The Future of Windows.

The most interesting thing in security right now is the discovery of Flame, but I’ll leave the analysis of that to others (Ars Technica has a nice writeup).

Yesterday, Microsoft made the Release Preview of Windows 8 available, and the tech blogs have lit up with prognostications for the future of Windows.

I’d like to share my thoughts, primarily as a response to Michael Mace’s incredibly detailed and well-reasoned article.

Firstly, I completely agree with his position that Windows 8 is a huge gamble for Microsoft.  The radical changes to the user experience have the potential to pay off handsomely or backfire badly.

I think it’s a gamble that Microsoft has to take now.  They have a massive installed base, but it is in danger of dwindling.  It’s a better strategic move to make a potentially painful change to your core methods of operation when you can afford to have a portion of your users leave your ecosystem.  They’ve clearly learned some lessons by watching the mobile space, where players like RIM and Nokia went from a dominant position to also-rans seemingly overnight.  These are companies who refused to change the core methods underlying their handsets when it was obvious that users were gravitating towards the newer players (iOS and Android).

The majority of the commentary I’ve seen on the tech blogs is skeptical of Windows 8 to put it lightly.  Many people are up in arms because Microsoft announced they were removing the start button.  Many people find it to be a nice system for touch, but find it awkward with a mouse.  Others are bothered by the switching between Metro and Desktop environments.

What I believe is missed is that Microsoft is skating to where the puck is going to be. (Warning: Irony…though I happen to disagree with that particular @gruber post.  Including Flash doesn’t mean they are ignoring HTML5).

Windows 8 is not being designed for the computer you are using today, but for the computer you will be using a year or two from now.  Microsoft knows all of their own sales data, so they know just how many people upgrade their existing OS, and how many just get the new OS when they get a new computer. The vast majority go the latter route.  After reading Microsoft’s take on the evolution of their UX ,  I believe that they think computing is headed in the following direction:

  • We started with a single input device (keyboard) and everyone got used to that.
  • With the advent of the GUI, a second device (the mouse) became necessary and everyone got used to that.
  • The recent trends toward touch computing are not a fad, but rather a preferred method of interaction for many tasks.  While mostly limited to smartphones and tablets, laptops and desktop monitors will soon be manufactured with capacitive screens – if there is a strong base of software that takes advantage of that technology.

Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to be that strong base.

Microsoft is banking on every screen being touchable in the future, and I don’t think that’s a bad bet.  It’s not going to replace the mouse or trackpad, but add a third input device.  People want to use the best tool for the job, and there are some ‘jobs’ on the computer that are better served by a touch interface.

For instance, when a dialog box pops up and asks me to accept or reject something, I should just be able to tap it with my finger.  It’s not only natural for current computer users, but it will be expected behavior from future generations whose first exposure to computing is increasingly on a tablet or smartphone*.

The biggest question mark to me is how Microsoft will manage the dual nature of their operating system.  I’m not talking about the Metro vs Desktop interfaces though….I’m thinking about business users vs home users.  This goes back to one of Mr. Mace’s points:

Let me translate that for you: “We’re optimizing Windows for using Facebook and YouTube at the expense of performing productivity tasks.”  Which is fine; it’s a design choice Microsoft is free to make.  But it’s going to have an impact on the large base of people trying to get work done with a PC.

I think Microsoft may have an ace up its sleeve here.  Businesses take a long time to upgrade their systems, especially if they are working well.  Many companies are still on Windows XP, but a lot have migrated to Windows 7 and are pretty happy with it.

I think what Microsoft is doing is giving people a lot of time to play with and fully understand how the Metro UX can make computing work better for them.  They are seeing companies increasingly ditch desktop machines for laptops and tablets, where workers gain more from the mobility than they lose in computing power.  Companies are allowing workers to BYOD (Bring your own device), because they are more productive on their personal tablets and smartphones.  This causes headaches for IT and security departments, though.

What if Windows 8 is the answer to that problem?  An ecosystem of tablets and smartphones that people can be productive with and is easily integrated into your business’s infrastructure.  I’m not sure this will be the case, since it’s already known that Windows 8 tablets on ARM chips won’t support joining a domain, but I think Microsoft is trying to put the pieces in place to get something like this done.

For me, Windows 8 is the most intriguing OS to come out since Apple launched OS X.  There might be some rough spots at launch, but I think Microsoft has mostly played its cards correctly.

Going back to Michael Mace’s analysis, he states three outcomes:

1. Windows users adopt Windows 8 enthusiastically.

2. Windows users cling to Windows 7 tenaciously.

3. Windows collapses.

I think we’ll find the true results somewhere between numbers 1 and 2.  I think businesses will maintain their systems on Windows 7 for a few years, but I think as home users pick up new machines they will be delighted by many of the changes.  This is assuming that Microsoft improves discoverability in the initial experience.  The current builds require too much of the user to find out how to do things in this new paradigm.

Whatever the outcome, things are going to get interesting.

*Anecdotally, my 3-year-old son has gotten fairly adept at using the iPad.  When we sit down and watch a YouTube video on the laptop, he tries to touch the next video he’d like to see.