Microsoft: emphasis on Start Screen shackled Windows 8
15th Apr 2013 | 17:06
Windows Product Manager reflects on a new start for the controversial OS
Not that bothered about Windows 8? You're not alone. To even the most disinterested observer, it's clear Microsoft has a lot work to do to get people enthused about its touch-centric efforts, and the forthcoming Windows 8.1 (Windows Blue) update is a big part of that.
Global PC sales are in huge decline, and although Windows 8 isn't totally to blame and some retailers have a better story, it's palpable that Microsoft faces a massive challenge to keep Windows relevant and encourage us to upgrade our PCs - especially in the face of some depressing views from partners and rumoured price cuts.
We met Microsoft's Windows Product Manager Ian Moulster away from the show floor at the recent UK Gadget Show to get an update on how things are going with the OS. The change in tone from previous Windows 8 briefings we've experienced was marked. Gone were the big messages about the Windows 8 Start screen and Windows 8-style apps. The atmosphere was more introspective - has the Start screen been over-emphasised?
"I've changed my pitch - I hate saying it's my pitch - from starting with the Start screen to starting with the Windows desktop when I talk to people about Windows 8," considered Moulster. "When you show them the desktop it looks like Windows 7 and in fact it is pretty much like Windows 7 except that it's faster, it's more secure, uses less power, starts up quicker and has interface tweaks across the board.
"Essentially if you like Windows 7 you should like Windows 8 because it's much the same only improved. And then on top of that there's all the Windows 8 stuff which you can use when you're ready to use it."
Too much, too soon?
Moulster talked about how this "desktop first" approach may speak more to those migrating from Windows 7, with Microsoft possibly shifting the focus away from the new world of the Start screen at first.
"To me that resonates more with certain people who are coming from a Windows 7 background so I'm just wondering whether emphasising the Start screen to everyone might not be the right way to do it for us and others too.
"[The Start screen] is the new bit and it's the exciting bit so we want to talk about it but actually for a lot of people it's about doing their Windows 7 stuff and slowly get into 'OK I can do other things as well'. And suddenly it's 'well, I've got all these free apps I didn't know I had and I can play Angry Birds and gradually get into it'."
Moulster was also keen to find out what we thought about the new OS. When we brought up about the negative feedback from users we've received in comments on TechRadar, Moulster mused over whether there was a skew between early adopters and "people who are less techy". He also suggested that coming to Windows 8 without stigma does have positive results on touch-based devices.
"I bought my mother, who's 76, a Surface and - obviously while I helped her somewhat - she loves it and just gets on with it. She does her email, online banking, she does everything. What she doesn't use is the desktop. She doesn't really know it's there - she's got fairly simple needs.
"She had a laptop before and a netbook where the screen res was so low… It's easy to use, so there's that class of user that's not at all tech savvy and as long as they're starting from scratch with the Start screen, it's actually more easy to use."
The app problem
Although there are some great apps in the Windows Store - and numbers are in excess of 50,000 - we made the point to Moulster that we'd been surprised at the lack of big-name apps materialising at the Windows 8 launch. Skype and Twitter launched later, while Facebook (which Microsoft has a stake in, let's not forget) still hasn't appeared.
"We of course still have the desktop and have all the apps there. I get asked 'is there an iTunes app' - well there kind of is, because iTunes works just as it always has done on the desktop. Use that, or Spotify or whatever.
"The other key thing is that Internet Explorer 10 enables you to pin sites to the Start screen, so you can use that to access many web apps. Because it's full screen, you kind of don't know it's not a [separate] app - the BBC iPlayer is a case in point, just pin the site to your Start screen.
"What I don't think we should be doing is starting [people] off saying the Windows 8 Start screen is where you should spend your entire life and forget about the desktop because most people don't want to do that. In some ways it's the other way around.
"Start with what they know, install all the applications that they know they like and that work, and gradually start saying 'yes, I can see how these apps can be useful to me'."
Windows 8.1 on the way
We ask about Windows Blue and whether it points the way towards eventually getting rid of the desktop. Moulster tells us: "To be honest I don't have an answer because I don't know. I'm loathe to speculate. It seems highly unlikely to me. I haven't seen anything either way. I'd be surprised, but that's my personal view."
"I think it's a continuation of us always building on what's there. Windows 8 is built on Windows 7 and starts from where Windows 7 stops, and I don't think there will be a change to that approach. We'd be crazy to throw anything away.
"But what form that takes we'll have to wait and see I suppose. I think we have said that we'll be releasing updates more frequently, but precisely what that means I don't know. There's the apps as well, we've released plenty of updates to our apps."
We make the point to Moulster that much of the problem with the reaction to Windows 8 is actually around expectations rather than actual issues with the OS. "You're correct," he says. "It's more of a perception than an actual issue. Yeah, sure, we want to have more apps in the store and I'm sure we will, but there are a lot of things you can do that people don't realise you can do and it's our job [to tell people].
"So a lot of it will be, the more people are using Windows 8 the more people will talk about it, so people will say 'I'm using this tool, I didn't know you can do that' - it will catch on, that peer thing. But it will take time.
"The comments you make aren't surprising to an extent, it's just that we need to work out how best to address it. I think the product does a lot, if not all, the things people want it to do. It's about us being clear about how to achieve that without spending one-on-one time with everybody! These [public] shows are good because people come and most of them don't have an axe to grind at all; they just want to know how to use it. Spend five minutes with them and they say it makes sense to them and they understand it.
Helping people to choose a Windows 8 PC
Is there an issue with having too much choice with Windows 8 laptops and Windows 8 tablets? "I think we've got a job to do on the choice part as well. Choice is a good thing but then people get confused by it, so you've got to help them figure out what they're looking for and what they need. The line we've taken with it is that you can pick the ideal PC for you, which might not be the right PC for somebody else.
"We need to get people thinking that way - does it need to be thin and light, do I need a long battery life, does it need a big screen. When you figure those things out, you'll probably find there's a device that's right for them. We need to help them find that device.
"With Surface, because it's our device, some people think this is it! Actually, there could be a much better device that's a much better fit for what you want. We tend to forget that people don't know [what to look for] because we're so close to it. There's an education job for us to do."
"So when we talk about Surface being seen as the key Windows 8 device, is it about making sure partners' devices are on even keel? "I think it's a decision path - if that's not too bad a term to use - that includes our devices and all the rest too. It's crazy to suggest that Surface is the perfect device for everybody because clearly some people don't like it, they want a proper keyboard or whatever it is."
Does RT have a future?
Has Windows RT made things more complicated, with the lack of support for desktop apps? "Yeah, I think again it's about being clear about what people want. So if they've got Windows 7 programs they depend on, Photoshop for example, we need to be clear that they won't work on RT and it's not the right device for them. Simple as that.
"Although there is the case that there might be an equivalent [Windows 8] app for them and so the other advantages such as long battery life means it's a good choice. It is part of the decision-making process that we need to be clear about. I still maintain that having choice is a good thing, but it does complicate things somewhat.
"It's about getting people to use these devices and trying them out. It's a tough one, as it usually means going into a retail store. It's tough to get the value across on a poster. And it's tough to get the message across - 'this is Atom, this is ARM'. People don't think about that, they think about what they want to do, if they need something for email or for 3D gaming. I guess that's always been the case."
Finally, we also asked Moulster if he knew of any plans for RT, as other manufacturers seem to be pulling back from the OS. "We've specified support [duration, until November 2017 for Surface RT] … what the longer term plans are I'm not really privy to, but RT is a fully-fledged player. I can't really say any more than that."
Moulster finishes on a positive note. "We're encouraged by the solid initial sales of Windows 8, and as we announced recently there have been over 60 million licenses sold [market share is also on the rise]. This is an exciting time in Windows and there's a lot of energy around the work we're doing."