Windows 8, with its new, dramatic interface, represents a huge gamble for Microsoft. It's a huge gamble not only because the company risks slowing update cycles and attrition of its desktop installation base but also because the Windows desktop underpins the Microsoft ecosystem. That ecosystem could easily unravel if Microsoft fails to maintain a strong foundation.
As a technologist, I have been watching Windows 8 for some time. I have been using it, in some capacity, since the earliest public betas. I've long struggled to come to terms with how Microsoft envisions Windows 8 fitting into their existing customer base, but I have been more or less hopeful that the final release would fix many of my concerns.
When Windows 8 did finally release I was, sadly, left still wondering why it was so different from past Windows interfaces, what the ultimate intention was and how users were going to react to it.
It didn't take long before I got a very thorough introduction to user reaction. As a technology consultancy, my company tends to move quickly on new technologies and trends. When new products release, we generally apply updates almost instantaneously so that we are ready for problems and ahead of our customers. We started prepping to roll out Windows 8 on the day that it was released to manufacturing. Although the IT department had been playing with the new operating system since the early beta, that day was when management got their first chance to try it out.
Management came back to IT to ask critical questions concerning efficiency, usability and training. They found Windows 8's interface to be confusing and highly inefficient, requiring a disruptive "jolt" of leaping to and from full screen menus that caused mental context shifting and loss of focus. Many tasks required "power-user" levels of knowledge.
It wasn't that Windows 8 was unusable, but it failed at delivering the value traditionally associated with Windows—the value that traditionally has caused us to move from version to version more or less without thinking.
In the past, Windows on the desktop has delivered a predictable user experience requiring little to no retraining. Windows 8, by contrast, requires extensive retraining, makes workers less efficient even after adapting to it and requires all users to be power users in order to be effective. While sticking with Windows is the obvious choice for IT departments with deep investments in Windows knowledge and skills (and tools), the value proposition for end users does not have the same continuity that it has in the past.
Many reviews say that Windows 8 is "good enough" and that with extensive training end users can learn to "deal with" the interface issues. They say that the operating system becomes functional when users learn new skills like jumping back and forth between mouse and keyboard and memorizing shortcut keys.
But they never describe Windows 8 as good, never ideal. Few articles say why Windows 8 is better; they just say it is acceptable.
That's hardly a position that we want to be in as an IT department. We want to deliver solutions and value. We want to make our businesses more efficient, not less. We want to avoid disruption, not create it.
We visited Microsoft reps at a trade show where they were showing off Windows 8, but Microsoft's own staff were unable to clarify the value proposition of Windows 8. In their demonstration environment, they couldn't even get it to work "as intended."
Our company quickly made a decision: management wanted a demonstration of a Linux desktop immediately.
The first test was Linux Mint, which ended up being the final choice as well. The non-IT users were really impressed with how easy-to-use Linux Mint was for people with a Windows background. It required no training - users literally just sat down and started working; unlike on Windows 8 where users were confused and needed help with the simplest tasks like opening an application or shutting down the computer.
And there was essentially no pushback related to Linux Mint. People were universally excited about the opportunities that the new platform could provide, whereas people were actively concerned about how painful working with Windows 8 would be both up front and down the road.
That Windows 8 blundered so dramatically as to cause us to audition a competing product was not that surprising to me. These things happen. However, I was surprised that the reaction of the non-IT staff was so dramatically in favor of a Linux distro. Staff with no Linux exposure didn't just see Linux as a low-cost alternative or as the lesser of two evils but were downright excited to use it.
Windows 8 has caused Microsoft's worst fears to come true - users will no longer choose Windows because it is familiar and comfortable. Windows will no longer compete on a "devil we know" basis, but will need to compete on a usability basis. In our case, users said Linux Mint actually felt far more familiar and comfortable than Windows 8.