All Tech Considered
12:53 am
Wed May 8, 2013

Will Tweaking Windows 8 Be Enough To Revive The PC?

Originally published on Thu May 9, 2013 9:43 am

When Microsoft introduced Windows 8 last year, the software giant billed the new operating system as one of the most critical releases in its history. The system would bridge the gap between personal computers and the fast-growing mobile world of tablets and smartphones.

But this week, the company sent signals that it might soon alter Windows 8 to address some early criticism of the operating system.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Tami Reller, head of marketing and finance for the Windows business, said "key elements" of the flagship product will be changed and rolled back when the company releases an update — which was code named Blue — later this year.

The Financial Times played this as a major concession, calling it a "U-turn," and implied that Microsoft was backing away from the touch-centric user interface that really defined the new operating system and was supposed to take the company into the next generation of computing to help it compete in a world that's in love with the tablet.

Analysts compared the apparent turnaround to the New Coke debacle in the 1980s, and within hours Microsoft issued a statement saying the FT got the story wrong.

Clearly this wasn't the story Microsoft was trying to tell. It wanted to trumpet the fact that more than 100 million copies of this operating system had been sold. That's a big, impressive number, but it comes at a time when PC sales are falling and some manufacturers are blaming Microsoft for that.

Windows 8 has been criticized by many who found the software's new touch-centric user interface difficult to navigate on a desktop. Microsoft has been trying to respond to those critics, and it's likely some key features — like the start button — that disappeared from Windows 8 will be back.

The next update is certain to make this latest version of windows more familiar and easier to use on a desktop. Microsoft says it will release that update to developers this June.

Microsoft isn't backing away from tablets, however, and this software's touch interface isn't going to disappear. In fact, the update will also feature changes that the company says will make the operating system easier to use on smaller tablets.

Apple CEO Tim Cook famously compared Microsoft's attempt to create one OS for both desktops and tablets to trying to merge a refrigerator and a toaster. Obviously, a tablet and a PC are pretty different, and people use them differently.

Microsoft expected its tablets to be an attractive alternative to an iPad, for executives and road warriors who wanted something that worked for movies and books or on a plane, but also had all the tools to do real work.

The bigger problem for Microsoft is that more and more people are wondering why they need a desktop PC in the first place.

Most of what you need a desktop PC for, you can do pretty well on a tablet: Answering email, surfing the Web and even writing or mixing a radio story are all things you could do on an iPad.

Desktop PCs and laptops are generally still much more powerful machines than a tablet. Many of us have computers that 20 years ago would have passed for supercomputers. They are powerful enough to run facial recognition programs or produce animated movies, but we're just using them to do mundane things on the Internet.

There hasn't been a boom in creative software that would inspire people to buy these machines, except in high-end gaming. For many people who buy them, though, they just kind of sit there and their potential goes largely untapped.

Microsoft has tried to address that with the creation of the Windows Store, but there aren't as many apps there yet as the company originally hoped. They also are not really the kinds of programs that set a PC apart.

If Microsoft is to reclaim its former glory, it needs a healthy developer ecosystem that helps answer this question: What can I do with a PC that I just can't on a tablet?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Microsoft executives started a public relations blitz this week hoping to trumpet the success and momentum behind the company's new flagship operating system - Windows 8. That was their hope. Didn't work out that way.

NPR's Steve Henn joins us now to talk about what really happened. Hi, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: So what was it?

HENN: Well, the Financial Times landed an interview with the new head of Windows 8, Tami Reller. And the paper quoted her saying that "key elements" of the new flagship software were going to be rolled back when the company released an update - code named Blue - later this year.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

HENN: And the FT played this as sort of a major concession a - a U turn - and implied that Microsoft was backing away from the touch-centric user interface that really defined the new operating system. You may remember, this software was supposed to take the company toward the next generation of computing and help it compete in a world that's fallen in love with the tablets. Some analysts jumped on the story and started comparing the alleged turn around to the New Coke debacle in the '80s and within just a few hours, Microsoft stopped making Ms. Reller available for interviews and issued a statement basically saying the FT got the story wrong.

INSKEEP: Well, did the FT get the story wrong?

HENN: Not entirely. So clearly, this wasn't the story Microsoft was hoping to tell. They wanted to trumpet the fact that they've sold more than 100 million copies of this software. And that's a big impressive number - but it comes at a time when overall PC sales are falling. And some manufacturers within the industry are blaming Microsoft for that.

Windows 8 has been criticized by many who have found the software's touch interface difficult to navigate on - especially...

INSKEEP: This is where you're actually touching the screen...

HENN: The screen. Right.

INSKEEP: ...the way you would an iPad, for example. Go ahead.

HENN: Right. And Microsoft has been trying to respond to those critics who were used to using desktops. So it's hinted that some features like the start button are going to be coming back. And the new update would make it more familiar for people who are using it on a desktop. But Microsoft tried to say that it's not backing away from tablets - and in fact, these new tweaks should make, you know, smaller tablets easier to use - even if they also make a desktop easier to use.

INSKEEP: You know, this is reminding me, Steve Henn, we had an interview with Bill Gates a number of years ago and he spoke about the difficulty of updating Microsoft products - like Windows - because they had to adapt to new generations of users and still be compatible for the millions of people already using the product. He talked about how difficult that was. And it makes you wonder why they even tried to come up with a version of Windows that would work for both tablets and PCs?

HENN: Well, that's a great question. Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, famously compared this mission to try to merge a refrigerator and a toaster.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

HENN: You know, I think Microsoft was hoping that its tables could find a niche with business customers who wanted to have a tablet, but also wanted to have all tools that they need to do real work. But I think a bigger problem for Microsoft right now - maybe for the industry - is I think more and more people are wondering why they need a conventional PC - or at least why they need to buy a new PC. I'm mean think what you use your PC for? I mean I use mine to write stories, answer email, surf the Web, and all of those things are things that I can do - if push comes to shove - with my phone.

The thing about PC's and laptops is, actually they're much more powerful than either of those little gadgets. I mean many of us have computers on our desktops right now, that 20 years ago could have passed for a supercomputer. But they're not necessarily being used for anything much more complicated than YouTube. So if you think about it, what's the killer app that would make you want to go out right now, and say I need to go out and buy a new computer because I want to do that? There really isn't one - and I think that might be Microsoft's biggest problem and the industry's biggest problem.

INSKEEP: Steve, thanks very much.

HENN: Oh, my pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Steve Henn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.