Years ago, aeteran Linux user told me that, while it's simply too big to disappear, Microsoft could easily become irrelevant. Now, I'm tempted to offer that man a pint of his favorite real ale because, judging by the past few years, that may be exactly what's happening. Sales of Android and iOS tablets are up in the stratosphere - and even Google's questionable Chromebook laptops experienced a sales blip over Christmas - while sales of traditional PCs are going nowhere but down. Unfortunately for Microsoft, it is still tied to that particular market as if it were a concrete block.
Windows 8 was supposed to be the solution to all these downward pointing graphs, but we all know what critics (and, more importantly, the general public) thought of that particular idea. Desktop users became wary of Windows 8, if not outright afraid. Damningly, nobody seems quite sure whether the fall in PC sales is because of Windows 8, or because Apple and Android tablets are eating market share. Whatever the case, there's quite a few unhappy PC makers out there.
The last five years has seen Apple and Google become the cool kids walking around in shades, playing casually with their tablets and mobiles, and Microsoft morph into the disco-dancing dad trying to prove he still has it. From a desktop computing perspective, Windows 8 is a disaster on a level rarely seen at the company (well save for, maybe, Vista). Hewlett Packard has recently reintroduced Windows 7 as an option for new PCs, saying it was back "by popular demand" (ouch), and there are rumors that the incoming boss of Microsoft will lower the price of Windows 8 licenses for lower-tier PC manufacturers in order to encourage take-up.
So, is Windows 8 really that bad for desktop users? Surely things are a bit better now that it's seen a major update? Spoiler alert: things have improved. In fact, Windows 8 may well now be worth a second look.
It's downright wrong to say that Microsoft missed the boom in mobile computing. It's invested hundreds of millions of dollars in mobile over the last three decades. It's just that pretty much everything its done has subsequently fallen flat on its face. In 1997 I used a Hewlett Packard 360LX handheld PC to check my email from a remote Scottish cottage. It ran Windows CE, a surprisingly useful operating system that resembled Windows 95 in miniature, yet competitors like Palm and Psion sent it scurrying away with its tail between its legs.
With its Windows Phone software Microsoft was into smartphones way before Apple and, while these were arguably more of a success there was still plenty of space in the market for a certain newcomer called Blackberry to explode. Similarly, Microsoft's Tablet PC line of products launched in 2001 - years before Apple and Google - with a slightly modified version of Windows XP packaged in an A4-sized slab of plastic. They failed too, and here wasn't even any competition.
Microsoft's biggest mistake appears to be that, after Steve Jobs had walked onto a stage in California holding an iPhone (and then an iPad a few years later) it was the last to realize the mobile computing nut had been finally cracked. It seemed to be blind to the facts; probably because it had buried its head in the sand, having been stung by its own tablet experience, and only occasionally lifted it out in order to criticize.
While journalists began to collate Steve Ballmer's ballsy comments about how Apple and its devices would come to nothing (in 2008 he claimed that the iPhone "doesn't appeal to business customers, because it doesn't have a keyboard") Google watched Jobs' presentations with wide eyes. Seemingly overnight, it transformed Android from a clumsy also-ran in its first iteration to an unnervingly faithful mirroring of iOS in version two, Jobs is quoted as saying. "[Google] f***ing ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off."
A new phenomenon began to occur in offices, too: BYOD (bring your own device). IT managers instinctively took the Microsoft line, as they'd always done, but workers started turning up with iPhones and iPads, in order to get a business advantage. These things clearly weren't the toys that the great and good of Redmond considered them to be, but Microsoft still dragged its heels. The iPad launched four years ago (yes, only four), yet Microsoft has only just got around to porting Office over to it, so late that it appears that very few people now actually care. Folks have learned to live without it; in other words, Microsoft might have managed to drive a stake through the heart of its once-thriving Office business.
Then, when Microsoft finally brushed the sand out of its hair and decided to revisit the tablet format, it massively overcompensated. Windows 8 defaulted to the 'Metro' interface (which was later retitled, due to a dispute use of the name, though nobody really seemed to be able to agree to what - and the name stuck anyway), which had finger-ready tiles even on laptops and PCs that lack touchscreens. It was almost like its designers were punishing people for defecting from Microsoft's chosen way of working; 'if the world wants touch interfaces,' it seemed to say, 'it can have touch interfaces ... They'll rue the day they asked for touch interfaces'.
Metro is all about full-screen apps that lack any of the usual window controls. Insanely. Microsoft sought to ditch the desktop concept that had it had served up to our computers since the 1980s, and relegate it to being a mere app in Windows 8 one small part of a larger concept that we users were supposed to embrace with smiling faces.
Worst of all, there was no Start button, so even shutting down a desktop computer was annoyingly difficult and involved clicking through several options. Tablets aren't supposed to be switched off, but the way we interact with a PC is different.
Small concessions were made for we users of those stinky old mice and keyboards (c'mon guys, get with the program) but they were too few, and often downright baffling. Poking the mouse cursor into the corner of a screen to bring up an essential function is something a Linux user might expect to do if they get their kicks running experimental interfaces in their spare time, but it's just a pain for your workaday, regular PC user. Similarly, hitting key combos like Windows + D for major functions should only ever be an option, rather than the necessity that Windows 8 made it. In short, the new approach initially appeared to be the worst of both worlds: an average touch interface and an awful desktop one.
To The Rescue
Released late last year, 8.1 at first appeared to be a sticking plaster for the gaping wound. A Start button was added to the taskbar in desktop mode and to the multitasking bar. However. when clicked, it merely switched back to the main Start screen with its Metro tiles as if Microsoft wasn't so much conceding to user's demands as giving them clues as to why they're wrong. This Start button is more useful than it initially appears, however. Right-click it and you'll find options to Shutdown, Logout and Reboot. You're also able to get quickly to a command prompt, File Explorer, Control Panel and quite a bit more (including uninstalling apps via the Programs and Features applet).
Additionally, 8.1 made it possible to boot straight to the desktop just right-click the taskbar, select Properties, then select the option under the Navigation tab. This meant that, with the right set of desktop shortcuts, you might never see Metro again.
Some Metro apps got better too, such as the PC Settings app. meaning that those who stuck with them didn't need to dip into the desktop-based Control Panel quite as much. It's still touch oriented, but at least it isn't dumbed-down, and goes some way towards showing that Metro-style apps aren't necessarily anathema for power users. Indeed, if you examined the Metro apps once, and dismissed them, do yourself a favor and take another look.
The News app is a terrific way to browse headlines, and as useful as any of the fashionable magazine apps doing the rounds these days. It even includes content from The Times and The Telegraph, both of which are inaccessible behind expensive paywalls on the web. The Health and Fitness app is incredibly useful for dieting and for the more health conscious among us. Maps is a quick and speedy way to look up a location, and the Food and Drink app includes hundreds of recipes and, as all this comes for free with Windows 8.1, they add up to a pretty good deal.
Don't get us wrong, Windows 8.1 can still be infinitely annoying. We spent hours searching how to trigger Windows updates (and never did find out), there were too many baffling error messages and lots of useful stuff was still hidden, obfuscated, or just plain missing. The flip side of those coins is that it isn't as bad as it once was.
Performance and Compatibility
However, any improvement to functionality is useless if Windows 8's performance isn't up to scratch - and here things start to get counterintuitive. Our test laptop contained an Intel Core2Duo 2.53GHz CPU with 8GB RAM and a 256 GB Crucial M4 SSD. Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 were installed in a dual-boot configuration. We benchmarked both using PC Mark 7 and 3D Mark 11, and also timed boot-ups. We also made subjective notes about overall responsiveness Windows 8.1 is faster by about 15% than Windows 7 in PC Mark 7, although 3DMark was broadly the same on either machine. Booting is near as instantaneous on Windows 8.
On tablet computers Windows 8 might eat resources like a hungry hippo, but on the desktop Microsoft has clearly worked on serious improvements, and broken its rule of a lifetime: that a new Windows is always slower than the previous version (those with long memories might recall how Windows Me was faster than Windows 98, but Me was merely a redressing of Windows, whereas Windows 8 is an entirely new operating system).
If you want to boost the day-to-day speed of your computer by 15% then the advice is simple: install Windows 8.1. It doesn't end there, though. On the desktop, we were really impressed at how zippy everything was. Using File Explorer felt ultra-responsive and although Windows 7 isn't exactly slow there's a slight lag to everything that just isn't there in Windows 8.1.
Gaming performance can't be that bad because, according to Steam's usage figures for February, Windows 8.1 64-bit was the second most used operating system. Windows 7 still accounted for half the total users, but this is a significant breakthrough and we have to believe that gamers - who are usually technically savvy- would switch back to Windows 7 if they wanted to.
Indeed, the word on the street is that, because Windows 8.1 uses less memory than Windows 7, it might a performance boost in games compared to Windows 7.
Ultimately Windows 8.1 and its successors will become the only choice for gamers - DirectX 11.2, released late last year, dropped support for Windows 7 altogether, and DirectX 12 (due this month) and again is Windows 8.1 only. It's dirty trick but, hey, this is Microsoft we're talking about. Of course, game developers aren't stupid enough to tie their latest titles to a single platform, but that day will come eventually - and, if Windows 8.1 really is faster, why wait until you've no choice?
When it comes to driver support, a check of the top driver download sites indicates that most of the major manufacturers now include Windows 8.1 compatibility. While there might be issues for older devices, particularly for items like notebook webcams or Wi-Fi chips, a body of knowledge has built up in the 18 months since the release of Windows 8. You can try everything from using Windows' compatibility mode to make the driver think it's installing in Windows 7 (right click the .exe, select Properties, then look at the Compatibility tab), to hacking the driver .inf text file to make it believe that Windows 8 is just fine for installing (a bit more complicated but mostly it involves using something like 7-zip to decompress the .exe and then editing the .inf file Notepad). As for getting stubborn programs to work, the same compatibility mode advice applies just as it did in Windows 7.
On the one hand, Windows 8's schizoid personality means that it can offer you literally millions of apps - provided you switch to desktop mode. However, a complaint early on was that the Metro side of Windows 8 - served by the Windows Store - was less well stocked compared to its Android and iOS brethren (we're talking about the x86 Windows Store, and not that for Windows RT tablets, which are separate entities because of the different ARM and Intel x86 architectures).
Compared to the bad old days, however, there are signs of improvement. The Windows Store certainly feels lively today. Although Flappy Birds only saw official releases on Android and iOS, there's the same craze for hundreds of clones, for example the table below lists arguably the most popular apps for UK users, and whether they're available in the each of the major app stores - iOS (Apple), Android, and Windows. Again, we focus on Windows 8 running on the desktop, rather than ARM/RT. For what it's worth, we would've listed those available in the ARM/RT Windows Store too, but Microsoft refused to loan us any Windows 8.1 tablets unless we attended a special 'briefing' session at their HQ. Aside from the fact this involved a 400-mile a round trip, we were left wondering why a simple-to-use tablet requires personal instructions from a Microsoft employee.
Additionally, in the table below we note only official implementations of apps. In several instances - indicated with an asterisk - third-party apps claimed to emulate some or all of the functionality, but we didn't test these. Of course, in some instances desktop versions of apps are available - Mozilla Firefox isn't in the Windows Store, but is available as a desktop app installed and used in the standard way, and Chrome is available both as a desktop download and as a Metro-ready app.
Despite improvements, at the end of the day Windows Store still takes bronze in the app store race. Android and iOS is clearly where most developers focus their attentions, although the situation for UK app users isn't helped by the fact Google and the BBC have clearly decided to support iOS and Android almost exclusively. Similarly, big-name mobile game makers King and Supercell appear to have ignored the Windows Store for x86, while only a handful of Rovio and Miniclip titles can be found there.
Microsoft is still having trouble getting people to migrate from the decade-old Windows Xp, never mind Windows 7, so the challenge of convincing people about Windows 8 is obvious. Even though we've been quite positive about 8.1 here, we still can't seriously recommend an upgrade to Windows 8 if you're happy with Windows 7 and not concerned with squeezing every last drop of performance out of your hardware. Buying a new computer with Windows 8.1 pre-installed isn't as big a hindrance as it used to be. The reports we hear from an increasing number of Windows 8.1 users (although not all of them) mirrors this: the whole caboodle isn't too bad. It just takes a little getting used to. Windows 8 isn't the new Vista, because Vista was a hopeless case; Windows 8 is simply a misunderstood teenager who might yet grow up into something extraordinary.
So what's next for Windows? Sometime in April Microsoft will release an update to Windows 8.1 and - on PCs without touchscreens - the trend towards mouse and keyboard integration is furthered. If leaked details are to be believed, via a configuration option Metro-style apps installed from the Windows Store can be shown on the desktop taskbar, and hovering the mouse over their taskbar buttons will show a preview - just like with regular apps. Additionally, Metro apps get their own title bars with mouse friendly close and minimize buttons, if there's a mouse/track pad in use. While the Start screen hasn't gone anywhere, right-clicking on a tile within it will show a range of options, including the ability to uninstall the app. Perhaps most shockingly of all, Windows will now boot by default to the desktop on non-touchscreen computers, even if the user didn't select it. It'll also do this on new PCs and laptops.
Windows 9 is a few years away. Perhaps the only people paying attention to rumours are industry pundits and Microsoft shareholders, keen to see if Microsoft can extricate itself from the quagmire. What rumors there are suggest that Microsoft will introduce a cross-platform app store, so that apps created for the ARM version of Windows (formerly Windows RT) will work on the desktop version. This makes a lot of sense and isn't impossible from a technical point of view, as Apple showed when it made the switch from PowerPC to Intel architecture 10 years ago. A single app can easily support two different architectures. Making it easier for developers to create cross-platform apps might fix the deficiencies in the desktop app store.
There are also rumors that Windows 9 might borrow ideas from portable devices where it counts power management. Coupled with Intel's clever Haswell CPU architecture we may see battery life on laptops expanded phenomenally, although it's likely Microsoft will be focusing most attention on expanding the battery life of x86based tablets, which currently struggle to last beyond four hours.
When it comes to the user interface. It’s unlikely Microsoft is even able to turn to turn around the oil tanker that is Metro. It's more likely that the concessions to desktop users within Windows 8.1 (and the further update due in April) will be solidified. There's been talk of the Start menu returning and this is perhaps more feasible than it might sound, without the need to duplicate functionality. The options that appear when the Start button is right-clicked could simply be moved to a left-click action, and an Apps button added to the list would switch the user to the Metro based start screen.