Windows 8 one year on: where did it go wrong?

2nd Nov 2013 | 10:00

Windows 8 one year on: where did it go wrong?

What Microsoft should do to salvage its touchscreen dream

A year ago this week, Microsoft released its first Windows OS of the tablet age. Against the backdrop of frenetic tablet sales and Android ubiquity, it seemed incredible that Microsoft was only just making its first proper journey into touchscreen tablet and PC devices.

As the launch crept up, Microsoft seemed confident. Internally, the firm was still smarting from the debacle of Vista's launch in 2007 - accordingly Windows 8's launch was low-key, but expectant.

Microsoft had a product that was different: built for today's touchscreen world, it promised that Windows 8 would spawn a world of new devices beyond our imagination. With Windows 8 the days of carrying two devices - a laptop for work and a tablet for play - were meant to be over. But things didn't quite pan out that way.

The subsequent 12 months has seen Microsoft savaged by its partners, unfairly blamed for the death of the PC industry and forced to write down $1bn against its failed Windows RT tablet.

Windows 8: one year on

Add the exit of two of its most senior figures, in Steven Sinofsky and the soon-to-retire Steve Ballmer, and it appears virtually no one has been untouched by the Windows 8 debacle.

Where has it all gone wrong?

You don't have to be an industry expert to see the problems with Windows 8, but there are some examples that should be highlighted as particular mistakes.

The first is apps. Microsoft spent nearly $1bn on marketing Windows 8, yet couldn't find the apps to flesh out its fledgling store. The selection remains appalling to this day.

The second was the bullish nature with which Microsoft approached the existing market. By forcing users to boot to the Start screen, it glossed over the fact that 90% of machines sold are still not touch-enabled. The mouse gestures required to operate Windows 8 are far from intuitive and the system is confusing for new users.

Confusion has been a popular theme with Windows 8, and nothing highlighted the issue like Surface RT - the company's first home-built tablet. Redmond took a risk launching against its partners, and has paid the price. The device has been roundly slammed, and it's cost the company $900m to slash the sorry slate's price.

The sad thing about the Surface RT saga is that it's not really a bad device - it's just been appallingly supported and marketed. Surface RT has become great value for money (after its price drop), it comes with a full version of Office 2013 and the battery life is staggering.

If Redmond had packed its app store with decent titles, Surface RT would have gone from pointless brick to a supercharged iPad rival.

Windows 8: one year on

As it was, the benefits Windows RT were also appallingly communicated, the whole positioning was wrong. Blending RT tabs and full-fat Intel slates was baffling for consumers. The result: the industry turned on Windows RT.

It hasn't just been the blend of Windows RT and Windows 8 that's been baffling. The new devices that Microsoft vowed would be spawned from Windows 8 haven't caught the public's imagination either.

The hybrid PC has now become the champion of Microsoft's partners, and examples come in all shapes and sizes. From the tiny Sony VAIO Duo 11 to the colossal Acer Aspire R7, manufacturers have attempted to reimagine the humble PC… and failed.

In fact, touchscreen laptops still account for just 10% of total sales, and most hybrids TechRadar has reviewed have sacrificed usability to an extent they could never replace traditional form factors.

There's no doubt that 2013 has been a bleak year for Windows 8. But there is reason for optimism. If it wants to turn Windows around, Microsoft needs to work fast, starting with innovation.

Innovate faster

Windows 8 showed how stagnant the development cycle at Microsoft had become, highlighted by the fact that Redmond only managed to release one version of Windows in the time it took Apple to release three iPads.

That was supposed to change, yet Windows 8.1 has only delivered a handful of fixes in the year since the original release. To us, that shows Microsoft is still too cumbersome as a business.

If Redmond can hit back with some features that merge Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox quickly, though, we could come to see Windows 8 in a whole new light.

Somebody make some apps, now!

Next, Microsoft has to spend some big money to get decent apps created, fast.

Looking at the difference between Google Play and Windows Store, it's hard to know if anyone at Microsoft has used its competitors' products before - the gulf in volume and quality is embarrassing.

What's needed is for somebody to identify the top 200 apps and get them made for Windows - properly. No matter what the cost.

If the news leaked by Dell is correct, and Xbox One can run Windows 8 apps, there's even more reason to push serious investment in this area. Microsoft needs to get ruthless over sub-standard third-party apps, and seriously buck up its own ideas.

Embrace the Xbox One... and Windows Phone!

The Xbox team at Microsoft once had little to do with the Windows division, and perhaps that explains why the Xbox 360 was so successful. They've had no such luck this time, and the circus surrounding E3 and GDC this year shows that Windows-itus is catching.

Somehow the Xbox One looks like it could be in pole position this Christmas after the disastrous delays to Watchdogs, Drive Club and Titanfall - so make it tell. Windows and Xbox has been made to work together, and a successful Xbox launch could give Windows 8 a shot in the arm.

Recent sales figures have also shown that Windows Phone is starting to gain traction, and that's great news for Windows 8. Redmond needs to make sure the benefits of people using these successful platforms with Windows are clearly and properly communicated.

Strive to cut prices

Existing Windows devices have been far too expensive, and Microsoft needs to find a way to keep costs down.

This is going to be extremely difficult because Redmond isn't making money through its app store or services. But somehow prices of premium Intel-based tablets have to fall.

As web apps prevail, the time for playing on Windows' strengths of compatibility is nearly over.

Imagine a person who uses Google Drive to write documents, Dropbox to share them and enjoys a game of Real Racing in between. Now imagine the decision for that person, making a choice between a £399 iPad 5 and a £1000 Sony VAIO Duo 11.

Right now, there's no contest.

Don't ditch Windows RT

The final point may come as a shock.

While Windows RT has been an omnishambles, Microsoft shouldn't spike Surface RT. In fact, it's one of their greatest opportunities.

Windows 8: one year on

If Microsoft could make the above points stick, it could lead to a reinvigorated Windows RT, and it has some serious tricks up its sleeve.

With its rich new high-definition screen and superb battery life, there's no reason that Surface can't symbolise the revival of Windows 8's fortunes, provided Microsoft can keep the price down and get the app choice up.

It's a long road back

What's clear, however, is that turning around Windows 8 is no easy task. The release of Windows 8.1 is a start, but it's unlikely to change anything.

The new Surface Pro 2 and Surface RT 2 look good, yet a hardware update wasn't really what they needed. By and large the original Surface tech was good; it's the foibles of the OS that's really holding the devices back - particularly the RT version.

And that's the really astonishing thing. Microsoft doesn't seem to realise that Windows 8 is the problem.

It's not all doom and gloom, and Microsoft has worked hard to create a superb product line-up, that for the first time in its history, is starting to converge to create a strong, unified experience. However, it will take a serious visionary to replace Ballmer, and to steer Microsoft through the next phase.

A year ago this week, Microsoft released the first Windows OS of the tablet age. It could be two years from now that Microsoft gets it right. But that could be too late.

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