Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft's Touch-Based Future: Will Customers Follow?

Mary Jo Foley discusses why Windows 8 is just the latest example of how the company is trying to push customers into a future that they're not ready for.

I'm not a sports person. Not even a Madden-on-Xbox kind of sports person. When I resort to a sports analogy, it must be really apt. And this one from hockey great Wayne Gretzky (or maybe Gretzky's dad, if you believe famous-quote debunkers) captures Microsoft's biggest challenge in the next year-plus perfectly: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."

This is what Microsoft has been trying to do for years with its new products. But rather than under-skating, the 'Softies have a habit of over-skating. When Microsoft under-skates and has to play catch-up, the company actually does pretty well. Underdog mentality as a motivator for the win!

Microsoft's toughest task with Windows 8 is to not to get too far ahead of users.

Microsoft designed Windows 8 to be a touch-first OS -- meant to be used on tablets and PCs with touchscreens. While Microsoft execs continue to insist that Windows 8 works just as well with keyboards and mice as it does with touch, many testers say that's not the case. It works great with a keyboard as long as you don't mind resorting to keyboard shortcuts, of which there are many.

According to techie urban legend, Microsoft Windows and Windows Live Division President Steven Sinofsky decided to go touch-first with Windows 8 after wandering around the Consumer Electronics Show floor and seeing many non-touchscreens with fingerprints all over them. His supposed conclusion: Users want and expect touch on all screens everywhere.

On tablets, I buy that. On PCs, I don't. On work PCs, many users (including me) don't want to reach out and touch their screens.

The Windows team may be overzealous in its expectations that touch-first will be the experience that the majority of users want and expect in the next couple of years. And the decision to focus so heavily on keyboards with the forthcoming Surface tablets shows possible wavering about this all-touch, all-the-time direction.

Windows 8 isn't the first time Microsoft might be too far ahead of its users. Going way back in the history vaults, my Exhibit A is "Hailstorm": Redmond's first attempt at a Microsoft-hosted set of services. While Hailstorm looked in many ways like what ultimately became Windows Live and Office 365, it was shot down back in the 2001 time frame for being too "cloud-y" too early. Yes, a decade ago, users were already worrying about the security of their data in a Microsoft cloud-hosted environment.

Exhibit B: Ultra-mobile PCs, or UMPCs -- the Windows-based PCs with which Microsoft and partners were experimenting back in 2006 or so. These were 5- and 7-inch Windows tablets, and the very few that ever made it to market ended up floundering. Users weren't sure back then that something with a screen bigger than a phone's but smaller than a PC's had a future. I bet Microsoft and partners wish they had stayed the course on that one, given that the 7-inch tablet form factor seems like the new black.

I'd suggest Microsoft's decision to position Windows Azure as a "pure" Platform as a Service is yet another example of the 'Softies being too far ahead of their customers. The result? The Windows Azure team is now adding Infrastructure as a Service components to Windows Azure -- such as the ability to host Windows and Linux in VMs -- in an attempt to step back and meet customers where they are on the road to the public cloud.

Based on history, maybe Microsoft would do better by chasing the puck (or, at most, skating alongside it) than trying to stay a stick's length ahead of its customers. What do you think?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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Reader Comments:

Mon, Sep 10, 2012 Ed Colorado

I believe the Win 8 released product no longer has a supported way to turn off the Metro UI. Yeah, I know, it's not Metro anymore either. But if it quacks like a duck...

Mon, Sep 10, 2012

I guess I am missing something because Windows 8 does offer the traditional desktop interface. You do not have to use Metro. It would not be in the best interest of Microsoft not to do so. In fact, if the Metro interface were the only option I wouldn't even consider Windows 8. Here is information about the desktop alternative and a quote from Steven Sinofsky: ...for people who want better control over their PCs, Microsoft will also offer the more traditional desktop interface as an alternative. By default, Metro will actually hide and not even load the Windows desktop. But people who prefer the more familiar environment can easily flip a switch to display the desktop, which Sinofsky referred to as "just another app" in Windows 8. "The things that people do today on PCs don't suddenly go away just because there are new Metro style apps," said Sinofsky, who is president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live Division. "The mechanisms that people rely on today (mice, physical keyboards, trackpads) don't suddenly become less useful or 'bad' just because touch is also provided as a first-class option. These tools are quite often the most ergonomic, fast, and powerful ways of getting many things done."

Mon, Sep 10, 2012

No one in Redmond seems to care, but the company for which I work is still in the midst of a full-scale abandonment of Microsoft technologies in the enterprise, all triggered by their ridiculous mishandling of Silverlight, and to a lesser degree, WPF, both of which there'd been an immeasurable amount of both time and money invested. To those running the enterprise, "We're not doing that anymore..." and taking on an Apple-like secretiveness remains unacceptable and Microsoft's done exacly nothing to reverse the damage done. Given I'm still getting hammered at work due to their stupidity, I really don't give a rat's behind what nonsense they're attempting to perpetrate in the consumer space.

Mon, Sep 10, 2012 Ed Colorado

Where do I go to collect my $1000? You have successfully demonstrated most of the reasons I WILL NOT migrate my XP users to Win 8. All the Win 8 fan boys say "it's easy, you just have to learn these 42 new keystrokes and gestures and concepts, like charms." People who are just trying to use the computer as a tool don't want to do that.

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 Ken Australia

Like many things in this space there are some truths that need to be acknowledged, some of which you have listed at the outset. There are a range of PC types as well as all the mobile devices. Having been using/testing W8 for several months I can say it is a mixed experience; I can see where they are going with touch, good, they should keep an option for "standard" W7 interface (updated to W8 look, ok no big deal), Surface should be a winner given all the keyboards purchased to make iP(devices) more user friendly for real work and I think Softies "get" that market number and pattern. Touch, like everything needs to be used appropriately. As an owner of an early Fujisu tablet and recent model TouchSmart it is clear (to me) that users of such devices work in mixed mode so the hazard for MSFT is if they don't, in the final cut of W8, cater to the actual daily realities of what users want in their "mix". Apple made the mistake of forcing users down the touch path, which is fine for many things but not for all things, never mind that touch on phones and entertainment devices is quite different from PCs (whether the be in home or work environments). Bottom line, everyone needs to step back and take a cold shower - and do the engagement with the spectrum of users the MSFT anthropologist do - reality check!

Fri, Sep 7, 2012 JimmyFal

Folks really need to realize that the desktop is still there and it works EXACTLY the same as it did before. Pin all your apps to the taskbar and get used to accessing them from there. Metro is a tap away and just not that intrusive if your hell bent on staying in the desktop environment. Users of the new tablets will appreciate having access to those same apps when and if they need them from the desktop environment. What really needs to happen is more consistency on the Metro end with scrolling and zooming and right click options. I live in the desktop, and rarely am forced into Metro unless I am searching for something. It's just not that hard to deal with, so deal with it and move ahead.

Fri, Sep 7, 2012 Will San Diego, CA

I like the analogy. Microsoft could see that they were behind enough that releasing something like a Windows Phone Tablet so late in the game would make catching the iPad juggernaut nearly impossible. This is demonstrated so well by the many Android tablets trying to catch up and Windows Phone struggling to gain even modest market share. It’s been clear for some time that tablet hardware was rapidly catching up with PC hardware. Microsoft’s decided that playing catchup in the tablet trenches was going to be brutal. So they decided to head to where the puck will be as tablets and PC’s inevitably collide. All that sounds great, but after using Windows 8 as my daily driver on two computers for months now, I’m still not sure what to make of it. I’m used to it and honestly feel quite at home with it now. Going back to Windows 7 feels awkward and well a bit dated now. Now that said, I have no idea what “normal” people will make of this. What do we tell our clients upgrading in the next few months? Do I recommend Windows 8? I think if someone is looking at a laptop, they should absolutely look at a Windows 8 tablet or touch screen ultrabook. If you need a desktop, I just don’t see how Windows 8 improves your life. I think it’s just fine, but I don’t really see it as being better for daily use and there’s that learning curve. What may well happen is that users who’ve been thinking of switching to Mac, but resisted because of the learning curve, may have a reason to switch now. If they have to learn something new, why not learn the Mac?

Fri, Sep 7, 2012

I bet $1000 here, if you are not conceived that Windows 8 is very easy with mouse after watching this just 5 minute video:

Fri, Sep 7, 2012 Ken Cox

As a consumer, I prefer to be welcomed into a new environment, not forced. Certainly, Windows 8 is going to be fine for new tablets. It escapes me as to why Microsoft is abandoning (or punishing) those who want to use Win8 on the desktop. In the past, Windows was highly configurable by the end-user. Now, we're in a straight-jacket that requires third-party tools to recover traditional ease-of-use features like a Start button. The same hardline trend is showing up in application user interfaces. Somebody decided that new apps like Visual Studio would be monochrome, gradient-free, and lacklustre. Where's the win for Microsoft in not allowing users to implement a drop shadow if they like it? What's so bad about choice? I just don't recall Microsoft being this coercive in the past and it truly baffles me.

Thu, Sep 6, 2012 Chuck Somerville Dayton Ohio

I absolutely agree. First it was Vista (and then Windows 7) where the user interface was changed "just because". Marketing people think if you make something new and shiny, people will buy it because it is new and shiny. Well Kodak stayed with XP because XP wasn't broken, and there was no need to spend IT training resources on all the users. Office 2007 with the "Ribbon" is more of the same. Marketing people in the auto industry know they cannot move around the location and function of the brake and gas pedals, the steering wheel and the shift lever. Change the wheel covers, grill, and interior all you like, but DO NOT cause a need for the driver to be re-trained. Now with Windows 8 they are apparently at it again, on steroids. If most customers were kitchen table users that might be good marketing, but I think most Microsoft users are business users, and they need business functionality without any necessary re-training load on the work force. If it's not broken, don't "fix" it. Look how hard it used to be to drive Photoshop, QuarkXPress, and CAD programs in the earlier days. None of them read and understood the Windows User Interface Guide, Quark & Photoshop programmers having come from Mac environments, and CAD programmers being gear-head Engineers ("user-friendly? - Foo. I can drive it"). The beauty of the Windows environment all these decades has been that if you can drive a Windows program, you can drive pretty much any other (well-designed) Windows program. Now Joe Average can't even drive the latest Word or Excel as easily as he could in the Office 2003 (and earlier) days.

Thu, Sep 6, 2012 Marc Wagner Bloomington, IN

A good Article Mary Jo. I have to comment though on your premise that Microsoft is sometimes to far ahead of it's time. You mentioned UMPCs. My first experience with those devices was in a Sony store. It was the pre-Vista days and the device was running Windows XP. Yes, Microsoft was way ahead of itself but as much as anything, these are proof of concept devices. This particular device was VERY expensive and the devices was too heavy and the screen was too small. Microsoft let Sony spend its own money on this experiment and they learned that the technology was just not mature enough to support the needs of the user. They also learned that 5 to 7 inch screens are just too small for productivity. I think Microsoft knew exactly what it was doing and by the time that netbooks started appearing on the scene (running Linux) Microsoft was ready to step-in and address that pent-up demand for portability. In some strange way, the netbook was a stepping stone to tablets. Once Microsoft decides it wants to compete in the market place, it will succeed.

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