Windows 8 may be an idea whose time will still come

To me, the decision by Microsoft to release an updated version of its Windows 8 operating system is just another example of what we might call The Ribbon Problem.

For years, software designers at the Redmond-based technology giant were frustrated when consumers and business users would request various new features and functionality in Microsoft Word. Not because they weren’t willing to offer new things, but because in many cases (I’ve heard as high as 90 per cent of the time) the features and functionality were already there.

That’s why the company eventually built what was known as the ribbon, which tried to make those various tools and buttons more easy to discover by organizing them in a new way. Some people loved these changes. Some found them even more confusing. In the end, though, people kept using Word, the same way they’ll probably keep using Windows.

Of course, Windows 8, with its tile-based design, is a sea change in user interface compared to the ribbon, which is why the market’s reaction has been so hotly anticipated by tech watchers. The updates that were announced this week, part of a packaged code-named Blue, have been widely interpreted as an admission of failure on Microsoft’s part. This, despite Microsoft selling a reported 100 million licences of Windows 8 sold so far. The most generous characterization I’ve heard is that Blue will help address a “learning curve” people have experienced in moving to the more dynamic navigation of squares and rectangles.

Mark Tauschek is one of those people. Although the analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group is pretty tech-savvy and has seen some 20 years’ worth of operating system refreshes, he admits he took a full day to get Windows 8 set up the way he liked it and a full week figuring out the ins and outs of the platform. “If that’s what it was like for me, I would think it would be a little jarring for other people,” he said.

Not long before Windows 8 launched, I had an opportunity to hear a talk just outside of Washington where Chris Bernard, Microsoft’s “chief experience evangelist” explained to developers the thinking behind the design. He pointed out that unlike previous versions of Windows, this OS had to take into account an increasingly mobile customer base. That’s why the live tiles approach was deployed across desktop, tablet and smartphone versions of its platform. The whole point was to make things more intuitive, not less. “We wanted to let go of our ‘digital selves’ and spend more time trying to represent the way the real world works,” he said.

On a touch-based device, Microsoft has achieved that goal, according to Tauchek. For desktop users – and there’s still a lot of them out there – it might be a different story. “They kind of went overboard,” he said. “Hopefully, with this update they’ll bring back a traditional “start” button and a few Windows 7 elements so that people can get used to the UI at their own pace, so it doesn’t feel like it’s being inflicted upon them.”

You could interpret Blue as a sign that Windows 8 flopped, but isn’t incorporating feedback and offering improvements what good companies are supposed to do? And if the live tiles might seem a bit before their time, consider the market challenges Microsoft has faced. It is being outpaced by Apple and Android on mobile devices and is still recovering from the poor uptake of Windows 7’s processor, Windows Vista. You could almost say Windows 8 has been to Microsoft what the Z10 was to BlackBerry: an attempt to demonstrate renewed innovation even at the risk of alienating core loyalists.

There will always be a delicate balance to strike between meeting user expectations while not pushing them too far out of their comfort zone. The most-used products will always be works in progress. Even the best-intentioned ribbons can unravel if people aren’t ready for them. This is how the software industry works. Microsoft may have to go through a Blue period before more customers are ready to give Windows 8 the green light.

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