Over the last few days, I’ve been spending plenty of quality time with Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 Preview. In multiple respects, it’s been a positive experience. As my colleague Jared Newman noted, the new features in this upcoming revision–which will be free to Windows 8 users when Microsoft rolls out the final version later this year–make it much easier to spend most or all of your time in the new-wave Metro interface and apps that use it. From more powerful management of multiple on-screen windows to a comprehensive Control Panel to a more customizable Start Screen, Windows 8.x is beginning to feel more like a full-featured operating system and less like a toy bolted on top of old-school Windows.
As the decimal point in its name suggests, Windows 8.1 doesn’t aim to be a game changer; it’s a more polished, complete version of Windows 8 rather than a whole new experience. If you already like Windows 8, you’ll like 8.1 even more. But the question remains: What will get non-Windows 8 users excited about making the investment of time and money required to move to Microsoft’s radical new version of its extremely venerable software? What, in other words, is its killer app?
That’s been a surprisingly tough question to answer for Windows 8 all along. As I’ve used the update and tried to figure out its potential impact, I’ve been mulling over possible factors that could help Windows 8.x catch on in a way that it hasn’t yet done.
Microsoft, I think, started out thinking that Windows 8′s killer app was what the company described as a no-compromises experience: the ability to run both touch-friendly, new-style Metro apps and classic, powerful Windows programs on one device. Then-Windows honcho Steven Sinofsky blogged in 2011:
Our design goal was clear: no compromises. If you want to, you can seamlessly switch between Metro style apps and the improved Windows desktop. Existing apps, devices, and tools all remain and are improved in Windows 8. On the other hand, if you prefer to immerse yourself in only Metro style apps (and platform) and the new user experience, you can do that as well!
At best, the duality hasn’t yet turned Windows 8 into an insta-blockbuster. Some people like the two-operating-systems-in-one approach; some find it disorienting or annoying; some haven’t tried it either because it isn’t inherently enticing or sounds downright unappealing.
Me, I think that “no compromises” is useful in some respects, but inherently clunky–especially since Microsoft refuses to make it easy for users to live in the classic desktop world without ever venturing into Metro, a move I find tone-deaf and pig-headed. (The Start button is back in Windows 8.1, but still takes you to the Metro-ized Start screen–here’s Penny Arcade’s profane-but-reasonable take on that design decision.) “No compromises” is a stopgap until Metro gets good enough that the old Windows interface starts to slide into obsolescence, just as DOS gave way to Windows. And no stopgap is a killer app.
Bold New PCs.
Another possible Windows 8 killer app are the computers it runs on. From Surface to Sony’s VAIO Duo to table-like systems that resemble ginormous tablets, Windows 8 is the first new Microsoft operating system in years that challenges the hardware industry to invent imaginative new form factors. That’s a virtue–possibly one which is essential to Windows’ long-term viability, since classic desktops and PCs are feeling more and more like mundane appliances that you don’t need to replace very often.
Still, one lesson of this creative renaissance is that a sizable percentage of PC users just want to get work done with something that feels familiar. The PC makers I’ve spoken with say that even conventional laptops equipped with touchscreens aren’t yet massive sellers, let alone more outré machines.
I do think that touchscreens, computers that break apart into two pieces or flip around into various orientations and other new ideas will matter more over time, as PC makers work out the kinks and consumers grow more comfortable with unconventional features. But judging from the ugly downward slope of recent PC sales, they’re not yet a killer app either–at least not yet.
If you want to be boring and literal, you can maintain that a killer app needs to be, well, an app. The original one was probably VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet; in the early 1980s, people bought Apple II systems just to run it.
There are now more than 100,000 Metro apps–not bad at all for an eight-month-old interface. Jared audited how many popular iPad apps are available for Windows 8, and found the situation to be mixed. (Among the pieces of good news: Facebook and Flipboard are coming to Windows 8.)
Ultimately, sheer quantity of software isn’t a killer app. Nor is filling in a checklist of popular apps that already exist on other platforms. What Windows 8 needs are broadly appealing programs that are unique to the operating system and make the most of Metro’s possibilities.
There are some nice, slick Metro apps, including some of the ones Microsoft provides with the operating system, such as the Bing Weather and Bing News programs. But even after scouring the Windows Store and soliciting recommendations on Twitter, I haven’t seen anything that knocked my socks off the way they flew off my feet the first time I saw Flipboard. (Or, for that matter, the way they did the first time I saw VisiCalc; I happened to attend its first public demo, at a Boston Computer Society meeting, when I was 14.)
For all the ambitious things Microsoft is doing on multiple fronts these days, I think it erred badly by not having killer Metro versions of the Microsoft Office programs available on the same day that Windows 8 launched. (Latest word is they might show up next year.) The company needs to show the world how Windows 8 is done, just as Apple has traditionally built some of the best apps for its own gadgets.
Hey, It’s Windows.
Windows 8 may not feel like a hit, but as the current version of the world’s dominant operating system, it’s still everywhere. Microsoft sold 100 million Windows 8 licenses in the first six months. The next PC you buy, assuming it’s not a Mac, will almost certainly come with it. Over time, the sheer scale of Microsoft’s customer base will lead to many, many people becoming Windows 8.x users. That inevitability is a killer app of sorts; Windows 8 can afford to get off to a sluggish start in a way that most products cannot.
Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a disaster that Windows 8 is still a platform in search of a killer app. There are plenty of examples of past products that flailed around a bit before finding theirs: The original Mac, for instance, debuted in early 1984, but didn’t get its killer app–the combination of the PageMaker desktop-publishing software and LaserWriter printer–until 1985. But Windows 8 can’t live without a killer app forever. And even though Windows 8.1 is a thoughtful, meaty update, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be its own killer app. Sooner or later, something else will need to do the trick.