Steve Ballmer said it himself: Microsofts riskiest product bet is the next version of Windows.
I seriously doubt Windows 8 is going to pull it off and here is why.
A better experience
Metro, the UI paradigm from Windows Phone 7, is smart, recognizable and different. It's clearly designed with multitouch in mind, provides a consistent user experience and moves away from Windows classic desktop analogy.
Something we had not seen from Microsoft before.
Metro follows the trend Apple started in simplifying the use of computers by reducing legacy UI concepts like the desktop, file system, software- and window management.
With Windows 8 Microsoft decided to make Metro the default interface while including a classic Windows desktop in order to prevent breaking compatibility with a zillion existing legacy apps. Daring choice.
Microsoft actually calls this classic desktop interface: desktop and it's treated as a Metro app.
Seems like a smart thing to do… right?
Wrong. Very wrong. Failure.
It's not a Metro app
The plan sounds great:
Introduce a completely new OS, place all legacy functionality into a single Metro app. By doing this, current apps can still be used. In time more and more legacy apps will have Metro interfaces so in a couple of years we can toss the desktop app away…
The thing is, as it stands today, the desktop app doesn't behave like a Metro app.
The desktop app actually contains apps on it’s own and is started when a user clicks inside Metro on a tile of a legacy application…
In practice this sends a user from one UI straight into another one. Most likely the UI paradigm the user knows, and recognizes, as (the current) Windows.
Two of the pillars of user interface design are consistency and clear intent. Windows 8 neglects these rules, intentionally, by introducing two completely different UI paradigms that combine into one inconsistent and unclear experience.
Combining two completely different user interfaces introduces a huge amount of complexity and is a bag of hurt for the average user.
Let alone, an advanced Windows user might feel constrained since he's forced into a new, more limited, interface while the old one he knows, and has used for years, is still there.
Everything goes fine until a user is send back and forth between two user interface concepts.
The desktop is a Metro app concept fails horribly.
Beside two User Interfaces paradigms, apps on Windows 8 also add complexity by splitting and duplicating functionality. Some functionality is only provided in Metro, or vice versa in the classic desktop interface.
For example the Metro Mail client doesn't support POP3 or the ability to mark e-mail messages as flagged. The classic desktop Windows Live mail client does support POP3 and stuff like flagging.
Now imagine someone like your mother configuring her POP3 mail account… Or even something 'easy' as browsing the web. Windows 8 has two separate web browsers.
Users need clarity, not division. Stuff like that could be perceived as choice, but usually it only results in doubt.
Even long time Windows users will have a hard time finding out how to get things done and be productive.
On one hand they have a complete new UI with it's own set of mandatory multi-gestures you need to learn, on the other hand there is the old, now limited, interface.
The RT problem
Another factor to add into the complexity mixer: versions.
On the good side Windows 8 breaks away of the complex version strategy introduced with Vista. For consumers Windows 8, more or less, only has 2 versions: Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT.
RT has Metro and a dumbed down version of the Windows Desktop. This all has some technical reason that only allows Windows 8 to run legacy apps.
In general this makes it a lot easier for people to understand what Windows version to buy, but it also has a downside.
Having two, technically, different versions will surely lead to incompatibility issues.
Imagine a situation someone orders a Windows tablet online to find out some apps aren't working since it has a different Windows 8 version. Again: not meeting user expectations is a killer for the overall user experience.
It's all in the name
The above concerns might seem neglectible, but they have a major impact on the overall user experience. Remember Vista? Windows 7 wasn't that much different, but details make users perceive it as a superior functioning OS.
User experience is about expectations. Why call Windows 8, Windows? Metro is completely different from what Windows used to be.
The average Joe buying a laptop will expect Windows 8 to be Windows. But what does he get? A new Metro interface looking gorgeous at first… containing… the old Windows as he knows it!?
- Where is my start button?
- How do I get back?
- How do I turn it off?
Can you imagine Apple putting iOS on a Mac? The same questions would arise.
Microsoft has chosen a path of no concessions and choice. In my profession, concessions are the only way forward, that's why I think Microsoft is making a serious step backwards.
Perhaps Daring Fireball's John Gruber describes it best.
With the iPad, Apple has eliminated large amounts of complexity. With Windows 8, it remains to be seen whether Microsoft has eliminated complexity, or merely hidden it behind a Metro veneer.
I think it's even worse then Gruber speculates.
By introducing Metro Microsoft will multiply the complexity of it's OS.
With it's aggressive pricing scheme Microsoft wants the Windows world too move to Windows 8. I’m not certain if the Windows world wants to shift to Windows 8.
Right now I actually see more problems with windows 8 then it's predecessors and I'm not the only one.
Need for a change
Yes, Microsoft needs to look forward and needs to act sooner rather then later.
If I was in charge of Microsoft?
Introduce Metro as a separate OS. Give it separate brand from Windows and only put it on phones and tablets.
Metro could be a great iOS and Android competitor, but it shouldn't be forced upon existing Windows customers. They'll demand a downgrade if you do so.
Next, create Metro versions of Office apps and slowly start putting back Metro functionality into classic Windows. Or even develop a Metro variant specific for netbooks and laptops.
This is more or less what Apple is doing.
Follow Apples example like you've done before, look where it brought you today…