Much like Star Trek films, the received wisdom has it that only every other version of Windows is good. If you look at the pattern, it’s a fairly compelling argument: 3.1, 95, 98, Me, XP, Vista, 7 – the experienced computer user will have no trouble identifying the clunkers in that list.
Windows 8 is filed away safely in the “terrible” category, so if Microsoft is sticking to the pattern, this means Windows 9 will be excellent, yes?
It’s slightly worrying, then, that Microsoft has chosen to skip 9 completely and jump straight to Windows 10. No official explanation, beyond the usual marketing guff, has been forthcoming, although some media outlets maintain that it’s to prevent badly written legacy code checking for “Windows 9*” and falling over.
Almost everyone now acknowledges that Windows 8 was something of a misstep for Microsoft. It was a fairly radical departure from the familiar Windows we know and “love”. Gone was the Start Menu that we had used to launch our apps for the best part of two decades. In came the Start Screen, with its assortment of animated tiles, designed for a new generation of touch screens. This was an interface designed to be poked, swiped and generally fondled. Keyboard and mouse navigation was still available, but seemed to be very much discouraged.
The desktop was still there, but the future seemed to lie in “Metro” (or “the new UI”, as Microsoft clumsily renamed it). Apps no longer lived in windows, but instead ran full screen. You could, if you really wanted to, run two apps side by side – multitasking is for losers.
This seemed a massive step backward: users could have a 3 Ghz quad core CPU and 8 gigabytes of RAM, but if you wanted to run a calculator and e-mail program side-by-side, the OS would struggle.
The most important problem with Windows 8: users hated it. Really, really, despised it. It’s not just the lack of start menu – commonly used features are buried behind a mystifying set of “gestures” which are completely non-intuitive. The first time I used Windows 8, I had to Google how to turn the computer off (on a different machine, because I couldn’t figure out Internet Explorer either). Online news sites quickly filled up with complaints about the new OS.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to Windows by any means. Remember the howls of outrage when “new Twitter” was rolled out a few years ago? Can anyone now remember what “old Twitter” was like? That’s because, after a few weeks using the new interface, people got used to it and moved on. Perhaps Microsoft expected something similar to happen with Windows 8.
But Windows is not Twitter. Nobody is forced to upgrade to the new version, unless they get a new PC (even then, you can still find new Windows 7 machines out there). People voted with their feet and stuck with the familiar. Microsoft’s most important customers, in business, government and industry, refused to move away from Windows 7. Some even decided to stick with XP for a while longer.
Windows 8.1 addressed some of those criticisms: the Start button was reinstated (although it throws you straight back to the Start Screen) and Windows could now run four Metro apps at the same time, although overlapping the windows was still forbidden. A baby step in the right direction, but not enough to convince many people.
This probably explains why, two years after Windows 8 launched, it still has less than 17% market share, still lagging behind the 13-year-old (and, since April, obsolete) Windows XP.
So Windows 8 was a flop. It tried to unify Microsoft’s desktop, tablet and phone operating systems under a single UI, but failed miserably. Microsoft needs to win back its core audience, and it’s going to do it via the worst-kept secret in computing world – the return of the Start Menu.
Then, back in September, Microsoft announced the Windows technical preview, an early test version of what would become Windows 10. My curiosity got the better of me, so I headed on over to Microsoft’s web site and downloaded the ISO file.