Why can’t Microsoft get their products right on the first try?

Owen Williams calls it how he sees it:

It’s easy enough to argue that the iPhone 1, for example, shipped without many features we have today as they were added over time, but Apple at the time were creating their own market. The popular phones were the kind that flipped and slid open, or had a stylus. Microsoft is executing the same strategy – release now, fix later – that their competitors use but they’re five steps behind the rest.

Microsoft Launches Windows 8.1 Preview

Frederic Lardinois, for TechCrunch:

Windows 8.1 represents a chance to fix some of the issues with Windows 8. The fact that Microsoft is bringing back the Start button and now allowing users to boot right into the desktop is a sign that the company has been listening to its users. In many ways, 8.1 — even in this Preview version — is what Windows 8 should have been.

It looks like Windows 8 is full of fixes, rather than new features. I can’t fault Microsoft for improving their product based on customer feedback, but it is a shame there are so few new and exciting features for users. Frederic agrees:

It’s a shame that many of the features Microsoft is introducing now weren’t in Windows 8 already.

My take? Windows 8.1 is what Windows 8 should have been.

Inking

I don’t know where to begin with this article given to us by ZDNet writer James Kendrick entitled “ThinkPad Tablet 2: Inking in Windows 8”. Armed with a Lenovo tablet PC (inspiringly named Tablet 2) and a video camera, Kendrick takes to YouTube to demonstrate the capabilities of the new tablet and, presumably, “inking”. (I have no idea what “inking” is, but surmise it’s something to do with drawing on a tablet with my fingers and a pen; à la ink on paper. I enjoy doing this already with an iPad app appropriately titled Paper.)

The article and video feel like adverts for both Lenovo and Windows 8. Starting from the point Kendrick calls the Tablet 2 “very light”, continuing past the point he exudes that the device is “very very thin” right until wrapping up with “really cool, I’m impressed with this tablet”, I don’t think Kendrick is giving readers a fair impression of what the tablet offers or how it compares to the competition.

The Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 weighs 1.3 pounds — but Kendrick doesn’t mention the iPad Mini weighing almost exactly half that whilst discussing thickness. (The Retina iPad weighs in at 1.44 pounds.) In fact, the only time Kendrick mentions the iPad — or any other tablet — is when comparing the physical dimensions of the Tablet 2. He calls the device “very very thin” during the video. It’s 2.6mm thicker than an iPad Mini and 0.4mm thicker than a current generation iPad. Sure, it may be “very very thin” when compared to a laptop from ten years ago, but what are we comparing this device to? There is not enough context, leading the whole piece to feel skewed and lacking integrity.

Let’s get to the meat of the video. It’s clearly about “inking” — it’s in the title, after all. So, what does Kendrick think of using the included pen whilst playing with the Lenovo Tablet 2? Here are his own words, transcribed by yours truly from the video:

“A good use for this pen on Windows 8 is in the Desktop because all these controls and menus that you see are really tiny, so this makes it a very easy way to manipulate when the fingertip is just too big.”

Does it sound like Microsoft thought about people without pens? It’s worth noting here that this tablet does not ship with a pen, according to Kendrick. It’s optional. Not all Windows 8 devices will be available with pens, either. Suggesting the pen is valuable because it allows you to interact with Windows 8’s broken desktop interface is the epitome of sweeping the real issues under the carpet. Windows 8 has a lot of problems.

Kendrick finds it “odd and quite strange” that Microsoft hasn’t updated Windows Journal to support the touch UI in Windows 8. I think it’s an embarrassment to the company. Microsoft is a software giant, shipping devices without appropriate software. Kendrick sounds genuinely surprised when Windows Journal correctly recognised his handwriting. Considering the app has been around since 2002, always having been designed to be used with a pen, I’d have expected that to be a pretty nailed feature by now. Personally, I was more surprised at the ten-year-old user interface of the app: why was Journal not updated for Metro?

Windows Journal is included in Windows 8, yet Microsoft — a software company — hasn’t optimised their software to work within the UI constraints of their own operating system. Windows 8 is a clunky mismatch of touch-first elements and pointer-first elements. Styli just happen to behave more like pointers than fingers.

Microsoft is not having a great year.

“Windows 8 Itself is Still Not Successful”

The Acer president seems to be pretty sure of his opinion:

“Windows 8 itself is still not successful,” said Wong, whose company posted a 28 percent drop in fourth-quarter shipments from a year earlier. “The whole market didn’t come back to growth after the Windows 8 launch, that’s a simple way to judge if it is successful or not.”

Dell Playing With Android, Makes Sense

Here’s another Ars piece, this time written by Sean Gallagher, talking about a new report suggesting Dell might be making some bold changes to turn the company around. It certainly needs it:

Dell has been moving gradually away from its consumer PC roots for the past five years. The company's desktop and mobile computer business has suffered in the global PC-buying slump of the last year. Its consumer segment has been losing money, while the enterprise business outside of PC sales accounts for a majority of Dell’s revenue. But the stock market has been punishing Dell as it has tried to shift focus. The company has lost 43 percent of its market capitalization over that time[.]

So, how’s Dell planning to fix these problems?

[R]elaunching Dell's desktop and mobile business around a brand-new product: a computing device the size of a thumb-drive that will sell for about $50.

What could possibly go wrong?

I think what’s interesting to take away from this story is what I said about the Surface just last week:

The surface, with its Apple-esque 30%+ margins, is a way for Microsoft to keep revenue and profit high, without manufacturers like Asus and Dell paying $50 a pop for a Windows license… Manufacturers who could easily switch to making hardware for Android — which lacks this hefty fee.

Windows 8 Failed to Reverse PC Slump During Holidays

Sorry to start off Monday with such negative news, but some details from this article in the NYT are interesting:

For weeks, there have been signs that the public was not buying new PCs over the holidays in the numbers many had hoped. Now add to them new figures from IDC, one of the best-known scorekeepers for the market, showing that worldwide PC shipments declined 6.4 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier.

That decline was worse than the 4.4 percent drop that IDC had previously forecast for the fourth quarter. It was also a sign that the biggest thing to happen to the PC business in years — Microsoft’s release of the Windows 8 operating system and the millions of dollars that went into promoting it — did not rescue an industry that suffered a nasty sales slump for most of last year.

Then:

Microsoft and Intel will suffer further, with the Wintel PC market share expected to decline to 65 percent in 2013, from 72 percent in 2012.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that I find this hardly surprising.

Additionally, I think this great image shows exactly what Nick Wingfield, the writer of the NYT piece, was trying to explain. There’s certainly a trend in Wintel computers, and it isn’t a positive one.

Blurring of the Lines

Dmitry Fadeyev writes about Windows 8:

The road to a good OS is not a blurring of the lines between PCs and tablets, but rather an amplification of the differences through a strong focus on the uses that each category serves. The desktop OS should make use of large screen real estate and the precise targeting of the mouse cursor. The mobile OS should be optimized for the small screen and for the rough tap of the finger.
It doesn’t make any sense to port a user interface optimized for mobile touch devices to the desktop, and neither does it make sense to give tablet users the desktop interface. Each was custom built for its own environment, and each is optimized to be operated by different methods. In their compromise, what Microsoft are doing now is giving a tablet to people who want to buy a PC, and giving a PC to people who want to buy a tablet. Since there is no hybrid device that works great for everything, there is no point in compromising the experience by designing a hybrid UI.

This is the exact issue I've had with Windows 8 since I first learnt about the approach Microsoft was taking with its design.

“Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users”

Jakob Nielsen writes a thoughtful criticism of Windows 8 from a usability perspective, highlighting some of the issues the new design paradigms introduce. The points he raises mirror my main concerns. It's a long article, so Jakob's summary is handy:

Hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density. Too bad.

Was Steven Sinofsky Compromising Microsoft?

MG Siegler writes some smart things about Steven Sinofsky's departure from Microsoft:

Sinofsky was the driving force behind the “no compromise” approach to Windows 8. I believe that approach is at the heart of the ultimate problem with the OS. As two separate halves, Windows 8 and Metro seem fine. As a whole, the OS seems like a schizophrenic mess. Microsoft should have copied the Apple approach with OS X/iOS, keeping them separate and slowly merging them over time by taking the best of both.

If Microsoft now starts to move Windows into a more iOS/OS X-esque, touch/keyboard and mouse optimised route, I think my biggest concerns with the software will disappear. I firmly believe that the “no compromise” approach to Windows 8 harmed the software significantly. Trying to glue together software designed to be interacted with a keyboard and mouse to software designed for touch, and attempting to make both work was a huge mistake.

If Sinofsky was the man responsible for this “no compromise” approach to Windows 8, perhaps his departure will result in more compromises and therefore better design. This may give Microsoft a chance to make headway in the tablet space.

I believe Microsoft could ship a Metro-only version of the Surface, without Office (or a desktop) and optimise it for touch. This is what they should have done all along with the Surface for Windows RT. The Surface Pro should be the only version with a desktop-mode — and only for running legacy applications. Microsoft should have created Office for Metro.

Microsoft shipping a real alternative to the iPad would be good for everyone: a monopoly is rarely a good thing, and Apple operates well under pressure from competitors.

The difference between Apple and Microsoft in two sentences

Marco recently visited a Microsoft Store and played with the new Surface. I wish there was a Microsoft Store I could visit nearby, because I know exactly what he means about Microsoft operating in “an alternate universe” and would love to judge it for myself. I want to play with a Surface and Type Cover to really get a feel for the hardware, too. Finding out if my expectations are accurate would be enlightening.

Marco's entire piece is worth a read, but what stood out to me was the way in which he neatly characterised the differences between Apple and Microsoft, with regards to their views on products and control:

Apple’s products say, “You can’t do that because we think it would suck.”

Microsoft’s products say, “We’ll let you try to do anything on anything if you really want to, even if it sucks.”

Apple has the balls to say no. Sometimes it's difficult, sometimes they take shit for it and sometimes they're plain wrong. But not often. Remember Flash?