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Microsoft's bold new Windows 8 has been a bust so far. Featuring a radical makeover -- the first truly new interface since Windows 95 arrived nearly two decades ago -- Windows 8 isn't exactly inspiring consumer or enterprise users to upgrade from earlier versions. Nor is it spurring them to buy new PCs. According to IDC, worldwide PC shipments in the first quarter of 2013 fell nearly 14% from the same period a year ago -- the biggest decline since the research firm began tracking PC sales in 1994. And if you think IDC's math might be bad, think again; Gartner pegged the sales drop at a slightly-less dreadful 11.2%.
Windows 8 isn't solely to blame for lagging PC sales, but it doesn't seem to be helping, either. Its anemic launch contrasts greatly with Windows 7's debut, which boosted third-quarter 2009 sales of Windows PCs by 49% year over year, according to The NPD Group.
So is Windows 8 really that unappealing, or are other factors to blame? To be fair, PC sales likely would have lagged anyway, with or without Windows 8. Consumers are flocking to tablets, a market that Windows' new touch-oriented Modern UI is designed to infiltrate, and one where Microsoft is conspicuously absent. Rather than replace or upgrade their old Windows PCs, people are snapping up iPads and Android slates for entertainment, email and Web browsing.
As for enterprise users, they're in the process of upgrading to Windows 7, which retains the traditional desktop user interface and is less expensive than Windows 8, particularly when you add in the cost of retraining staff to use the latter's new interface.
Microsoft, it seems, has a dilemma on its hands. The market is unhappy with Windows 8, which is better suited to multi-touch tablets than mouse-and-keyboard PCs. The addition of touchscreens to laptops and desktop PCs could help Windows 8's chances, but it's unclear how touch would improve the traditional computing experience, particularly for business users who spend most of their day inside Excel spreadsheets and Word documents.
The next Windows upgrade will be telling. Will Microsoft stay the course and continue to tinker with the Modern UI, hoping that its sizable customer base sees the virtue of Windows' new look and feel? Will it bring back the old Windows 7-style desktop, at least for PCs? Or will it drop the old interface entirely and force its customers to adopt the Windows 8's Modern UI, warts and all?
Our slideshow explores eight steps that Microsoft could take to revive its flagging Windows franchise. What do you think Microsoft should do? Add your take below.
After a few minutes with Windows 8's touch-centric Modern UI, it's pretty obvious that Microsoft was focusing more on tablets than PCs. The bright and bold motif -- with its oversize finger-friendly tiles and frustrating, where'd-it-go Charms Bar on the right side of the screen -- is great for touch but confusing and clumsy for mouse and trackpad users.
Why not let users decide at setup whether to run the Modern UI? This level of customization might make Windows 8 more appealing to Microsoft's enterprise customers, many of whom would rather run the conventional desktop user interface on their legacy PCs. Then again, without the Modern UI, Windows 8 doesn't offer many advantages, aside from faster performance, over Windows 7.
Windows 8 has style, but often at the expense of usability. Many key features are hidden from plain sight. How do you turn off your PC? Well, mouse over to the Charms bar, click Settings, then Power, and then Shut Down. Need to find a file on your PC? Go to Charms/Search/Files. Sure, a quick tutorial will reveal these secrets, but a few more visual clues might make the Modern UI a bit less intimidating to long-time Windows users. Another plus: More clues might lower employee training costs for enterprises making the leap to Windows 8.
Recent reports suggest the next Windows upgrade -- known either as Windows 8.1 or Windows Blue -- will include several usability enhancements, such as making the venerable Control Panel accessible from the Modern UI, rather than from the desktop only.
Windows 8 retains the desktop UI from past versions -- but it's a maimed version that results in an abysmal user experience. Microsoft's boneheaded decision to kill the Start menu, for instance, has led to a screen-jumping nightmare for PC users who live inside the desktop. Want to find a program, search for a file or turn off your PC? Hop over to the Modern UI, please.
Clearly, this is bad interface design, and Microsoft would be wise to reinstate the Start menu in Windows Blue. Third-party utilities such as IObit's free Start Menu 8 can help alleviate Win 8's desktop shortcomings, but users shouldn't have to install outside apps to enjoy basic functionality.
Here's another rumored feature of Windows Blue: The ability to bypass the Modern UI altogether and boot directly to the desktop. This shortcut would please long-time PC users who have little interest in learning new ways of doing things. But it could also hamper Microsoft's grand plan to provide a single UI for mobile and desktop devices.
Another concern: Would developers be less motivated to write apps for Microsoft's Windows Store if PC users are able to boot to the desktop, which won't run Modern UI-style programs? And if users avoid Windows 8's new interface, why should they upgrade at all?
Here's an unlikely scenario: Microsoft cries "mea culpa" and admits it erred in slapping a tablet-centric interface on a PC operating system. Its penance: Starting with Windows Blue, PCs without touchscreens will run a slightly modified version of Aero, the desktop UI from Windows Vista and XP, by default. Windows 8 tablets will use Modern UI. Users of hybrid devices, such as the Microsoft Surface Pro and Lenovo Yoga, will choose one or the other. Everyone is happy. Well, everyone but Microsoft, which why this scenario is improbable.
Microsoft's mobile strategy depends on the ubiquity of the Modern UI. If you're comfortable with Live Tiles on your PC, the odds are good you'll buy a Windows-based tablet or smartphone. Making the Modern UI optional on desktop PCs essentially neuters this strategy.
Perhaps the real reason people aren't snapping up Windows 8 devices is that they're confused by Microsoft's two-prong strategy. For instance, the ARM-based Windows RT operating system looks identical to Windows 8, but it won't run legacy Windows software. But Windows 8 does. Who has the time to learn the difference? It's easier to avoid Windows 8 entirely than to make sense of this marketing muddle.
Microsoft could simplify matters by killing off the slow-selling Windows RT and focus solely on Windows 8. This strategy could backfire, however, if Microsoft cedes the sub-$500 tablet market to Apple, Amazon, Google and others. Could Windows 8 run on low-end slates? Intel CEO Paul Otellini says the chipmaker's upcoming "Bay Trail" Atom processors could result in Windows 8 touch devices priced as low as $200, CNET reports.
Windows PC manufacturers were miffed when Microsoft introduced its own Surface Pro and RT tablets. And for good reason. For the first time, Microsoft decided to compete directly with its hardware partners -- OEMs -- who already face razor-thin margins in a highly competitive PC market.
Bad vibes, of course, aren't responsible for tepid sales of Windows 8 machines. However, a chilly relationship between Microsoft and its OEMs isn't good for business. As a gesture of goodwill, Microsoft could terminate its tablets and refocus its attention solely on developing Windows software. The move might inspire HP, Lenovo, Dell and the rest of the PC gang to push Windows 8 and RT more aggressively.
Here's a contrarian idea: Microsoft ignores its critics and doubles down on the Modern UI. Via generous financial incentives, Microsoft sways developers to stock the Windows Store with plenty of multi-touch apps, thereby making the Windows 8/RT platform a worthy competitor to iOS and Android. Future versions of Windows do away with the desktop entirely. And enterprises don't mind because Microsoft continues to support and upgrade Windows 7, which they prefer anyway.
This scenario has serious flaws, most notably the fact that it undercuts Microsoft's unified-interface strategy for Windows PCs, tablets and smartphones. And it would make lots of long-time Windows users very, very angry.