Microsoft's hope that all the problems of Windows 8 will be forgotten about by missing out number 9 and implementing a 'generation shift' to 10 might be a bit optimistic, but the details they have revealed at least show they are back on the right track.
Windows 8 was a complete misfire – Microsoft treated the desktop like it was a tablet, and they just ended up confusing the user. It swung too far to the tablet and left the majority of its customers – the desktop users – out in the cold.
Resizing tiles was fine by touch, but clumsy when using a mouse. The way Microsoft mixed up the application tiles and the tiles for newsfeeds was very difficult to customise for the user. The charms bar was designed to allow you to change settings, but it did not allow you to configure things like Apple does - it was too complicated.
These were basic user design mistakes; it was a compromise, as if designed by committee. Teenagers at school learn that design is based around the user experience, that is where it starts and they forgot that basic principle. Windows 8 was simply out of touch with Microsoft's users.
Going in the right direction
From what we have seen so far I think Microsoft has refocused and corrected things with Windows 10. It is not a radical new product, but it is a step in the right direction – Redmond has recognised the need to get form and function in sync with the device.
Another one of the fundamental design principles in today's digital world is using crowd innovation, and it is heartening to see Microsoft inviting users to help design Windows 10 with its Windows Insider Programme. In other industry sectors it's commonplace to involve communities, and leading brands like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble have been using crowd innovation for some time.
It is a two-way street – it gives the organisation free marketing because it brings the community on the product journey, while the company gets an infusion of more creative ideas. In the new world of digital developments this is basic best practice; listening to users and focusing on what the new generation of consumers want.
It remains to be seen whether this is the start of building a community of developers for Microsoft, as Apple and Android have done. There is a lot of catching up to do – the Microsoft app store is at a mere 170,000 apps, as reported in September, compared to one million plus apps in the iOS and Android markets.
This is a symptom of mobile software app developers having largely shunned Microsoft, so opening up the development of Windows 10 is a step forward and could help the firm's desire to be a multi-platform operator. Buying Minecraft-maker Mojang may also fit into this strategy as it will give Microsoft a huge user base which they can work with and engage. It is all connected in the digital world – the customer is a co-producer of the development cycle, the customer is part of the journey and not separate. And this is a major point Microsoft has recognised.
There has been some criticism of Microsoft's strategy to have the same operating system across all its devices, but I think it is a good idea, as we are seeing the convergence of networks, apps and different devices into the same digital space. Microsoft has to play to the strength it has in the PC market, where the firm has 92% of the market. The demise of the PC and laptop has been predicted by many, but the tablet does not yet have the same usability features of the desktop and the ergonomics of Powerpoint and Word – most people ignore that fact.
The PC is still strong and buoyant. Maybe in five years the tablet may have fine-tuned everything and started to take over, but for now Microsoft has to take care of that dominance, and use that to potentially leverage its desktop strength and shift it into the mobile and tablet markets where Redmond is not so strong. Azure has done well in the cloud battle and with Xbox Microsoft has the potential to create an ecosystem across all devices. It just needs to improve the usability of Windows across the devices.
It tried a one-size fits all approach with Windows 8, but with Windows 10 it appears that Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO, and his team have gone back to improving the usability specific to each device. Microsoft has reverted to getting the desktop to where it was and if the company can match that functionality across different platforms it will have a very strong future with Generation Z, who work across multiple channels and multiple devices – they have to speak to that audience.
- Mark Skilton is professor of Practice at Warwick University.
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