It all comes to this. The success of Windows 10 will make or break Microsoft.
I remembered installing an early build of Windows 8 on my ageing Acer Aspire back in 2012. I was in my high school dormitory, and it was late into the night, but I was up exploring the new operating system, and when I got bored I started watching an endless stream of videos from Microsoft – Windows 8, Office 2013, Windows Phone 8. But the one video that struck me the most was the unveiling of the Surface.
It was unprecedented: a tablet running on Windows, with an inbuilt kickstand and USB port, plus a Smart Cover that doubles as a keyboard. It was pure genius, and I was convinced that this device was revolutionary. Finally, here was a tablet that could do real work. With Windows 8, Microsoft put forward an operating system that could be used on both tablets and PCs, spawning a swarm of “hybrid” devices, with the Surface leading the pack. I got a Surface RT from the United States as my very first tablet, and it is my most-loved device to date. Not due to the fact that it was my first tablet, or because I was a Microsoft fanatic, but because for the first time in my life, there was an operating system that provided a pretty uniform experience across all platforms. Sure, it wasn’t the same operating system across all my devices – my Surface ran on Windows RT, my PC on Windows 8, and my phone on Windows Phone 8 – but it was the closest you could get to a consistent user experience, and this is something which neither Apple nor Google offers till this day.
But despite the unprecedented vision that Microsoft presented with the unveiling of Windows 8, Microsoft failed to achieve success with the operating system for two reasons: one, it took the idea of one operating system for all platforms too literally, and two, Windows 8 was terribly fragmented.
Let’s start with the first. Windows 8 was designed with the idea of hybrid devices in mind. Microsoft wanted to build an operating system that had both PC friendly and touch friendly interfaces so that it could be used on both tablets and PCs. But instead of making an operating system that would adapt to suit the type of device that it’s running on, Microsoft simply merged two different interfaces into one operating system. The result? A confusing amalgamation of two very different interfaces which felt like two different operating systems were running all at once, bewildering consumers worldwide. And naturally, they didn’t like to be bewildered.
I was confused myself: I couldn’t understand why Windows 8 had two of everything. There was an Internet Explorer on the desktop, and another one in the “metro” UI. It wasn’t just IE though: the settings menu, Google Chrome and Skype, all had two separate apps. Worst still, there was no obvious link between the desktop and “metro”. Transitioning between the two was awkward at best and jarring at worst because the interfaces were completely different. Factor in the removal of the beloved Start button, and the addition of a confusing “charms” menu and task switcher, and Microsoft had a killer combo for a frustrating product.
Despite this, I soon grew used to it and navigated the operating system just fine. But for the average consumer, Windows 8 was a nightmare. Support and adoption for Windows 8 fell to the point that even OEMs themselves started offering Windows 7 on their latest laptops instead of Windows 8. Things were certainly not going as Microsoft had planned, all because their poor implementation of the “one operating system for all” vision left consumers utterly confused.
But that wasn’t the only problem. Windows itself was also terribly fragmented. PCs ran on Windows 8, while ARM based tablets had to run on Windows RT – a dumbed-down version of the former which had no support for legacy Windows desktop apps. This basically made everything on the desktop mode of RT useless other than for Office and File Explorer. But did consumers get the difference? Of course not, thanks to adverts that downplayed the pitfalls of Windows RT. Ignorance of the different iterations of Windows left many a disgruntled customer feeling frustrated and cheated that his shiny new Windows tablet was unable to support VLC, Firefox, or Chrome.
But how will Windows 10 be any different?
Microsoft failed once with their vision of a unified operating system with Windows 8. They released Windows 8.1 to make the experience slightly more bearable by bringing back the start button and allowing the user to select the desktop background as the start background, easing the transition between the desktop and the “metro” – now renamed “modern” – UI. It was not a big update though. Ultimately, Windows 8.1 was a way for Microsoft to stall time while it went back to the drawing board to formulate a new plan to save Windows.
It’s too early to make any conclusions, but from the early previews of Windows 10 it’s safe to say that Microsoft has learnt from its mistakes. Windows 10 dynamically adapts to the device that it’s running on: hybrids like the Surface Pro 3 can switch back and forth between desktop mode and tablet mode depending on whether the type cover is attached, and the interface is different depending on what device it’s running on. For desktops, PCs, and tablets above 8 inches, the familiar start menu is back, albeit this time with Live Tiles by the side, merging the best of Metro and Desktop mode together. Gone is the confusing Start Screen wall of live tiles. For phones and tablets, Windows 10 takes a form more reminiscent of Windows Phone. Apps now work universally across all devices – phones, tablets, PCs, and even your Xbox – as it’s the exact same code, making it much easier for developers to create apps that will run seamlessly on all the different form factors. Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant which premiered on Windows Phone 8.1, is now on Windows 10, allowing you to search for documents, create appointments, and more, all through your voice: a first of its kind for PCs.
But while Windows 10 is shaping up to be a step in the right direction, the real question is: is it too late? Has it reached a point where consumers and developers have lost so much confidence in the Windows brand that it doesn’t matter how good Windows 10 will be? Honestly, I’m not sure. It could go either way. With clever marketing, good deals, and excellent new hardware from OEMs, Microsoft might be able to turn this whole thing around. It certainly isn’t going to be easy, but given Microsoft’s track record of making a good comeback – such as Windows 7 after the failure of Windows Vista – they might just be able to make it.
This time though, the stakes are higher than they ever were before. Because this time, with Windows 10, Microsoft isn’t just putting across an upgraded product to the masses; they’re putting across a whole new concept, a vision of how our lives should be when every device around us works in unison with one another. They’re presenting to us a whole new ecosystem ranging from work to gaming to personal use, and this time they’re putting in everything that they’ve got: Xbox, OneDrive, Skype, Office, and Windows Phone. This vision started back in 2012 with the unveiling of Windows 8, but was never truly realised because of poor implementation. Windows 10, after years of setbacks and planning, is the realisation of this dream. And this is why Windows 10 is Microsoft’s last window of opportunity. If Windows 10 fails, Microsoft’s entire vision for the future fails with it. Because that’s what you get for chasing the ethereal instead of the corporeal: if successful, you redefine an industry; but if unsuccessful, you lose everything you’ve worked for. If Windows 10 fails, Microsoft will have to go back to producing products instead of visions. And for the sake of the future of the tech industry, I hope this time they succeed. I hope that consumers will be willing to give Microsoft a chance to show them the future.