Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs

May 18, 2013 (05:05 AM EDT)

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8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps
8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps
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Research firm Forrester says IT isn't interested in Windows 8, and that the platform's success relies on consumers and BYOD. Given that consumers aren't exactly embracing the new OS, Win8's prospects are easy to dismiss -- so much so that Frank X. Shaw, Redmond's VP of corporate communications, recently felt compelled to reprimand the media for its emphatically bleak appraisal of his company's plight.

But here's the thing: Shaw could be right. Windows 8's consumer appeal is about to get a major upgrade.

An important note: this prediction presupposes that the OS's usability issues are addressed in Windows 8.1, a free update, formerly known as Windows Blue, expected to be revealed in June.

There's been some doublespeak from Microsoft on the usability point. Redmond executives have claimed that customer feedback informed Blue's development -- but they've also defended Win8's Live Tile start screen, which has been a significant driver of user criticism. There's a fine line between upholding one's convictions and alienating one's fans. Win 8.1 looks like it will land on the right side of that line -- but I'll come back to that later.

First, here are five reasons things are looking up for Windows 8.

1. New Intel Chips, Better Battery Life

Intel's Haswell core chips should be shipping inside Windows 8.1 devices by this fall. If you found the Surface Pro somewhat attractive but were deterred by its poor battery life and modest i5 processor -- your time is coming. Haswell is expected to deliver major improvements in power management, which means designers have more flexibility to balance CPU power and battery life. The result should be Win8 tablets and Ultrabooks that function like high-end laptops but can run all day on a single battery charge. Intel's chips are also expected to facilitate thinner, lighter form factors, and to deliver improved graphics performance -- perfect for the high-density screens that will be common on the next round of high-end, Surface Pro-like machines.

Intel's Bay Trail Atom processors, meanwhile, won't be on the market until later this year. But the new mobile-oriented chips are expected to substantially improve the graphics performance and central processing muscle of Atom-based Windows 8 tablets. Intel says the new processors are twice as powerful as the current ones, and Intel is clearly looking to challenge ARM, the chip of choice for smartphones and tablets. If Bay Trail lives up to its promise, it will enable the lightest and most portable of tablets to not only run the full version of Windows 8, but also, and more importantly, do so without a hitch. In a space dominated by cheap Android tablets and the iPad Mini, the ability to run Microsoft Office and legacy x86 apps could be a major differentiator.

2. Lower Prices

For many users, the first wave of Windows 8 devices was prohibitively expensive. The next wave, however, should offer options to fit all budgets. Intel has stated that Haswell-based Ultrabooks should reach the $600 price point. There will be more expensive options too. But given the improvements the new chips should facilitate, Intel's promise means that devices with more raw processing power and better battery life than the Surface Pro will soon cost only a little more than much-ignored, and x86-incompatible, Surface RT.

Atom-based Windows 8 tablets, meanwhile, could be much cheaper. The prospect of $1,000 Win8 Ultrabooks didn't entice many people -- but $300 for an extremely thin tablet that can capably run Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Angry Birds and most anything else? That could take a bite out of the iPad Mini's sales.

Windows 8 struggled partially due to a lack of elegance in the new interface. But a lot of that bad buzz came from people who ran the OS without a touchscreen. Some of these Win8 installations involved new licenses installed on old machines, which gain little value, if any, from the new UI. But OEMs exacerbated this problem when, heading into last winter, they managed to release only a handful of touch-enabled options.

By the time this year's back-to-school and holiday seasons roll around, store shelves should not only feature a great abundance of touch-oriented Windows 8 devices but also a greater diversity of form factors. This variety will include some novel ideas, such as 30-inch hybrid tablets that can be docked like a desktop but also laid flat to create a table display. But the entrance of mini-tablets is probably the most notable development.

As mentioned above, these devices -- thanks to not only their ability to offer legitimate productivity tools in a consumer-friendly tablet but also their low prices -- could be enormously popular. Microsoft might even debut a 7-inch Surface model as soon as this summer.

4. Windows 8.1's UI Refinements

Windows 8.1's biggest hurdle will be addressing core usability concerns -- more on that below. Aside from this point, though, the update will -- based on information gleaned from leaked Windows Blue builds -- deliver a more refined version of the Metro interface. Many of the tweaks, such as the ability to resize and customize Live Tile sizes, are small but welcome. Others, such as an improved Snap Views function that allows up to four Metro apps to be displayed simultaneously, are more functional. Other changes include deeper Sky Drive integration, Internet Explorer 11 and support for new touch gestures.

Nothing earth-shattering has come to light, but the numerous small improvements should contribute to a smoother, more cohesive user experience. Control panel tweaks aren't exciting, for example, but because Windows 8 currently forces users to jump between the Metro and desktop interfaces to access these controls, it's significant that Windows Blue will likely make these tools easier to access from either environment. It's not flashy -- but it makes the user experience significantly less frustrating.

To be fair, "less frustrating" doesn't exactly equal iOS-level user delight. But Windows 8 is still a new, radically different model, and it will take Microsoft some time to figure things out. Plus, to gain market share, Windows 8.1 doesn't need to be great. It just needs to be good enough.

Microsoft products are still an entrenched part of most businesses. It's one thing for a BYOD employee to use Google Apps and an iPad because he doesn't want to spend $1,000 on a Surface Pro that has lousy battery life, is relatively heavy and features an aggravating interface. It's another thing, though, to pay $300 or $400 for great battery life, complete compatibility with the office, a light form factor and a decent tablet UI that does most things it's supposed to do. If Win 8.1 is expected to disrupt the market, it's bound to disappoint. But if it's meant to lead to organic growth that could lead to future gains, then "good enough" could actually work -- at least until Google, Samsung or Apple does something to move the mobile goal posts.

5. Better Apps

The native Windows 8 apps weren't great, but Microsoft has already released updates to improve them, and Blue is expected to bring new alarm, sound recorder, movie and calculator apps.

It's unclear how useful these new entries will be, but Microsoft has also been actively encouraging developers to join the Win8 fold, and the effort has been paying off. The platform now boasts more than 73,000 apps, and developer activity, after trailing off during the first three months of the year, is nearly as high as it was at launch. Microsoft has also been building an elite team to develop next-gen apps that span the entire Windows ecosystem.

Win 8.1 won't change the fact that Metro still has only about one-tenth the number of apps that iOS has. Still, Redmond's new OS now has enough apps to compete; it can't do everything, but the Windows Store no longer resembles a bare cupboard.

But It All Hinges On Usability

As Windows 8's defenders point out, the OS is usable -- as long as you endure a short learning curve. The problem is, many users gave Metro only a brief look and dismissed Win8 without a second thought. To a certain segment of users, a tablet that can access x86 apps is a dream come true. But iPads satisfy most people's most common needs, and when they require something heavier, most of them still have a computer. Windows 8's merits, for many of these users, did not make learning the new OS worthwhile.

To be fair, some of this adoption hesitancy has to do with cost, and Microsoft and its partners are about to address that. But it's clear, fair or not, that the UI hurdle needs to be removed. That doesn't mean Redmond should kill Metro, but it means the devices need to be engaging as soon as users pick them up.

The extent to which Microsoft understands this is unclear. On the one hand, Windows CMO and CFO Tami Reller has conceded that the "learning curve" imposed by the new Live Tiles UI is "real and needs to be addressed."

But Windows chief Julie Larson-Green has defended the Live Tile start screen as a "dramatic improvement" over the familiar start menu it replaces. Microsoft is "principled ... but stubborn" about the new interface, she said, even while conceding that a resurrected start menu "might be helpful" to some users. Muddying the waters further, she also said that Windows 8.1 won't deliver "major changes," and that "some things" -- presumably, the stream of Win Blue rumors that had been steadily flowing for months -- "are wildly inaccurately reported."

Speaking of those rumors, with Windows Blue, users will likely gain the option to boot directly to the desktop interface, rather than being force-fed the Live Tiles start screen every time they start their machines. Window 8.1 might also feature a restored start menu, but rather than functioning like its Windows 7-equivalent, it's rumored to be a Live Tiles shortcut. There's also been talk of search charm enhancements intended to wean users of their old-UI dependencies, and better integration of tutorials and help functions. Whether any of these changes actually materialize remains to be seen.

But whatever Microsoft does, it must make the OS easier to use. If the company does so, watch out. Based on the five factors above, the conditions are right for Microsoft's consumer market share to jump.

Does this mean the next Surface will catapult to iPad-like sales, or that Windows 8 is about to explode the way Android did in 2012? No. But an important shift is nonetheless primed to occur. At launch, Windows 8 presented users with one very important reason to buy: a tablet UI and legacy applications, all in one device. Unfortunately, it also gave users many reasons not to buy: a counterintuitive UI, costly devices, uninspired native apps, lackluster app library, poor battery life, and so on.

Now, most of the deterrents have been eliminated. Ease of use is the big one that remains.