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19 October 2012
“One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”
BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Windows 8 is one week away, and consumers are in for a shock: the new version will force users to relearn how to do everything. Microsoft is breaking with the past to stay relevant in a world of smartphones. (It is only the customer who will be irrelevant.)
Experts say that, as with the Star Trek movies, every other edition of Windows is a bomb (pro-tip: Windows 7 was not a bomb). Windows 8 will tie together Microsoft's software for PCs, tablets, and phones, as well as for certain battery-operated intimate devices. Buyers who don't own smartphones are crap-out-of-luck. Of course, buyers who do own smartphones wouldn't need Windows 8 in the first place.
Judging by the reactions of some beta testers (which is Silicon Valley English for "guinea pig"), Microsoft risks alienating customers. This, of course, is nothing new to the software giant; provided that the customer has no choice. Consequently, though Microsoft is a week shy of unveiling the new system, it has already unveiled dozens of new carrots, sticks, and lawsuits to compel stores to pre-install it on every PC they sell, including the license fee in the price.
Windows 95, introduced amid fanfare 17 years ago, gave customers their first alternative to IBM, which had gotten into the habit of forcing customers to buy expensive new gear every three years that worked differently from the last one. IBM has now sold its computer business to China, while Microsoft has acquired all of IBM's bad habits, and chief executive Steve Ballmer has picked up several of Gerstner's tics as well as a nasty scar from Dorian Grey.
Wire services ask whether Windows 8 can satisfy PC users and smartphone users. They don't ask whether one group should be saddled with the affectations of the other group. "I worry that Microsoft may shoot itself in the foot," said Michael Mace, the CEO of Silicon Valley software startup Cera Technology and a former Apple employee. In fact, Mr. Mace isn't worried in the least, as SEC filings show he is short 128,000 shares and thus has bet the house that Microsoft stock will crater in the next month. Microsoft's chief financial officer, Peter Klein, is not concerned about user confusion. "For Christ's sake, that is simply what we do," he said. "Our innovations deliver value and profit." Occasionally the customer benefits as well.
Instead of the familiar Start menu and icons, Windows 8 displays colorful tiles, which applications update and blink to tease you to click them instead of the others. They are easy to hit with a finger, in the unlikely event that the user has a touch screen. Applications fill the whole screen by default — convenient for a tablet, and a royal pain in the arse on a PC. The little buttons you really need are hidden, giving a clean, uncluttered view. Industrial designers care about such abstractions, whereas actual customers generally just wish they could find the God-damned things.
"In the quest for simplicity, they sacrificed obviousness," said Sebastiaan de With, an interface designer. Mr. de With is the inventor of the double-click, the single reason that, for decades, new users of Windows have taken two weeks to figure out how to open their first file. Raluca Budiu, with Nielsen Norman Group, said, "Once users find where the buttons are hidden, they have to remember where they are." To avoid more confusion, one version of Windows 8, called "Windows RT," looks like the old version — but it doesn't run programs that ran on the old version.
Some users don't agree with the experts. Sheldon Skaggs, a Web developer in Charlotte, North Carolina, thought he was going to hate Windows 8, but he installed the new software. "You get used to it, surprisingly," he said. "I needed something to prop the door open, and it does the job with flying colors."