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Why Windows 8 is a bigger flop than Vista

By John Rizzo

Windows 8 is doing significantly worse than Microsoft's biggest failure, Windows Vista. Five months after its debut last fall, Windows 8 has a 2.67% market share. Windows Vista had 4.52% market share at its 5-month mark. You can run Windows 8 on a Mac, but it seems few want to run it on a PC. And Windows Blue won't change this.

The numbers are surprising when you consider that Windows Vista was the Edsel of tech, one of the most spectacular market failures of the last decade But the lag behind Vista is even worse when you consider that Microsoft's plan of running Windows 8 on multiple platform didn't strengthen the OS. Instead, it is failing on multiple platforms. Steven Vaughan-Nichols of ZDNet recently wrote:

Windows 8's failure is actually greater than it appears. The tablet and phone markets in 2007 were next to non-existent. Now, in a market where NPD expects tablets to out sell notebooks by year's end, neither Windows 8 nor its cousins Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 even appear on NetApplication's mobile and tablet reports for February 2013. How bad is that? Android 1.6, with is tiny 0.02% of the market, does make the list.

The Android 1.6 that Windows 8 hasn't caught up to is 5 years old. Most Android devices run on one of the 4.x versions. Windows 8 doesn't look like an iOS killer.

Windows 8 was also supposed to rescue a sagging PC industry that is being undercut by tablets. Microsoft was going to create a rush to buy new cutting-edge touch-screen computers. But instead of being hailed as a PC sales savior, the opposite has happened: Windows 8 is being blamed for dragging PC sales down. For instance, a recent story titled "Microsoft's Windows 8 turning off PC buyers," said, "Far from being the cure for sluggish PC sales, Windows 8 has turned out to be part of the problem."

A Microsoft flop is one thing, but a bigger flop than Vista is unexpected. Windows 8 doesn't have the technical problems the plagued Vista, including drivers that didn't work well, weak security features, and sluggish performance. Windows 8 is a reliable OS with good performance and support of hardware that "just works." Much like Windows 7.

What Windows 8 has that Vista didn't is a radically different user interface that has few clues as to how to use it--a deadly combination that ZDnet's Adrian Kingsley-Hughes called a "design disaster." New and different isn't necessarily bad, and can be the picture of innovation. But "new" has to be easy to learn, and "different" has to deliver new capabilities that make the learning curve worth it for the user. Windows 8 doesn't deliver either.

Windows 8 is also hard to learn. The user has to work to figure out the interface, and nothing is labeled. Even the design of the icons yield no clue as to what they do. There are few options to change things to the way users are used to working, and few options to change much of anything. There are also inconsistencies in the interface. On a PC, a touch gesture can be a swipe or a movement of cursor depending on where your finger happens to land. (Article continues below.)

Windows 8 also takes away features and techniques that users are familiar with. Most notable is the Start menu, which is replaced by a list of apps with one or more screens filled with icons. The Start screen (formerly called "Metro") works well enough with a finger on a touch screen, but is clumsy with a mouse. New users complain that they can't find their documents or devices. Even something as basic as closing an application is radically different in some apps. The learning curve is steep, and many basic features seem to be a secret.

This all adds up to employee training for Windows 8, which for enterprise is a more expensive proposition than putting up with Vista's sluggish PC performance or occasional driver problems. Again, this might be okay if there were some value received in trade for the expense of training employees, but Windows 8 isn't trading.

For tablet users, there's also the problem with the hardware. It costs too much and isn't innovative enough to be an alternative to Android and iOS devices. The Surface is more expensive than iPad Mini and iPad (and MacBook Air in one configuration). The hardware is sleek, powerful, and full-featured -- except for the lack of cellular connectivity. If you're a wanna-be tablet maker going after Apple's market share, but you also want to be more expensive than Apple, you'd have to include a must-have, new killer feature. It's not there.

Rescuing Windows from Windows 8: Where Blue fits in

The failure of Windows 8 doesn't mean the demise of Windows, of course. Windows Vista was put to a merciful end by Windows 7, which won critical acclaim by fixing Vista's technical problems and improving on the user experience. It took Microsoft three years to release Windows 7, during which time Windows XP stood stubbornly as the standard Windows in many organizations.

Most enterprises and Windows users have heard this song before, and plan to sit tight with Windows 7 until Windows 9 arrives. Given the spectacular failure of Windows 8, Microsoft is likely committed to pushing out something as quickly as possible, sooner than three years.

But just as Windows 7 was a better Vista, Windows 9 may be a better Windows even if based on the "metro" interface, which is likely. The recently leaked build code-named Windows Blue build points in this direction. Blue was leaked on March 24, Two days later Microsoft admitted the existence of the Blue build by merely mentioning it in the fifth paragraph of a blog by Corporate Communications VP Frank Shaw. Indications are that Windows Blue may ship later this year.

Blue might not be a Windows 9 at all, but could be a major revision of Windows 8, like a "service pack." Or, Microsoft could be following Apple's lead in releasing a new operating system every year, as is also rumored. I'm thinking a name change is in the works, and it won't take three years. The stigma of "flop" will stick to the Windows 8 brand for a long time regardless of improvements, as was the case with Vista.

Regardless, Windows Blue build clearly builds upon and focuses on the Windows 8 "metro" interface. It improves some of the flaws by including user controls to the Start screen, adding menus on the metro side, and tweaking the touch gestures. According to the reports, Windows Blue can also run multiple metro apps on screen at the same time -- a feature that was a big deal for both Mac OS and Windows back in the 1980's.

Blue's focus on the tablet-like metro side has led to rumors that Microsoft will eliminate the desktop altogether in a Windows 9. That's a big assumption to make based on the leaked code, but I think this is a possibility, and one that could succeed. The metro interface is not unfixable, and could add a "killer" feature or two. The elimination of the PC desktop has been talked about for years, and Mac pundants have been speculating about going beyond the desktop metaphor since the 1990's.

This doesn't change the fact that Windows 8 is Microsoft's biggest flop ever. That story is over. But Microsoft isn't going to lose the PC market. And contrary to popular hype, the PC market isn't going to disappear. It's a different story with the tablet market, into which Microsoft has to yet break. The merging of a PC and tablet/phone OS only makes sense if there is a competitive Microsoft tablet/phone platform to run it on.