Microsoft is rarely shy when it comes to anniversaries. However, one milestone passed last week that the company is still perhaps trying to forget: 11 years since the launch of Windows 8.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, one cannot escape the sense of “what were they thinking?” when looking at the operating system.
Microsoft was still basking in the success of Windows 7 as its successor began seeping into the channel. This hack has memories of firing up a beta and being alarmed by what he saw. Could this really be the future of Windows? A full-screen Start menu that looked better suited to a mobile device and one’s familiar applications hidden behind the scenes?
Microsoft certainly thought so, and perhaps mindful of the success of Apple’s iPad, had decided to bolt a touch-friendly interface to the operating system, obscuring the familiar desktop with chunky, full-screen applications, over-sized fonts, and menus hidden in various obscure places.
When the operating system was released, The Register described it as “painful and incoherent.” However, it was noted that once a user had become accustomed to the operating system’s quirks, the underlying platform was actually rather good. You just had to fight through a lot of touchscreen nonsense that did not apply to the vast majority of Windows users to get to that all-important “legacy” desktop.
The Windows 8 user interface made sense on tablets and mobile devices. Microsoft’s line of Surface touchscreen PCs benefited hugely from the new working method. Still, it never represented more than a tiny niche of users compared to the majority who struggled to understand how a company that had moved from Windows Vista to Windows 7 could have followed up with… this.
There are various technical reasons behind Microsoft’s approach, not least a desire to create a consistent experience across all its platforms and craft a unifying framework.
Alas, the company didn’t succeed, and the operating system failed to surpass its predecessor in usage.
Windows boss Steven Sinofsky, flush with Windows 7 success, would depart from Microsoft shortly after the debut of Windows 8, and Microsoft worked feverishly to undo some of the damage with Windows 8.1, released less than a year after its predecessor.
The tragedy of Windows 8 is that the controversial user interface masked what was actually a useful upgrade on Windows 7. It included additional security and safety features as well as the introduction of an app store, which was an improvement on the various installers and uninstallers found in previous versions of Windows. The whole thing also felt a good deal snappier.
However, that touch-friendly interface sharply divided users. Some liked it, many did not, and that is what Windows 8 is most remembered for. Microsoft’s tone-deaf insistence on an interface that served to alienate large swathes of its user base remains a decision that the company is still working to roll back today. ®