A tribute to Windows 8: If it hadn't been so bad, Windows 10 wouldn't be so good

Windows 8's pioneering features finally get to shine in Windows 10, and only because Microsoft had to try again.

windows 8 primary renewed

I didn’t know what to do.

In November 2012, I flew to Dubai to cover the overseas launch of Windows 8. I was a freelancer then, relatively new on the beat, and a handful of reporters mingled among sheikhs and other Middle-Eastern bigwigs in the bowels of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. A freelance reporter that I had just met asked me to give him a tour of Windows 8.

I was new to the whole swiping concept, but knew enough to tap on a tile to launch an app. But whoever had set up the laptops hasn’t connected them to any Wi-Fi, so there was little to see. And for a few moments I forgot what “Desktop” referred to, even as I tried to find the shortcut that took you to the “Windows screen.”

My earliest memories of Windows 8 were therefore of helpless frustration—a common experience, for most, I imagine. But was Windows 8 really bad? What I think we can all agree on is that it was certainly, fatally, misunderstood. 

For many, Start finished Windows 8

One of the subtleties built into the Windows Insider program is that changes made to the operating system are introduced over time, so that Microsoft’s fans and guinea pigs have a chance to understand and evangelize such changes before Microsoft releases them. The Start screen, with its crazy-quilt of live tiles, dropped like a bomb on an unsuspecting public. Few knew that you could type the application name to launch Word, for example, or swipe up from the bottom of the screen to see a list of apps. And once on the Desktop, nobody wanted to leave.

The desktop offers familiar shortcuts and pinned icons.

One Windows 8 strategy was to keep as many shortcuts and pinned apps on the desktop as possible.

For many, Start embodied Windows 8’s failure. According to NetApplications, Windows 8’s highest penetration came in Sept. 2013, when it reached 8.02 percent. Windows 7, by contrast, has a 46.39 percent share of all PCs, and it has steadily increased since then, to what appears to be an all-time high of 60.98 percent in June. 

Give credit where credit is due, though: Managed correctly, Live Tiles work well on both Windows Phone and Windows 10 PCs, resurfacing photos, for example, in the Photos tab. News showcases the headline of the day. 

I think one of the fatal flaws of Windows 8, however, was that Microsoft failed to recognize that Live Tiles work best as signposts, not shortcuts. The Start screen should be a dashboard, informing you of upcoming appointments, not requiring you to navigate a maze of flashing lights to find the application you’re looking for.

Every subsequent revision of Windows 8 has been spent walking back the Start page’s erroneous premise: first a Start button, then a direct boot to the desktop in Windows 8.1. I’d say Microsoft still hasn’t quite fixed the Start menu in Windows 10, either; Windows 10 will “pin” the most commonly-used apps in the left-hand list of applications, but a feature to allow you to customize those appears to have disappeared from recent preview builds.

Windows 8 brought touch to the desktop

Windows 8 also launched touch computing into the mainstream space, a feature that had previously been confined to the smartphone. In that, it somewhat succeeded.

Touch still isn’t the primary means of interacting with a notebook. Apple has ignored this space, but an increasing number of Chromebooks have touchscreens, and touch and stylus input now form the foundation of the Surface and Surface Pro, a significant component of OneNote, and an important means of interacting with Windows.

windows 8 on a tablet

Windows 8’s Metro apps were certainly touch friendly. But that’s about all.

You could also argue that one of the more reviled features about Windows 8, the derivative Windows RT operating system, was in fact a decent answer to the demands of mobile tablets. The problem with Windows RT apps wasn’t their appearance, but their functionality: They failed to keep up with their desktop counterparts, and there weren’t enough of them, either. Microsoft’s Universal apps attempt a hybrid approach, presenting in a desktop-friendly format, then filling or shrinking themselves when undocked—part of Microsoft’s Continuum approach.

I never thought I’d say this, but one of the things I’ll miss about Windows 8 will be the Charms menu, which slid out from the sides of the screen. I never used Charms like search, but the quick access to the Settings menu was invaluable—though it was a shame that Windows 8 also bifurcated Settings into two locations, one of which was holed up in the Control Panel. Windows 10 keeps some of that legacy—you can slide in from the right-hand side of the screen to access the Notifications pane, which hides a Settings shortcut at the bottom of the screen—but lacks the elegance of its predecessor.

All your data belongs to us

In 2014, after months of searching, Satya Nadella was named Microsoft’s third chief executive. He set a mantra of “cloud-first, mobile first,” but the foundations for that approach had been laid long ago.

Windows 10 actually encompasses multiple devices, from Windows PCs to tablets to phones, all the way to the new HoloLens. But with Windows 8, Microsoft began tying the phone to the PC, to create an ecosystem (at the time, imperfect) of devices tied together by Microsoft’s cloud services. Your key to the kingdom was your Microsoft account.

In addition to playing tunes, the Xbox Music app sells songs.

Aesthetically, Xbox Music actually looks better than the app in the Windows 10 previews. But it took years for Microsoft to allow users to upload their own music.

Windows 8’s OneDrive app was a hideous mess. Logging into your Exchange-hosted email on anything but a Windows device required IT to watch over your shoulder. Microsoft was just beginning to realize it needed to support Android and iOS. Today, however, OneDrive has been refined and more deeply integrated into the operating system. Email is everywhere. And restoring a corrupted Windows installation or migrating to a new PC, is, by and large, a snap—data can be stored in the cloud, and applications are automatically re-downloaded and reinstalled.

That’s never more true than in the apps and services that surround Windows 10. Photos, for example, searches your OneDrive folder. The Sway app, as part of Office, doesn’t even save a local copy of the file to your hard drive. More and more, Microsoft pushes you to live your life online.

The last Windows?

Microsoft has said previously that it will continue to iterate Windows, so that new builds and features and major revisions may blur into one another. Microsoft wants you to think of Windows as a service, that you will keep using year after year after year. 

windows 10 start screen tight crop Mark Hachman

Windows 10: the future.

That is where the sharpest break between Windows 8 and its successors occurs. Windows 10 may be the last Windows, but Windows 8 may have been the last Windows version you could call a product. It wouldn’t surprise me to be writing about Windows in 2022 and looking back ten years, marveling that we ever bought a standalone Windows, on a 2D screen, where we worried about keeping a copy of our photos on a local hard drive.

But we can’t talk about Windows 8 without mentioning the last, most important change it engendered: a cultural change. Windows 8 flopped. The PC market tanked. Teens looked at PCs the way we view 8-track tapes. And Microsoft responded, with surprising humility. Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 incorporated user feedback that Microsoft almost begged for, and Windows 10, of course, was developed almost hand-in hand with its users.

So here’s your question: Would you want to live in a world where Windows 8 succeeded, or this one, with a more responsive Microsoft? Considering everything that transpired following Windows 8’s flop, I think we’re better off.

This story, "A tribute to Windows 8: If it hadn't been so bad, Windows 10 wouldn't be so good" was originally published by PCWorld.

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