Geeks and Guinea Pigs


Anybody who’s talked to me in recent months might be surprised to hear that I recently splashed out for a copy Windows 8, as I’ve not been a great fan of it – particularly the new Metro interface[1]. The £25 upgrade from the release preview I was running seemed like a bargain though, particularly as the Microserver I’m using it on didn’t come with any OS.

TL,DR version

Microsoft were supposed to be getting off their feature release followed by fixing it approach with Windows 8, but the Metro desktop throws a spanner into the works. If they keep Metro then I can’t see Windows 8 being deployed by many enterprises – it will be yet another ‘geeks and guinea pigs’ release – maybe not even that. If on the other hand Microsoft can backtrack a little, and allow people (consumer and enterprise users) to use the familiar desktop, then it’s a much more incremental upgrade to Windows 7, and will be more easy to adopt – and thus more popular (and successful). It’s possible that Steven Sinofsky’s departure will allow Microsoft to do this. Whatever happens though, it looks like the Windows cash cow is a lot less healthy – MS simply aren’t extracting as much money for their product any more.

Background, and the original promise

Intel has it’s ‘tick-tock‘ roadmap where it upgrades the features of its CPUs and then shrinks the fabrication process to make the CPUs smaller, cheaper to make and more power efficient. Microsoft has for many years followed a similar pattern – feature releases every other time; the difference is that the builds between feature releases can’t be shrinks as there’s no physical process – they are instead fixes, as there have usually been issues with the feature releases that have stood in the way of mass adoption:

Feature release Fixed Release
NT3.x NT4
2000 XP
Vista 7
8 ?

The geeks and guinea pigs title for this post refers to the users that get the feature releases – people in IT who like trying out cutting edge stuff, and maybe a pilot group in ‘the business’.

When I first heard about Windows 8 it was when I was part of a Customer Advisory Council (and Windows 7 wasn’t even out of the door). We were told that having fixed the issues in Vista with Windows 7 there would be no more major changes, just incremental updates. No more tick tock, no more feature – fix it, just a nice gradual roll out of of improved functionality.

And then some genius decided to throw a spanner into the works, and have a consistent UI metaphor across smartphone, tablet, games console and desktop – Metro – the UI originally featured on the Zune. Once again we have a release that’s defined by a new feature – a feature that doesn’t seem to be well received outside of Redmond.

Why Metro is a disaster on the desktop

The Metro interface works great on smaller devices where the screen is used for one application at the time, and it’s clearly designed for touch screens. On the desktop though it doesn’t fit well with the keyboard and mouse. The whole point of the windows in Windows was to be able to have multiple applications open on a larger screen (or screens).

In over a year of using it myself I’ve always gone straight to the old desktop, and pinned all of the apps I use frequently so that I don’t miss the start menu. On the consumer and release previews I’ve found myself lost pretty much every time I’ve had to use the new interface, though it looks like the final release has at least sorted out the Control Panel (by going back to how it was).

Metro is right up there with the Office ribbon and Mr Paperclip in the competition for worst user experience, and it’s no surprise that the most popular app for Windows 8 is Start8 – an app to bring back the start menu.

The Enterprise angle

The general aim of Enterprise IT is to keep things going as cheaply as possible, and that means change is bad. Many organisations are still using Windows XP, and are only now upgrading to Windows 7 (as Microsoft has a gun to their head with support ending for XP). There is hence almost zero appetite for doing any more change to the environment (particularly as Windows 7 has involved costly hardware refreshes and application compatibility testing).

If Windows 8 had been the incremental update that was promised (more like Windows 7.1 perhaps) then it would have been relatively simple for organisations to move straight to it. Things might be different if MS had provided an option to avoid Metro in the Enterprise Edition; but the way things are Windows 8 is definitely one for the geeks and guinea pigs.

A word on editions

Windows 7 came with a bunch of different editions – Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate. I quite liked the Ultimate edition[2], but MS made it too expensive and too hard to get, so I expect that approximately nobody who didn’t work for MS or have an MSDN subscription ever saw it – even the most deep pocketed PC fan would only get Pro from their OEM.

Windows 8 has far fewer editions – vanilla, Pro and Enterprise. So for the consumer the choice is pretty simple. Pricing makes it even more simple. With the Pro upgrades available for £25/$40, and no option to upgrade to basic Windows 8, it seems that pretty much everybody that buys Windows 8 will buy Pro.

The cash cow stops milking

The £25/$40 upgrade pricing to Pro is supposedly time limited, and it seems to have had the desired effect in driving early adoption with 40m licenses sold so far, but there are a couple of important things going on here:

  1. The gap between ‘upgrade’ and ‘full’ has disappeared, as MS has allowed upgrades from the preview releases (that it hadn’t charged for).
  2. The price expectation for a Windows license has been set, and set low.

Even if Windows 8 doesn’t damage the PC market (and I think it will[3]) then MS is going to make less money per unit that it was before.


Windows 8 wasn’t supposed to be a geeks and guinea pigs release, but that’s what it is. MS are going to struggle in the consumer space because of Metro, and it will likely stop them getting anywhere in the Enterprise. Meanwhile the price point they can charge has moved against them.

I did put some money in Microsoft’s pocket for Windows 8, but only so that I could continue to have a working license for a particular machine. I have no plans to upgrade any of my Windows 7 machines – even at £25 – it simply isn’t worth the trouble, never mind the money.

It’s not too late for MS. They could easily roll the features of Start8 into a patch on Windows Update and give users (particularly corporate ones) what they want – a nice incremental upgrade rather than a feature release. It’s too soon to call that Windows 9.


[1] Which isn’t even called Metro any more due to a legal dispute, though everybody seems to still call it Metro anyway.
[2] I was able to get this via an MSDN subscription.
[3] The data I’m waiting for is how many Windows 8 PCs and laptops bought over the Black Friday weekend go back to the shop because people don’t like it. I’m told that many PC purchases happen simply because existing PCs get into poor shape (often due to malware) and it’s easier to buy a new one than to sort out the old one. MS have unfortunately moved the pivot point in a way that’s not in its favour – the pain of getting on with Metro will now balance against the pain of sorting out an old PC.

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