Windows 8 wasn't a huge success at launch, but those who think that signals trouble for Microsoft's widely used OS should consider its history. The fact is, users hardly ever warmed to a new Windows product. It would typically take a fairly long getting-to-know-you period -- and a point release or two -- to determine whether it would stick. And versions that did -- like XP -- really stuck.
Windows has been through four major changes. Huge numbers of folks really didn't like them -- each one was painful. Windows almost had five major changes, but Microsoft Bob was so badly received Microsoft killed it.
Windows 8 may seem like the most painful, but since I've lived through all of these I can say from experience that it isn't even close. As I recall, Windows XP wasn't really liked very much at first either -- and now around half of PC users like it so much they don't want to give it up.
When Apple went from OS 9 to OS X (where it largely stuck) that didn't go all that swimmingly either. This showcases how little we like change. Typically, though, we do like point releases -- those that have a dot-something after the number -- far better than first releases, and Windows 8.1, much like Windows XP, is a point release.
Since I'm at the TechEd this week and there's a coming-out party for Windows Blue, or Windows 8.1, I figured it was time to revisit this.
I'll close with my product of the week: the best electric car in market, which is also -- according to Consumer Reports -- one of the best cars in the world.
Brief History of Windows Hate
It is hard to believe, but when Windows first came to market as a UI overlay on DOS, it wasn't well received. It was designed to emulate the experience on a Mac, but the audience it was selling into loved the prompt interface and thought a GUI was pretty silly. Until about the mid 90s, DOS was shipped without the GUI we've come to sort of love.
In 1995, Windows 95 shipped. While it was the first and nearly last time you saw folks lining up for a Windows product, it anticipated a time that didn't exist yet -- when drivers and hardware would be far more reliable than they are even today. Windows 95 crashes not only were common -- they were a more-than-daily event for a lot of us. The idea of leaving Windows running for a week was in the realm of a fairy tale.
Businesses outright hated 95, largely because employees would install it without permission and break things. Intel actually had an entire Fab fail because some employee did this with a machine running the line. In my own case, I put it on my CEO's laptop, turning it into a brick, which wasn't exactly the most brilliant thing I'd ever done in my life either. So Windows 95 went quickly from massive success to problem child.
IBM and Microsoft had worked on a replacement for Windows and DOS called OS/2, which should have made Windows 95 redundant -- but it was kind of a mess, because the two companies didn't work well together. It resulted in one of the biggest and most expensive divorces in tech history at the time.
It took Microsoft nearly five years to recreate OS/2 in Windows NT, and while the hardware had improved, it was still pretty raw, and application support was iffy. Microsoft did try to put it on multiple processors, which actually made the problems worse. It wasn't widely adopted, and consumers hated it.
In 2000, largely thanks to an event we called "Y2K," which apparently almost no one anticipated when they designed dates into platforms, folks were forced to jump to Windows 2000. While better than Windows NT, it was clearly a rushed and pretty raw offering. However, it looked wonderful against Windows ME, which remains the low point for Microsoft operating systems and was truly horrid -- effectively putting a stake in the Windows 9x line's heart.
Windows XP, even though it was a point product, didn't have the excitement of Windows 95 -- but it also didn't have the problems. It was really the first version of Windows that could be used with the word "reliable" that consumers found interesting. It was a point product, but it took a number of years to become dominant. Windows XP wasn't even planned -- it was the result of a sudden realization that security on Windows sucked, and Microsoft had to fix that before most of its base went up in flames.
Then came Windows Vista, which actually got worse press than it deserved. Jim Allchin, who ran the effort, had almost retired, but he came back to fix Windows, having discovered while he was on sabbatical that Windows XP sucked.
Problem was, all his authority had been passed to others -- and virtually everything he asked for as a requirement for the product was ignored. So sadly, and not because he didn't try to fix the product, it broke badly at launch. However, within six months -- Jim had retired in the meantime -- most of what he had asked for got done, and Vista actually evolved into the very stable and reliable product he wanted. However, it couldn't overcome that horrid first impression.
Windows 7, another point product, then arrived in market. Even though it wasn't that much different from fully patched Windows Vista, folks saw it as a refreshing update. The only thing was, most had become so attached to Windows XP they really didn't want to move, and the one huge mistake that Microsoft made -- which Apple avoided -- was in neglecting the transition process. Windows migrations were ugly, and that contributed to folks resisting the new platform.
Windows 8 was Microsoft's attempt to fight back against the iPad. It reflected the dark side of a power struggle within Microsoft, for while the firm should have done what Apple did and adapted its mobile platform to the tablet, it instead pushed its desktop platform down.
Microsoft once again moved to covering multiple processors and launched a Windows RT product that was near perfect, even coming with free Office, with one huge exception -- there was no Outlook. You couldn't even buy Outlook for it, which crippled the device. That was an ironic repetition of a mistake that IBM made, which the Microsoft founders then made fun of: the crippled PC Jr. Microsoft's reason for making it was pretty much the same reason IBM's was -- and I'm sure Apple and Google folks are now heaping the same ridicule on Microsoft that Microsoft dished out to IBM.
The issues with Windows 8 are threefold. The touchscreen hardware needed was both too expensive and in too short supply to fully support the launch; the choice between Windows 8 and Windows RT was ugly; and Microsoft didn't premarket the product to prepare the users for the new interface.
Users don't like new interfaces. They don't like them a lot. The ugly choice was you could get an inexpensive, light, long battery-life Windows RT product that didn't run what you needed to run (Outlook), or you could get an expensive, heavy, poor battery-life product that did run what you wanted to run. Crap.
Wrapping Up: Windows 8.1 and the Power of Perception
The differences between Windows 8 and 8.1 are largely cosmetic and minor, but they come on top of hardware that addresses that ugly choice. Windows 8.1 hardware should be light, relatively inexpensive, and have battery life approaching or exceeding 10 hours. Users will have seen Windows 8 for around a year and will be more comfortable with the new interface, and the cosmetic improvements to the product address most of the annoyances of the initial offering.
This reminds me a lot of Windows XP or Windows 7, where everything finally came together and the platform could become what it was intended to be. If people see this as the improvement it is, they will find it compelling. Hell, I only use Windows 8 today, and you couldn't pay me to go back to Windows 7 or especially Windows XP.
There is a good chance you'll eventually feel the same way, which means that it will be a bitch to move you to Windows 9 or 10 when we do this all over again. Best news is that with Windows 8, the migrations are in Apple's class, once you are on the platform. So, after nearly three decades, Microsoft has finally fixed one of Windows' most annoying problems.