Early look at Windows 8 baffles consumers
Web Producer: Laura Kittell
NEW YORK (AP) - The release of Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system is a week away, and consumers are in for a shock. Windows, used in one form or another for a generation, is getting a completely different look that will force users to learn new ways to get things done.
Microsoft is making a radical break with the past to stay relevant in a world where smartphones and tablets have eroded the three-decade dominance of the personal computer. Windows 8 is supposed to tie together Microsoft's PC, tablet and phone software with one look. But judging by the reactions of some people who have tried the PC version, it's a move that risks confusing and alienating customers.
Windows 8 is the biggest revision of Microsoft Corp.'s operating system since it introduced Windows 95 amid great fanfare 17 years ago. Ultimately, Windows grew into a $14 billion a year business and helped make former Chief Executive Bill Gates the richest man in the world for a time. Now, due to smartphones and tablets, the personal computer industry is slumping. Computer companies are desperate for something that will get sales growing again. PC sales are expected to shrink this year for the first time since 2001, according to IHS iSuppli, a market research firm.
The question is whether the new version, which can be run on tablets and smartphones, along with the traditional PC, can satisfy the needs of both types of users.
"I am very worried that Microsoft may be about to shoot itself in the foot spectacularly," said. Michael Mace, the CEO of Silicon Valley software startup Cera Technology and a former Apple employee. Windows 8 is so different, that many Windows users who aren't technophiles will feel lost, he said.
Microsoft is releasing Windows 8 on Oct. 26, and it doesn't plan to cushion the impact. Computer companies will make Windows 8 standard on practically all PCs that are sold to consumers.
Microsoft's chief financial officer Peter Klein said he isn't very concerned that user confusion could slow the adoption of Windows 8. When Microsoft introduces new features, he said, people eventually realize that "those innovations have delivered way more value, way more productivity and way better usability." That's going to be true of Windows 8 too, he said.
Instead of the familiar Start menu and icons, Windows 8 displays applications as a colorful array of tiles, which can feature updated information from the applications. For instance, the "Photos" tile shows an image from the user's collection, and the "People" tile shows images from the user's social-media contacts. (Microsoft is licensed to use AP content in the Windows 8 news applications.)
The tiles are big and easy to hit with a finger - convenient for a touch screen. Applications fill the whole screen by default - convenient for a tablet screen, which is usually smaller than a PC's. The little buttons that surround Windows 7 applications, for functions like controlling the speaker volume, are hidden, giving a clean, uncluttered view. When you need those little buttons, you can bring them out, but users have to figure out on their own how to do it.
Technology blogger Chris Pirillo posted a YouTube video of his father using a preview version of Windows 8 for the first time. As the elder Pirillo tours the operating system with no help from his son, he blunders into the old "Desktop" environment and can't figure out how to get back to the Start tiles. (Hint: Move the mouse cursor into the top right corner of the screen, then swipe down to the "Start" button that appears, and click it. On a touch screen, swipe a finger in from the right edge of the screen to reveal the Start button.) The four-minute video has been viewed more than 1.1 million times since it was posted in March.
The familiar Windows Desktop is still available through one of the tiles, and most programs will open up in that environment. But since the Start button is gone, users will have to flip back and forth between the desktop and the tile screen.
There's additional potential for confusion because there's one version of Windows 8, called "Windows RT," that looks like the PC version but doesn't run regular Windows programs. It's intended for tablets and lightweight tablet-laptop hybrids.
Vista was Microsoft's most recent operating-system flop. It was seen as so clunky and buggy when released in 2007 that many PC users sat out the upgrade cycle and waited for Windows 7, which arrived two and a half years later. Companies and other institutions wait much longer than consumers to upgrade their software, and many will keep paying for Windows 7. Many companies are still using Windows XP, released in 2001.
Intel Corp. makes the processors that go into 80 percent of PCs, and has a strong interest in the success of Windows. CEO Paul Otellini said Tuesday that when the company has let consumers try Windows 8 on expensive "ultrabook" laptops with touch screens, "the feedback is universally positive." But he told analysts that he doesn't really know if people will embrace Windows 8 for mainstream PCs.
"We'll know a lot more about this 90 days from now," he said.
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