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Windows 8's complexity tax shackles Microsoft

The new OS was meant to bring simpler times, but the dual-mode beast can't compete as computing changes, say analysts

Complexity may be Windows' downfall, and Microsoft has not only failed to address the problem, but exacerbated it by shipping the dual-threat, two-UI Windows 8, analysts contended.

"Windows 8 is massively more complex [than its predecessors]," Ben Thompson, an independent analyst who covers technology from his website, said in an interview. "It's mentally taxing to use, and a classic example of something borne of strategic need as opposed to an understanding of user needs."

Thompson's take on complexity, and Windows 8's place on the spectrum, started last week when he pondered why Google's Chrome OS, and the Chromebooks it spawned, had gained a small victory in the battle against still-dominant Windows-powered notebooks.

Although he acknowledged that Chromebooks' lower prices contributed to their rise, he also contended that simplicity played a part.

"The problem comes when you overshoot your customer's needs," Thompson wrote on Jan. 6 in a piece on his site. "In that case, it's not simply that the additional performance is not valued by your customers; rather, the bigger problem is that the additional complexity that necessarily accompanies said performance is actively harmful to your customer's user experience. Your product is not only becoming more expensive, but it's actually becoming worse from your customer's point-of-view."

Chromebooks dial back complexity

Enter Chromebooks, which were not only less expensive than an average Windows notebook, but relied on an operating system that was essentially just a browser.

"The new entrant may not have all of the required performance, but along with that missing performance comes additional simplicity," Thompson argued, talking about Chromebooks and iPads. "Paradoxically, the fact the new entrant has less-than-desired performance makes it even better from a user experience standpoint. And, when the performance gets close enough, that user experience advantage makes it an obvious choice over a higher-end product that does more, in every sense of the word."

Windows, because of its long life and Microsoft's dedication to supporting legacy software, has an inherent complexity that puts the OS at a disadvantage when pitted against less powerful, less capable rivals, including Chrome OS and Apple's iOS -- especially as users discovered that alternative devices like tablets met many of their computing needs with simpler solutions. As a result, sales of all-powerful, do-anything personal computers powered by Windows slowed.

"Windows is suffering from 'second-system syndrome,'" said Wes Miller of the research firm Directions on Microsoft, describing the tendency of successive iterations of any system -- in this case, an operating system -- to grow larger and more feature-laden to appeal to an ever-widening audience.

The term "software bloat" is sometimes used to describe the same phenomenon.

"That applies to [Apple's] OS X as well," said Miller.

Apple's choice in the war against complexity was to recognize the OS X should not be shoehorned into other devices; instead, it crafted the touch-based iOS as its standard bearer on first, iPhones, then iPads.

Microsoft tried to address the problem with a more radical solution: Offer the traditional, complex Windows and a new less-capable-but-simpler sidekick, originally dubbed "Metro," in one package. Windows 8 was the offspring of that attempt to keep one foot in the past while at the same time easing customers into a simpler software model for the future.

The desktop won't die easily

Analysts now contend that Microsoft's scheme not only didn't pan out but made Windows even more complex.

"Windows 8 was supposed to reduce complexity with more managed apps, it was supposed to signal the end of the Windows desktop," said Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst. "There was to be a long decline of the desktop, [but] now it looks like the desktop isn't going to be able to decline as Microsoft expected."

Silver was referring to the reaction by many long-time Windows customers to 8. They objected, often fiercely, to the attention paid to Metro and the simultaneous degrading of the traditional desktop, best illustrated by the removal of the iconic Start button and menu, and a forced path through Metro at each boot.

They wanted their "old" Windows back.

To a limited extent, Microsoft gave it to them with last fall's free Windows 8.1 update. And from recent reports, Microsoft's plan is to bend to their wishes even more in 2015.

"The idea was to put all that complexity and legacy support behind it by putting Metro in a separate box," said Silver, implying that the idea hasn't succeeded.

In a follow-up piece on Jan. 10, Thompson laid the blame for slumping PC shipments, which were down an historic 10% in 2013, right on Windows 8's doorstep. "Windows 8s increased complexity added a reason not to buy," said Thompson. That reason is atop others, including the fact that as PCs have become secondary devices, more consumers are willing to stick with what they have rather than spend money to upgrade a now "good enough" system.

The analysts' talk of "complexity" wasn't necessarily about discrete tasks' ease or difficulty -- although there were elements of that -- but more about the amount of effort that goes into using an operating system. The cognitive burden, sometimes called a "tax," necessary to accomplish tasks becomes greater in a complex OS. Put two completely different UIs and user experiences together, as did Microsoft, and the tax skyrockets.

"The biggest problem with the Modern UI was that it was a complete paradigm shift," said Miller. ("Modern" is another term for the Metro UI and mode in Windows 8.) "Everything we had trained people to do [on the desktop] went away. And there is no stellar app that is pulling people to the Modern platform, something that will make people want those devices and want to learn the Modern UI."

"Microsoft and Windows rightly learned the lesson that touch requires a new UI and paradigm," observed Thompson. "Theoretically, it might be possible to put the two together, but when you are constantly dealing with both, by definition you are using a very sub-optimal interface for each."

A technical solution that fell short

He blamed technologists, the very people who design and develop operating systems. "The tendency is always to want to have the elegant solution, but that doesn't get how real people think and operate," he asserted. "Where technology companies fall down is to think about things only from a technical perspective."

Thompson portrayed operating system complexity as a spectrum. "Chromebooks and iOS are on the left, Windows 7 and OS X are to the right," he said. "But Windows 8 is way to the right of Windows 7 and OS X. It's much more complex."

Windows RT, the stripped-down sibling to Windows 8 that Microsoft intended for tablets, is, to Thompson's thinking, alongside iOS and Chrome OS on the complexity line.

But Windows RT, which powered the original Surface RT and now runs the new Surface 2, and little else, has been remarkably unsuccessful. Most long-time Microsoft partners have either ignored or abandoned Windows RT, instead choosing to arm their tablets with the two-headed Windows 8.1. The biggest blow came last summer when Microsoft was forced to take a $900 million write-off to move excess Surface RT inventory, causing its stock to plummet and make some wonder if it had been the final nail in CEO Steve Ballmer's coffin.

What can Microsoft do now?

The analysts were unsure how Microsoft could address Windows' complexity, perhaps because Microsoft doesn't seem like it has a plan, what with its backpedalling from decisions about the desktop.

"It's difficult to see where Microsoft goes from here," Thompson wrote last week. "Yet there's little question in my mind that the touch environment is hastening the decline of PCs suited for the Windows desktop, even as the desktop ruins what is honestly a rather delightful tablet experience."

Or as Silver put it, "Selling Windows is getting harder and harder."

That's the headwind blowing in Microsoft's face. With stagnated PC sales and little traction so far in tablets, sales growth of Windows licenses to device makers, which provide the bulk of the company's revenue from its flagship OS, will likewise stall.

When asked how Microsoft would address its Windows problem, Directions' Miller replied with a Delphic, "That's up to Microsoft, isn't it?" But he pointed out that the Redmond, Wash. company has a big card up its sleeve.

"Office made up of very light-weight [touch-enabled] apps, that's their first big chance to show what you can do in the Modern UI," Miller said, referring to his argument that there has not yet been a Metro app of sufficient necessity to give customers a reason for using the UI.

Microsoft has said it will introduce a Metro touch-first version of Office, probably this year, then follow with an edition for the iPad.

Thompson echoed Miller, calling Office "Microsoft's trump card" in his Jan. 10 commentary, but claimed that time is running out to play it. "The complexities of Windows are rapidly dragging Office down," Thompson said. "One of the most critical decisions facing the next CEO is whether or not to unburden Office from the Windows strategy tax and leave Windows to figure it out on its own."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is

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