While the vision for Windows 8 was to create an operating system that would be as functional on a tablet as it would be on a PC, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) has been flooded with complaints since the new OS was introduced last fall. Less than a year later, the company is conceding that it made some real mistakes with the most recent refresh and is addressing them.
Critics of Mr. Softy will celebrate the move as a victory against Microsoft, rather than seeing it as a shrewd decision by Microsoft. The real news is that Windows 8 is getting better -- one of many reasons to consider adding the stock to your portfolio at current levels.
Return of the Start menu
Just as Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) has its "Home" button and others their own signature bit of functionality, the Start menu has been a part of the Windows operating system for decades. It's one of the most fundamental parts of Windows, not only from a practical perspective, but also in giving users a sense of ease as they transition from one version to the next. The Start menu has long been where you go to do just about everything, and where you turn when you've exhausted all other options.
With the introduction of Windows 8, Microsoft switched to active tiles that more closely mirrored the apps you're used to seeing in a smartphone OS. This was intentional so that the system would make sense on a tablet and the overall user experience would be similar across devices. To use the Apple example once again, the iPad has the same Home button as the iPhone, making several iPad functions intuitive to anyone familiar with the iconic smartphone design.
The problem that Microsoft faced was that it was trying to operate at the bleeding edge between the realm of the PC and the realm of mobile devices -- there were bound to be some missteps. To get PC users to accept Windows 8 as a mobile OS, it needed to have a more app-driven feel. To get mobile-device users to accept Windows 8 as a PC OS, it needed to hold on to some of the ergonomics people had come to expect. The death of the Start menu was a step too far removed from the familiar PC layout for people to accept. And so they complained, and Microsoft heard them and changed.
Not the Apple way
While all of us have grown somewhat accustomed to the Apple way -- letting the design gods of Cupertino show us the path to enlightened design wisdom, Microsoft has never been purely proactive. Apple's designs have set it apart and redefined many of the products that the company makes; those designers have been well rewarded for their efforts -- interestingly, recent reports suggest that the next iPhone refresh will be along the lines of some current Microsoft designs rather than the classic Steve Jobs conceptions. Apple is that rare pioneer that heads out into the wilderness and people follow.
Back here in the real world, or more specifically the business world, not all companies will succeed with so brazen an approach; in this realm, those who do not adapt, die. At some level, Microsoft may be guilty of surrendering by changing some of the details of Windows 8 to more thoroughly reflect the wants of users, but if the product gets better, it will allow Microsoft to attract or keep more users. A growing base in its core customer base has never been more important.
The Google challenge
Perhaps one of the motivations for Microsoft to address customer complaints so rapidly is the increasing pressure Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) is putting on the company. As more and more applications move to the cloud, Google Apps is challenging Microsoft Office. Redmond responded with Office 365, but Google keeps upping the ante, having just released the Chrome OS to run on a new line of laptop-like devices that rely on the cloud. Ultimately, as Google continues to exert pressure on Microsoft, shareholders should see defensive moves as positives. Call it a surrender or a win -- tweaking Windows 8 is a victory for both shareholders and users alike.
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