Charge of the Metro brigade: Did Microsoft execs plan to take a hit?
Touchy-feely annoyance a plot to keep Windows relevant
Analysis "Tiles to the right of them, Tiles to left of them, Tiles in front of them"
- Alfred Tennyson, The Charge of the Metro Brigade (1854)
It's fair to say that the typical reaction of pundits and analysts to Windows 8 is quite different to yours or mine. Our misgivings are shared, I have discovered, by many Microsoft employees.
In a nutshell, Microsoft is changing Windows 8. In addition to many welcome and uncontroversial improvements, it is adding a widget layer for touch users. This is fine, in itself. The problem is the way it's done. The widget layer drastically interferes with the daily workflow of a user and his or her Windows applications. Familiar parts of Windows have been stripped out or hidden, replaced with non-functional equivalents, or not replaced at all. The replacement for the Start Menu (for example) ejects you into this immature and non-functional fullscreen widget layer. And then, because it can't do very much, in the next moment, you're back again. This goes on all day – until you turn the computer off.
It's a rather an elaborate kind of torture.
So why isn't this a major story? Well, you must remember that almost all the analysts and journalists you have read enthusing over Windows 8 have been shown the Consumer Preview running on tablets, or on an overhead projector, in a carefully-choreographed demonstration environment. My experience differs slightly. I installed it one evening on my regular Windows machine, and the next day set about attempting to do a full day's El Reg work, just as if I were on a Mac or PC. (My main machine is a Mac, but I use a Thinkpad for writing longer pieces, and I have it set up so everything works seamlessly regardless of which machine I'm on. This is a "production environment", not a "demonstration environment".)
The Windows 8 problem is really quite simple. The "benefits" will be seen by nobody, but the disadvantages will be felt by almost everybody. Every user who must access the machine primarily (or exclusively) with a keyboard and mouse will register a net inconvenience. And that isn't going to change in a hurry.
In 10 years' time, perhaps, a much larger proportion of the market will be touchscreen tablets, and – perhaps sooner than that – the Metro desktop may have matured a bit. Metro might even have a full set of Common Dialog Boxes by then – who knows? But even then it won't be as productive for many of us as Windows 7 is today. We want computers to get out of the way. Those other 50 per cent will still be using the traditional rich GUI desktop to get anything done.
Here's how one reader expressed it:
The Metro interface without touch is painful and annoying. Like you, I'd love to see the clan in Redmond figure out that if a touch screen is detected at time of install, the Metro interface is default, whereas if no touch interface is present, it would give you the choice of interface/desktop to use. It's not rocket science, really. I also agreed that the gains made in Win 8 speed and responsiveness were great. Like you said, we just need to put a bag on the Metro team and get them to realise that the majority of Windows users will still be deploying to desktop/laptop devices that are not touch-enabled.
But Microsoft sources tell me that it's non-negotiable. They also shed light on the strange, twisty logic that is impelling Microsoft to its fate.
The Metro logic
The strategic thinking goes like this: Microsoft needs brute force to coerce a touch-based "ecosystem" into existence, and it's using Windows as the battering ram. Microsoft fears that if it loses "touch" to the iPad and iPhone and Android, then it loses its place in the consumer space altogether. These tablets are increasingly capable of content creation, it notes. And because of this, Microsoft is going to force-feed Windows 8 to millions of PC users on non-touch devices, for whom Metro is nothing but a hindrance, in the hope that the market provides content and applications "designed for Metro".
All this has consequences, though.
One analyst tweeted that Windows 8 will give a big benefit to Windows Phone – which must be music to Microsoft's ears, for WP is currently in the doldrums and needs a lift. But this reflects the theory rather than the reality. I see it working both ways. Users who have a bad time on Windows 8 aren't going to take a closer look at Windows Phone. The desktop experience may then act as a weird kind of aversion therapy.
If Metro 8 is not decoupled from the central non-touch Windows UX, then enterprises will simply shun the upgrade. They don't have the budgets to retrain their staff. In the days when you were moving thousands of people from DOS to Windows, you could argue for a bigger training budget. But the cost/benefit advantage just isn't there in Windows 8. Microsoft doesn't have the power to move its market in the way Apple can – the market would prefer to shun the upgrade, as it did with Vista.
Paul Thurrott of WinSuperSite goes further:
"Inside Microsoft, there is a related fixation on whether Windows 8 will succeed and, yes, there is a contingent of people stuck in a paradoxical position: They understand that the success of Microsoft is inexorably linked to Windows, and thus that Windows 8 must succeed. But they desperately want Steven Sinofsky, and thus Windows 8, to fail. That both can't happen is of course the unresolvable issue," he writes.
I haven't found that sentiment. Nobody I've spoken to wants Windows 8 to fail. But everyone expects it to fail in the enterprise, and fail so badly that it will make Vista look like a gentle hiccup. (Not tho' the soldier knew/Someone had blunder'd):
This is all quite puzzling. We must assume the Metro-centric core of Microsoft executives is thinking rationally. We must assume they have done some maths. Which means Microsoft is at least prepared to forgo the revenue that comes from one enterprise Windows upgrade cycle, just to jam Metro into the public consciousness in the long term.
Perhaps Microsoft has justified this with the thought that the mere $4.74bn in quarterly revenues that the Windows division brings in is fairly inelastic – it won't vary much whether Windows is a hit or a flop - and that OEMs have to keep building and buying PCs. So it must have also reckoned that it can afford to take a hit in the short term to preserve Microsoft's relevance in the long term. Perhaps this isn't so crazy. Microsoft's Entertainment division (led by Xbox) now makes almost as much money as Windows.
This, then, appears to be Microsoft's gamble. I just wonder if it has revealed all this to the shareholders? Perhaps it should.
Meanwhile the Metro boat sails steadily on to its fate. Better get the popcorn in. ®