News started circulating yesterday that an update to Windows 8.1 would make PCs boot to the classic desktop instead of the Start screen by default.
We understand the latest internal builds of Windows 8.1 Update 1 have the boot-to-desktop option enabled by default, a change that Wzor noted earlier today. The update is still in development, and Microsoft could alter this further before it ships, but it’s currently being changed to appease desktop users. It may seem like a minor change, but the move reverses parts of Microsoft’s original vision for Windows 8. While some critics argued Microsoft simply forced the Start Screen interface onto desktop PCs with little regard for keyboard and mouse users, the company pitched its “Metro” environment as the future of Windows.
Changing the face of Windows to appease desktop users…
I am not a fan of that plan.
Thinking back to 2011
2011 was a big year. Everyone was happy with Windows 7 (which launched in 2009) and it was expected that Windows 8 would build iteratively upon that success. Microsoft was going to play it safe, make money, sell Office – the usual.
For most people, that was totally fine. Windows 7 was a ‘worthy’ successor to XP after the Vista failure, and people were comfortable using it. For many users the desktop had reached a point of near-perfection thanks to the ability to pin favorite programs to the taskbar and snap windows around.
It was fast, efficient, and people liked it. Great.
But the writing for Windows 7, and Microsoft more generally, was on the wall. The iPad (launched in 2010) proved that a full-fledged computer wasn’t always necessary, and that touch-based tablet computing was going to be the next big thing.
You would think that Microsoft would’ve been totally blindsided by the iPad, just like they were with the iPhone. The company with “a complete lack of taste” would try to convince people that Windows 7 + Tablet PC + Stylus was better than the iPad because it had full Windows on it, and the world would move past them. Again.
The enormous sense of relief that Windows 7 provided after Vista was temporary. Microsoft had gotten its footing back, but it was headed toward another fall – potentially its last – and very few people were talking about it.
So what happened?
“Holy crap, Microsoft has a vision”
It turned out that Microsoft had actually looked into the future further than 4 years and realized that Windows needed to change, even before the iPad was announced. Windows 8 was first revealed at D9 in June and detailed at BUILD 2011 that September, and it felt like looking at the future. I still remember having a “holy crap” moment when I saw the first demo.
What Microsoft was doing was incredibly ambitious. Somehow a design team with vision had taken control of Windows, and they were shaking up the entirety of Microsoft, including its mysteriously flag-shaped logo.
Windows was one experience, on all of your devices, for everything in your life. Wow.
The sheer number of changes and improvements made from Windows 7 to Windows 8, even if you exclude Metro, was amazing. Microsoft did a ton of work between the two releases, but hardly anyone gives them credit.
The battery-sucking Aero glass effect was removed, boot times were cut to 3-10 seconds (which is still nuts), performance was even better than Windows 7, task manager was massively improved, Security Essentials was built-in, Gadgets were removed, SkyDrive was leveraged to sync settings, and everything was just, better.
From a purely technological perspective, Windows 8 is better than Windows 7. I feel absolutely no doubt in saying that. If you’re a power user (as in, you use task manager and know about the registry) then Windows 8 is better for you, absolutely.
From every other perspective, however, people have found a lot to hate.
“WHAT IS THIS METRO SH** I JUST WANT DESKTOP + START –> M$ = FAIL!”
Clearly, Microsoft’s decision to mix the touch and mouse/keyboard worlds was poorly-received. People hated the fact that the desktop didn’t show up when you first booted, and that the Start menu and search bar were missing entirely. These two things confused a lot of people, and for whatever reason Microsoft did a really bad job at introducing the edge gestures to new users until it was too late.
Windows 8.1 did a lot to fix these issues, but it’s still Windows *8*.1 – not a Windows 9. Until Microsoft re-numbers or re-brands the OS, the bad perception, warranted or not, is going to stick.
Heck, even the IT crew at my school hates Windows 8 – apparently students are blaming their viruses and hardware defects on the fact that their computer is simply running Windows 8. That’s a sign of terrible, irreparable damage.
The bad publicity Windows 8 has gotten isn’t the most dangerous thing though – it’s what Microsoft now appears to be doing about it.
You know who considers Windows 8 to be the next Vista? Microsoft itself, and that is terrible.
I’m sure that behind closed doors the design team that architected the new Windows is taking a lot of heat, and at this point it’s obvious that their hands are being forced. They’re reverting back to designing by committee, metrics, and whatever made people happy about Windows 7.
The return of the Start button (sans menu) and seamless wallpaper were good decisions, but the rumored changes in the next update to Windows – the power and search buttons on the Start screen, and the boot-to-desktop default – reveal that the designers are no longer in control of the asylum, so to speak.
These changes backtrack far too much on Windows 8′s original vision, and that is a really bad thing. The designers who were once in total control of Windows’ future now seem to building Windows 7.5, and the marketing/ad team is (as usual) not being blamed for its mistakes.
Here’s why I’m worried about these changes.
The desktop is no longer a killer “app” – it’s the second face of Windows
By not consistently booting into the Start screen on desktops and laptops by default, Windows is now 100% two-faced, just as people have made it out to be.
If the Start screen is no longer the starting place for the majority of users, then what is it? It’s not a Start screen – it’s a screen you have absolutely no incentive to customize, no desire to explore, and no reason to spend more than two seconds in. It becomes a glorified search screen with a power button. A ridiculously blown-up Start menu.
Despite what Microsoft would ever officially say, all of the design decisions made in Windows 8 and 8.1 treated the Windows desktop as just another app. A “killer app” that differentiated it from the iPad, sure, but one that was never intended to once again be the face of Windows (except for geeks who knew where to look). The advertising team reinforced that notion by focusing on Metro in their ads. They only started emphasizing the fact that the desktop is still present when 8.1 was released.
For many people, the Start screen will be nothing more than a weird distraction like OS X’s Launchpad, and they’ll still want the old start button and menu back.
Touch is becoming secondary
By de-emphasizing Metro’s importance in Windows, Microsoft is also de-emphasizing touch. Touch always has been and always will be better in Metro apps and the Start screen – not on any app that you run on the desktop. Considering how committed manufacturers have been in including touchable displays in their new laptops, a sudden switcheroo that boots these users to the desktop doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Backtracking on touch is backtracking on the future. Microsoft has a great thing going with its edge gesture idea, which makes touchscreens on laptops not suck as much as Apple had us believe, but after this update users are going to be trained to go to the Start screen and use the search button instead of swiping their screen’s edge. This change also discourages them from learning about sharing things between apps, quickly switching settings, or printing things, which are all found in that same right-hand edge menu.
It’s understandable for users to have a hard time accessing what they can’t readily see, but somehow Android and iOS have managed to not have a problem with this. Users often come across Notification Center or Control Center accidentally, but once they do, they quickly learn and can repeat the same behavior. One of my family members, for example, accidentally discovered Notification Center’s “Today” view and liked it, so she continues to use it.
The same could’ve been true of Windows’ edge gestures if only Microsoft had made it more apparent that they existed. They eventually did in Windows 8.1 during the setup process and with the one-time tip shown here, but a better job could have been done when Windows 8 originally launched.
One extra implication of this change is that apps from Microsoft’s store will be de-emphasized as well, which isn’t good for anyone.
People will still hate Windows 8
Power users – the ones who use stuff life Command Prompt, Task Manager, and sometimes tiptoe around in the Registry – will still continue to hate Windows 8/8.1/8.2 despite the vast improvements to so many of the things that power users care about, which I still don’t understand. The commenters on tech blogs are all more than capable of understanding Windows 8′s Start screen and Metro UI, but refuse to do so because Windows 7 is good enough for them (and they want people to know that).
Casual users – grandpas and college kids, apparently – will still hate it because of its invisible edge gestures and lack of a tried-and-true Start menu. The new power and search icons on the Start screen are meant to help them, but I’m not convinced they’ll care or notice the change (if they even update at all).
Enterprise admins will also still hate it. Windows 7 is their clear upgrade path from XP, and I don’t think anything involving Metro and personalization/customization stuff will make them change their minds.
As for a generally happy user like myself, if these changes are implemented then yeah, I’m probably going to dislike Windows 8 more too. I don’t need the Power or Search icons to be in my Start menu – I’m completely trained at this point to hover over my screen’s corner to access those settings where they’re supposed to be. Eventually, if I ever get a touchable Windows-based device, I imagine the switch to edge gestures will feel perfectly natural.
Why I’m rooting for Microsoft’s design team
Even with this update, the people who hate Windows 8 are going to continue hating it. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it seems the designers responsible for Windows 8 don’t stand a chance – tried and true Windows users will hate anything that makes things less like Windows 7. Apparently people really friggin’ love their Start menu.
Unfortunately, many angry Windows users just don’t stop to consider what would’ve happened if Microsoft had stayed the course – kept improving the desktop, didn’t try to unify its platform, and decided not to bother trying to enter the “PC Plus” era at all. I know that some people consider Microsoft next-in-line after RIM/BlackBerry at the moment, but if this whole “One Microsoft” thing weren’t happening, I think they’d be much, much closer to death’s door. The tech press wouldn’t care about them, that’s for sure.
In my mind, the innovation – yes, innovation – that Windows 8 is and represents is the only thing keeping Microsoft up there with Apple and Google right now in the consumer market. The people who made Windows 8 (and Windows 7) have the ability to secure their company’s future by finishing what they started, but unfortunately they seem to be busy butting heads with Microsoft’s old guard.
Metro has to be Windows’ future, but it can’t succeed if its designers are forced to integrate the past. Microsoft needs to approach this problem not by enslaving its design team, but by changing its stance on delivering what customers need vs what customers want. Honestly, it has to pull off something Apple has done time and time again: say no (and advertise better).
Right now, under Steve Ballmer, it seems like Microsoft isn’t prepared to do that. At the risk of hurting itself permanently, the company is kneeling before its perpetually-unhappy enterprise customers and desktop loyalists and hoping to be forgiven with the next update. So long as the future involves Metro, that doesn’t seem likely.
Microsoft’s next CEO, it seems, has an important decision to make.
Is the desktop an app, or Windows itself?