Microsoft’s Bet of the Century

| Editorial

Awhile back, Microsoft decided that it would compete in the tablet space with a next generation Windows, called Windows 8. The design compromises Microsoft had to make for this to happen may end up further stalling Microsoft's progress in the post-PC tablet era, causing the company to fall further behind instead of reversing the fortunes of Windows. It's the technology bet of the century.

A careful analysis of the Windows 8 User Interface (UI) has been published, and it is scathing. While the Apple community has been discussing the finer nuances of skeuomorphism and UI/UX improvements that might come under the supervision of Jonathan Ive, Microsoft appears to have made wholesale blunders in the those elements of Windows 8.

At the core of this issue is whether an OS can serve two masters, the desktop/notebook and the tablet. As we know, under the tutelage of Steve Jobs, Apple leveraged from its Unix/Darwin core to create a new, tablet GUI. That GUI makes absolutely no concessions to the operational usage of OS X. The iPad is a thing unto itself, designed to be pure* tablet, and nothing to hold it back. If, someday, iOS matures sufficiently and forces OS X into irrelevance, that would only have a relatively minor impact in Apple's total revenues.

What's at stake here is the prospect of building and maintaining two OSes, and so, some background is in order here. There was a time when Microsoft had two very distinct OSes with different foundations, Windows 95 and Windows NT. The company fought mightily to follow in Apple's footsteps and move to a single OS for all. (Except for specialized Windows Server variants in the enterprise.) Once Microsoft achieved that holy grail, in Windows 2000, there was no going back.

Apple, meanwhile, took a different approach as it contemplated the mobile OS in circa 2005. Apple would retain the core functionality, the overall architecture of BSD Unix ("Darwin"), but also pull off an interesting trick: Remove some daemons, continue modification of the underpinnings to be more modern with, for example, Launchd, and adjust frameworks for a touch and gesture experience. Nowadays, Apple can be thought of as having two OSes, but it's really just one core Unix OS with two different presentations to the user.

That allows Apple to envision and instantiate a pure tablet experience, one that users have come to appreciate in the iPad.

Microsoft's Dilemma

Back to the future. Faced with the enormous technical and financial ties to Windows, Microsoft had no choice but to carry Windows forward as both a tablet and PC OS. (Well, the company did have a choice. It was called Courier, But Steven Sinofsky, when he was still with Microsoft, deep-sixed it.)

Now, here we are in November, 2012, and Microsoft has launched Windows 8. How has this unified OS made the transition to the tablet space, namely the Surface RT tablet?

Let's take a look.

Jacob Nielsen is a web usability consultant. He holds a Ph.D. in human–computer interaction from the Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen. Recently, he posted an analysis of Windows 8 derived from his own experience and credentials combined with user testing with 12 experienced PC users. Here's a link to his analysis, but for the sake of the discussion, I'll just cite a few of the issues he discovered.

  • "The product shows two faces to the user: a tablet-oriented Start screen and a PC-oriented desktop screen. Unfortunately, having two environments on a single device is a prescription for usability problems..."
  • "...the product's very name has become a misnomer. "Windows" no longer supports multiple windows on the screen."
  • "The Windows 8 UI is completely flat.... There's no pseudo-3D or lighting model to cast subtle shadows that indicate what's clickable.... Icons are supposed to (a) help users interpret the system, and (b) attract clicks. Not the Win8 icons."
  • Simplification for the tablet user is extreme. "As a result of the Surface's incredibly low information density, users are relegated to incessant scrolling to get even a modest overview of the available information."
  • Live tiles are good for weather and calendars. "Unfortunately, application designers immediately went overboard and went from live tiles to hyper-energized ones.... the result makes the Surface start screen into an incessantly blinking, unruly environment that feels like dozens of carnival barkers yelling at you simultaneously."
  • "The tablet version of Windows 8 introduces a bunch of complicated gestures that are easy to get wrong and thus dramatically reduce the UI's learnability...The UI is littered with swipe ambiguity, where similar (or identical) gestures have different outcomes depending on subtle details in how they're activated or executed."

There was more, and I could go on, but this is enough to whet your appetite to read the entire article and appreciate the tremendous compromises Microsoft had to make to turn Windows 7 into a tablet OS.

As a final punctuation of this theme, that the transition of Windows to a pure tablet OS has been botched (for the time being), it's also worth reading the observations of an experienced technical writer. Yes, Mr. Siegler is a long-time iPad user, but my take here is not so much that a potentially biased iPad user found the Surface RT alien and frustrating as it is how a user with years of experience on a pure tablet reacted to Microsoft's tablet vision using Windows. It was not a happy experience.

As a final, glorious condemnation of the Surface RT, there's an image of the tablet in Mr. Siegler's trash can.

Credit: TechCrunch. Paid for with personal money. For effect, yes, but sharply so.

As Dr. Nielsen notes, Microsoft learns from its mistakes, and Windows 9 will likely address many of these problems. But the core of the issue remains: Microsoft, in a world soon to be dominated by pure tablets with OSes uniquely designed for tablets -- Android and iOS -- has staked its future on the idea that Windows 8 can carry the company into the tablet era and has made the corresponding concessions in design.

Considering this market share evolution of Windows, in the sand chart below, that's the technology bet of the century.

Image credit: Asymco. Some are still not counting Atari out.


* I define a pure tablet as one that works equally well in landscape or portrait mode and isn't sold with a keyboard.

Dice image, with artistic magic added by Bryan Chaffin, via Shutterstock.

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Lee Dronick

That has been my experience with Surface, clunky


I installed Windows 8 on my iMac.
I read Jacob’s critique.
In it, he talks about how users could not change the city for the weather app. So, I attempted to do that and I failed. Even with his hints.
I had to do a search on Google and then read someone’s helpful instruction.


Rather then referring to the two models of computing as touch screen vs. trackpad/mouse computing, or smartphone/pad vs. laptop/desktop, I have always preferred small screen vs. large screen.  As Nielsen’s analysis highlights, the difference in screen real estate is what determines the appropriate user interface.  Microsoft’s failure to distinguish between the functional opportunities and ergonomic necessities of small screen vs. large screen computing is what makes Win 8 a mess.

It is really amazing that nobody in Microsoft thinks about these things.  Or nobody in Microsoft who thinks about these things is listened to.  They could have asked me and I would have charged a measly sum for my consulting fee.  But nooooooo.  grin


W8 is a fiasco - worse than Vista. it’s a dog. new consumer PC sales will tumble, and the OEM’s will scream.

but, MS can staunch the bleeding if it quickly brings back W7 PC licensing early next year. that is step one.

step two will be a cleaned up W8 that fixes the most glaring annoyances - bring back the Start button - and allows users to totally avoid the Modern UI touch interface if they want to, making it optional. essentially the W7 evolutionary update that W8 should have been from the beginning.

if MS gets this W8.5 to market by next year it will avoid disaster and still have the foundation to continue to dominate the consumer PC/laptop market. but yes, that market will continue to shrink overall.

if it doesn’t, this really is the beginning of the end for MS as we have known it.

as to portable computers - smartphones/tablets - it’s already too late for MS. even if Windows Phone 8 was selling well - it’s not - and the Surface tablet wasn’t so obviously the Son of Zune, everyone else has already divided up the markets. There is just no room for some new guy that offers little more new than eye candy. the only niche left for MS is an Xbox appliance tablet for its media ecosystem - relatively small potatoes.

MS didn’t really make a bet of the century. it just missed the boat.


I was in Best Buy the other day and saw one of the surface tablets. Nice looking tablet but the screen gives me a headache. Tiles always updating and the asymmetry of everything gave me a headache. I don’t have any experience with Windows 8 so I don’t have anything else to say about this except to ask one question from JM. Are those die real or were they photoshopped with MSFT logo on them? Maybe if MSFT gave those away with each tablet or computer with Windows 8, maybe they would sell a lot more in their stores wink.

John Martellaro

nealg: You can see the original image at the Shutterstock link at the bottom of the article.  Bryan Chaffin added the MS artwork.  He has a great touch with Photoshop.


There’s another part of this that people aren’t talking about yet. I work for a company that builds computer controlled devices. We have a whole library of software, user interfaces, GUIs, control software, etc. etc. that is written around the standard Windows user interface. We are terrified about what Win8 will do to our stuff. If MS stops sales to OEMs we could be in a world of hurt. Right now I’m getting a copy of Win8 for testing but it could be a lot of overtime over Christmas while we rewrite and debug our code. Depending on how hard it will be we have pondered if switching to Linux would be easier in the long run.


Maybe Windows 7 will become the new XP.  Many users will stick with it for the next 10 years.


Lanc-Witch:  I have Win7 on Fusion on my Mac and I have every intension of making it last the next 10 years.  But folks like me aren’t the ones who will determine this, it’ll be the Fortune 500 and the rest of the enterprise market.  If they demand it, MS will keep selling it to them.  Which makes me think that Apple will never ever be a significant player in the corporate desktop market.


Lancashire-Witch: Maybe Windows 7 will become the new XP.

Quite likely, possibly in the corporate world where they have systems that depend on the existing paradigm.

aardman: If they demand it, MS will keep selling it to them.

Hope so. Interestingly enough an article just appeared on TMO about how Apple was once again selling Snow Leopard, IMO due to popular demand from owners of older systems.


It’s as if some evil force took over Microsoft in 2006 and decided to drive Windows into the ground.  First it was that horror named after the federal antipoverty program and now this double horror.  Perhaps Windows 7 is usable with a whole lot of tweaking.  Win 8 should be immediately recalled and scrapped but it’s probably too late for that.


This would follow the pattern I’ve seen with MS. Alternating good and bad Win Versions. Win3.1 was not bad for the time. Win95 was a huge jump but didn’t work that well. Win98 fixed most of the problems with 95. Win ME was terrible. Win2000 was not bad. WinXP (raw and SP1) were terrible. Win XP (SP2 and later**) was pretty good. Vista was terrible. Win7 took some getting used to but isn’t too bad. Because of this, I’m not expecting much from 8.

**Yes I know I’m stretching things by splitting XP into two. But SP2 made huge changes to how XP worked, the interface, and how it was managed. A corollary would be Win98 which a lot of us thought of as Win95 SP3. With XP they just didn’t change the name.)


agree with you all the W7 will continue to be tops for years. it wasn’t broke, didn’t need fixing. just a nice service pack with W8’s under-the-hood improvements, integrated cloud services, etc. call it W7.5. if MS is smart they will bring that back out as quickly as possible next year.

that is exactly what Apple has been doing with OSX (and iOS) of course. a few major changes each edition (Thunderbolt is killer, social integration is slick, losing CD drives is a nuisance), plus a manageable number of tweaks, and lots of under-the-hood improvements. we all get time to adapt, and don’t have to re-invent wheels each time.

(e.g. personally i’m hoping for a lot of common-sense enhancements to iOS 7 next year, now that Forstall isn’t blocking them any more).

Paul Goodwin

Below is a link to a CNET article that gives you a “give-it-a-chance” view…i.e. just because it’s so different doesn’t mean it’s bad.

A couple of things jump out at me looking at Win8. I haven’t used it yet, so I’m only going on what I’ve seen on line.

The default Win8 look that’s presented to the user on a desktop machine appears to be a touch screen tablet-like UI. Why anyone with a desktop or even a laptop would want to stretch their arms out all day long touching and dragging is beyond me. Apple’s latest OS, when I first brought it up on my iMac didn’t look much different than 10.7, and still pretty similar to 10.6.8. I wasn’t overwhelmed, confused and frustrated. There was plenty of new stuff there if I wanted to operate differently, but the OS still had the Mac look and feel; which is a good thing.

The Win8 controls appear to be all relocated. The guy in the movie in the article appears to be pulling them from the right of the screen. Why the right side of the screen? Beats the crap out of me. You’d think it would be a pop-up from the bottom at least. Was it relocated with some productivity improvement in mind. The logic escapes me.

And dragging those tiles around on the desktop, separating them, putting theme wherever???? What was wrong with pull downs at the top of the screen, and allowing a user to detach a pull down if he wanted?

And yes, the blinking-updating-tiles look flat out annoying, as well as pretty ugly. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but the plain colored boxes look like they were designed by someone without one shred of design background. It looks too cheesy to me.

Sometimes change is just too drastic and not well thought out. I’m sure there’s some great features there, but it sure looks like a long frustrating learning curve, and in the end is it better? Maybe the desktops’ and laptops’ track pads would help things. I can’t see stretching out across a desk to reach a 21.5 inch screen to use any of it.

Probably 3/4 of the people using PCs barely know where things are in Windows today. They turn their machines on, go to email and Facebook, do music and photos. If anything is different, the bulk of them are going to be lost and very upset. This looks like a MS train wreck unless MS defaults the look to what people know. The news of frustration will spread, and sales will suffer.

Here’s the article:


I have a surface and really like it.  don’t just watch videos or try it, learn it.  then if you still hate it, by all means gripe.

Perry Clease

Does Surface keyboard have a shift key?

David T.

I have used Win8 on the desktop, and it’s not pretty. There are things you can’t do in Metro, and there are things you can’t do on the desktop. So you are happily going along in Metro and you get thrown into the desktop for something, or you are happily computing on the desktop and you get thrown into Metro for something. Not cool at all. And stuff that is open in Metro doesn’t show under the Desktop environment and user profiles for the SAME APP can be different under Metro and Desktop… Win8 is positively SCHIZOPHRENIC…
What MS should have done is released Metro like they released Media Center… made it accessible from all versions of Windows but only the default in targeted versions. In other words, put out SP2 for Win7 that includes Metro (but does not make it default) then roll out Win7 Touch Edition that includes Metro as default.
Who knows what MS will do next. They will have to backtrack somewhat, I think.


Hi Ted,
I don’t really think the problem with Windows RT is that it shares underpinnings with Windows. iOS and OS X share much more than just the Darwin kernel. It’s pretty much just the “skin” that separates the two. Windows RT is a “pure” tablet experience: there’s no mouse-driven legacy, the programming APIs and methodologies have all been modernized. It is a tablet experience. Just not a good one.

Except for your first bullet point from Nielsen’s analysis (two environments in one leads to usability issues) all the rest are entirely design decisions, mostly driven by Microsoft’s desire to ‘be different.’ I’ll also point out that under Windows RT, at least there is the possibility of running two apps side by side, whereas this is not an option at all under iOS. I see this as a plus in Windows RT’s column (one of the few).

So, MS can fix a lot of the issues with Windows RT in an update. What’s going to be harder to fix without a complete back-track, is the way they’ve replaced the Start menu in the desktop version of Windows. This is where what they’ve done really falls apart for me.

An Apple Analogy: if on my iPad, I had the option of dropping back into a desktop version of OS X, and maybe things would be a little annoying, but still useable, I would see that as a huge win.
However, if on the Mac, Apple had gone further with their “iOS-ification”, and the ONLY way to launch an app was to now go through “Launch Pad”, many users would be up in arms. Apple was wise to (mostly) not force people to use the transplanted iOS elements.  See the parallel?

Microsoft forced Live Tiles on people to try to promote its mobile experience, but my guess is, it’s really going to bite them in the hinterlands. They see mobile is the future and are making strides in that direction, but they’ve seriously damaged their desktop product, still their bread-and-butter, in the process.


Not surprisingly, there are already utilities cropping up that let you avoid the “UI previously known as Metro” aspect of Windows 8 (desktop).

John Fro

I’m pretty sure the idea was to combine the XBox and WinPhone experience to drive sales to both devices.  Forcing desktop customers to “love” the XBox-WinPhone OS mannerisms will “no doubt” allow MS to overcome the Android/iOS smartphone duopoly. MS needs to maintain its leverage in all computing spaces to prevent leakage in the main enterprise market.

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