsoft took a calculated but affordable gamble. This time things are different. Windows 9 is not coming off the goodwill of a respected predecessor, PC and laptop sales are collapsing against the threat of tablets, Apple is edging ever closer to Mac OS XI and Google is starting to gain momentum in the desktop and laptop space with Chrome OS and Android – both of which are expected to unify during Windows 9’s lifetime.
Windows 9 is now where Microsoft bets the company.
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