Forget the do-it-all OS


Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer at Windows 8 Launch (courtesy of Dell Inc.)

Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer at Windows 8 Launch (courtesy of Dell Inc.)

On a technical level, Windows 8 is a tour de force. On paper, at least, it’s an incredible business tool. Its tile-based interface is a refreshing take on touch-era workflow. Sure, it looks good, but the genius lies under the hood, with its high degree of customization which allows users to mix and match tiles to suit whatever they’re working on at that moment. Live Tiles that in some cases obviate the need to open the related app are an even bigger stretch beyond the conventional.

It’s the kind of customizable interface that works exceptionally well for today’s increasingly diverse range of business users. Even Mac OS X users have to drool with envy over this one.

Something for everyone

By including a traditional desktop interface as well, Microsoft has managed to somewhat cushion the transitional blow for business users who still tend to view personal computing as being all about keyboards, mice, icons, menus and desktops. It gives them a fallback, a way to keep working day-to-day as they slowly explore and build their comfort with the newfangled world of touch – and a way to avoid overt training shock, or lost productivity while everyone gets used to the efficient but explicitly different tiles.

At the same time, traditional power users have ample room to explore and learn as they slowly adapt from yesterday’s traditional UI to tomorrow’s. The recently introduced 8.1 upgrades, in addition to laying out a promising roadmap for what comes next, build on an already solid technical foundation and give business decision-makers a reasonable path to follow when thinking about employee productivity tools.

But also a split personality

But here’s the thing: nailing the underlying technology is only half the battle. As much sense as it makes to include both approaches to UI in the same product – to cover all the bases, to give users maximum choice, to avoid ticking too many people off – it ends up splitting the operating system’s focus more than it probably should. Is it mobile? Is it desktop? Microsoft says it’s both, and as much as well-trained corporate users embrace the flexibility and the buy-one-device simplicity it offers, the radically new interface may not be what more mainstream business users had been asking for.

Indeed, Windows 8’s somewhat tepid sales performance since its October 2012 launch suggests the market isn’t ready to fully commit to Microsoft’s hybridized future. Admittedly, it’s selling well – 200 million licenses so far – but that run rate falls short of Windows 7’s performance at this stage in its life, and this number fails to differentiate between devices shipped to OEMs and those actually sold to end-users.

Of course, Microsoft had no choice. The market has been lapping up tablets since Apple cracked the code with its first-generation iPad in 2010 – and in doing so has been slowly eating away at the core PC business that’s been driving Microsoft revenues since the first version of DOS institutionalized the software license-based revenue generating model. A warmed-over version of the well-received Windows 7, itself a fast-tracked response to the overwrought Vista, wouldn’t have been sufficient. Microsoft couldn’t afford to release another purely desktop-based product. It was time to take on the tablet interlopers with something radically different.

Learning from the past

Its own corporate history provided some crucial lessons for Microsoft. The company’s previous attempts to drive tablet demand centred on adding a touch layer to a traditional desktop operating system. The resulting mutant-laptops were expensive and clunky, with desktop-centric interfaces that barely accommodated the unique needs of touch. Developers stayed away, deterred by kludgy coding and an interface that made no allowances for the unique needs of touch. Without anything resembling a killer app, this early attempt at popularizing touch was dead on arrival. Businesses, understandably, kept their distance.

Apple approached the problem from the opposite direction, starting with iOS and stretching the screen. The resulting wave of tablet demand initiated a process that now sees traditional PC demand shrinking as relatively tertiary and simple tasks are increasingly taken on by mobile devices. If all you want to do is glance at your daily schedule or fire off a quick note, why take the time to fetch your laptop and wait for the thing to boot up?

Apple’s strategy to pull its mobile and desktop worlds together has been somewhat more subtle – and recent security issues aside, a lot less controversial. Its iOS mobile and Mac OS X desktop operating systems have followed relatively distinct evolution paths, though the gradual cross-pollination of user interface elements between them has slowly begun to blur the lines. For example the Launchpad in OS X looks and feels very much like the icon-based app launcher in iOS. And with each update cycle, the apps in each OS become more alike and more interoperable.

Not going to go there

Despite this slow convergence, Apple steadfastly denies plans to turn two operating systems into one. In a January interview with Macworld, Phil Schiller called the notion a non-starter.

“We don’t waste time thinking, ‘But it should be one [interface]!’ How do you make these [operating systems] merge together?’ What a waste of energy that would be.”

The consumer products world is rife with examples of things that tried to do it all, and fell on their swords in the process. All-season tires may give drivers a bit more confidence when the rains hit in the middle of summer, but they’re a dangerous compromise on ice-covered winter roads.

Too much, too soon

Combining the best of desktop and mobile isn’t necessarily a slam dunk. Features that work well in one environment don’t necessarily translate all that well in the other – to wit, try spending the day touching your laptop’s screen in its traditional clamshell mode. Steve Jobs called it Gorilla Arm, and for good reason.

Instead of creating two specifically focused products, Microsoft has slammed everything into one do-it-all OS and assumed mainstream and business users will simply go along for the ride. It isn’t necessarily that simple. And having a jack of all trades OS and master of none may not necessarily be in the end-user’s best interest.

Business decision-makers face unique challenges as they work to choose – or facilitate use of – the right tools within their environment. An all-in-one operating system may seem like a straightforward way to simplify hardware purchases as it helps organizations avoid the need to deploy both laptops and tablets. But the necessarily radical changes to the interface could push end users and developers well beyond their comfort zone. Unique, focused solutions often make more sense than the technological equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife. In operating systems, it seems, it simply doesn’t pay to be ahead of your time.

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