How Microsoft Can Save Windows 8

Microsoft is in a tough spot with Windows 8. Sales aren't where Microsoft was hoping they'd be, consumers are frustrated and confused by the changes, the phone hasn't taken off and now Blackberry has a real chance to claim a solid third place spot with their re-launch with Blackberry 10. Microsoft doesn't exactly find themselves on the ropes just yet, but they aren't winning consumers over left and right just yet. So what does Microsoft have to do to win consumers back? Offer something no one else is able to. Lets take a look at what Microsoft's options are.

Surface Tension

Still so much potential to be realized in Windows RT.
With the Surface, Microsoft has attempted to build the perfect Windows 8 machine, to show
consumers how great hardware, coupled with Windows 8 makes for a great experience. While reviews of the hardware have been above average for the most part, many people have pointed out the flaw in purchasing something that can be had in a windows laptop for much less., especially with the handicapped Surface RT running Windows RT. To top it off, Surface RT sales have been sluggish in comparison to the recently released Surface Pro that runs full Windows 8 on Intel chips.

I see the solution in a two pronged approach from Microsoft. First, Microsoft needs to make Windows RT more business friendly. Let the computers join domains, and as an extension of that unlock the Windows RT desktop to allow porting of x86 applications to the ARM world. Holding Windows RT back to the Windows Store and it's apps sets the platform up for failure out of the gate. Why do people like Windows? Because they can run whatever they want on it. Windows is the most developed for platform in the world, so why shouldn't Windows RT be an extension of that? To add to the business appeal, Microsoft needs to add support for more Office applications, mainly Outlook. If businesses are going to buy into the RT model, they need to be able to access their business communications on the platform in the format they are used to.

Second, Microsoft needs to change it's marketing message. What has Apple done to great effect and now Google? Show the product in use with examples of how the software is making people's lives better or more connected. Yes, dancing people in a park or at the office may look cool or have a catchy beat, but it doesn't show me how the device makes my life any better. I don't want to buy a Surface because it'll get my office to break dance, I buy a Surface because I have a need that it fulfills. Amazingly, Microsoft does have a video that shows this, but it's only on their Surface webpage as a video to explain the differences to customers. I think it does a better job of selling the Surface than any official commercial does. 

The reality is, I want a Surface RT. I think if leveraged properly, the Surface RT and RT platforms as a whole provides a great mobile computing platform and with the inclusion of a full version of Office, allows consumers to be more productive out of the box than any iPad or Android device. Microsoft needs to be pushing these advantages instead of showing people jumping and dancing around.

Desktop Love

As I mentioned in my initial review of Windows 8, the OS is bipolar. One minute you're playing Angry Birds in the new interface, the next requires you to head deep into the control panel in the desktop interface and if you're smart, will abandon the touch control for a mouse for finer control. There is the problem. Microsoft is trying to have it both ways in an effort to please everyone, and in the process, upsets everyone.

There are few ways I think Microsoft can appease people. For one, bring back the Start button. Not in the way most people want. I believe the Start button should bring up the Start Screen, for many, the corners and charms are hidden entities that many user's don't even realize exist, once they find their way to the desktop, they are essentially trapped there. I believe a Start button, even if it's just a shortcut to the Start Screen will go a long way to improving the usability of the OS for many. 

That being said, the Start Screen needs and overhaul. First things first, folders. And not just folders to dump apps in, but live tile folders. Folders that cycle through the content of the apps that are within them. The ability to group apps now is nice, but even without a robust app selection, scrolling far to the right to find an app is far too common. Being able to condense the apps that show on the Start Screen to a more manageable selection would be nice.

Along those lines, Microsoft needs to allow the quarter sized tiles that Windows Phone supports. By giving the Start Screen that added level of customization, not only will users be able to fit in more tiles and more apps on one screen view but Windows Phone and Windows 8 will match each other more closely in visuals and functionality.

Microsoft Phone Home

Windows Phones haven't been able to set themselves apart in the global marketplace in the way that iPhones and Androids have. This has left Microsoft in a perilous position in the mobile space and Blackberry, desperate for a comeback will do anything, and I mean anything, to try and salvage their once great market share. Microsoft needs to solidify themselves as the solid third place contender in the mobile space. Achieving this is easier said than done. Their are two paths I can see Microsoft taking to achieve this goal. 

Samsung has little incentive to help Microsoft again.
The first is to work aggressively with their partners, Nokia can't win this alone, unless Microsoft is willing to work with them exclusively, but that goes against Microsoft's strategy with Windows in general. If Microsoft can get HTC and Samsung to build Windows Phones that compete with their top Android devices, Microsoft stands a chance. To do this, Microsoft may have to loosen their restrictions on customization of the OS. Right now there is little incentive for HTC, Samsung or any other OEM who also build Android devices to really throw their weight behind Windows Phone because there's very little that any OEM can do to make their device stand out over another besides hardware differences.

How can Microsoft achieve this level of OEM buy-in without compromising the core of their OS and spinning off into the world of fragmentation? I believe Microsoft needs to give some deeper access to OEMs for some level of skinning or customization that allows the handset manufacturers to bolt-on their own customization to allow the phone stand out. If the OEMs are given access points that can modify the look and feel without modifying the OS, Microsoft should still be able to update the core OS interdependently of whatever changes the OEM has made. No easy task I realize, but I think one that is necessary. Many people have long enjoyed tinkering with Windows to get the look they want with various themes, registry hacks and other changes. Microsoft should allow some of this tinkering on their phone OS as well.

A fun Surface Phone concept.
The second option, and this option can be combined with the first option as well, is for Microsoft to strike out on their own. Microsoft should build the Surface Phone. Microsoft needs their own Nexus device so to speak. Right now there is high end Windows Phone hardware from Nokia and HTC, but only Nokia seems to be pushing the design language conversation of Windows Phones. Microsoft has to set their own tone. Microsoft needs to show the world what a Windows Phone can be. By building their own device, Microsoft can help control the conversation about Windows Phones. Not only will Microsoft drive the conversation, but by creating a high end phone for consumers, will force their OEM partners to step up their game and not use recycled Android designs for their Windows Phones.

The App Situation

Both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 face a problem with their respective app stores. This is the toughest of all the problems facing Microsoft to fix. It is very much a chicken and egg problem, developers want a large user base to sell apps and users want a large selection of apps when they choose a platform. To be fair, Microsoft is making some progress here, the issue is, it's slow progress. Windows 8 still doesn't have big name apps, like Facebook or Instagram and only just recently got Twitter. Windows Phone, while having a Facebook app, it lags behind other platforms in terms of it's capabilities.

Microsoft needs to lean on it's partnerships to push development of it's platforms. Microsoft has a large sum of money sunk into Facebook and seems to be the preferred partner when it comes to search in Facebook, so why haven't official Facebook and Instagram apps made their way to the Windows Phone? This isn't an easy problem for Microsoft. Sure they can throw money at the problem, but if a developer puts an app out there because Microsoft paid them, there's no incentive to update that app, add new features or support it down the road unless another infusion of cash comes their way, unless they establish a large user base demanding those changes.

The best way for Microsoft to drive app development will be to drive ownership of the products, the problem is, Windows Phone isn't going to see the level of adoption that Windows 8 will. I'm hopeful that Windows Blue will resolve this situation. The solution I believe to be fairly simple. Let Windows Phone apps run in Windows 8 and Windows 8 apps on Windows phone. If a Windows 8 app is designed well, when viewed in 1/3rd view where it takes up just a portion of the screen, it appears as a mobile app would. Allowing Windows 8 apps to run on Windows Phone in these views, or letting Windows Phone apps run in the 1/3rd view on Windows 8 would go a long way to help making it easier for developers to only have to build for one platform instead of two.

Wrap Up

Is Microsoft in a dire situation? No. Microsoft finds themselves in an uncomfortable location in third place in the mobile space, fighting sluggish sales of their newest desktop OS, and seeing their first hardware efforts sitting on shelves and not in the hands of as many consumers as they'd like. By focusing their marking message, unifying their phone and desktop operating systems even further, and tweaking the start screen, Microsoft can give themselves a much stronger platform from to move forward. Based on some recent job postings, Microsoft may be considering some of these moves. One more problem may be looming for Microsoft in branding. 

Windows 8 is beginning to slide into Vista territory. Even though Vista after SP1 was very stable usable platform, in the public's mind, Windows Vista was a lame duck long before SP1 was released and only a new OS launch was able to reverse Microsoft's fortunes. Windows Blue may be planned as an 8.5 update, but it might make sense for Microsoft to turn it up to Windows 9 to allow the public to give it a chance. Can Microsoft make the changes necessary to reclaim a top spot in the eyes of the computing world? Yes, I believe so, Windows 8 was the beginning, now Microsoft needs to polish the platform's offerings and deliver on their promise of no compromise computing for the world.