Friday, 12 April 2013

Windows 8: Perils of comparing over time

There is news in a number of places of the decline in PC sales, and how supposedly Windows 8 is the disease.

I'm highly dubious of this claim. For a start I don't think your average consumer thinks about operating systems when they buy PCs. If they're a home user they're probably buying something that can "do X", whether that's gaming, word processing, or just internet. Your local nerd will tell you which PC copes with this (usually based on the processor power, graphics capability, etc) and sells it to you with some added extras you probably don't need.

If you're a business user you probably don't want to upgrade at all, since all it counts as is another cost. Does the PC I'm working with right now do the job I need it to do? Yes? Fine, no need to upgrade.

There are a few realities here that belie the real performance of Windows 8 vs Windows 7 (and those before it). Windows 7 was one of the fastest selling operating systems of all time, racking up a 10% market share in 3 months. In the same period Windows 8 barely got above 2%. But what are the possible reasons for this?

The first, the one being touted without any real evidence, is that people dislike Windows 8, that they find it confusing and hard to understand. I call shenanigans on this. While I accept that it is not as usable as Windows 7 as Windows 7 was when compared to windows XP (or Vista), but that's because things barely changed in those iterations.

A change in interface isn't something that should be derided, though a lack of strategy for managing the gap is (and Windows certainly have failed here as their priority of focus seems to have gone towards touch devices). If people felt that they needed a PC they would still buy it and have a play, and soon enough they'd get used to it. They're not going to stand for 10 minutes in a PC World, poke around with the Metro interface and suddenly swear off PCs for life.

Indeed how much are they seeing those operating systems and recognising the benefits of using it on a touch screen laptop, or just a tablet itself?

This brings us on to the second point... hardware. Or rather the diversity of it.

The 1st generation iPad wasn't released until 5 months after Windows 7 came out. Since then there has been an explosion in devices. The landscape when windows 7 was released was they you had a laptop, a desktop or a phone...and tbh you'd never *just* have a phone. The choice was between a mac and a windows PC, and to this day the windows PC share remains only ~1% lower than three years ago when windows 7 went on sale at around 92% of all desktop OS users.

Compared to when Windows 7 was around there are now an additional 50% of *devices* on the market, tablets and PCs combined. This shows a remarkable resilience for the desktop/laptop and a positive future ahead, and the idea that PC sales are somehow in danger when there has been such a rise in tablet sales is quite a blunt analysis to take at this early stage.

And we mustn't forget the issue of how hardware + software has changed. From 2000-2010 the movements in both power provided by PCs and the power required by software was on the constant up and up. However post-2010 has seen a change. Cloud software, software that needs to be used by lower power laptops more often, and even software that can be ported down to a tablet. The technological improvement scenario has altered. Whereas the gap between buying an XP machine to buying a Windows 7 machine will have been almost vital to ensure that you could run newer and improved versions of software, that kind of desperate need simply doesn't exist now, certainly not just 3 years after windows 7's first release.

It used to be that you had a maximum of 4 years in your PC before you needed to upgrade and "keep up", now the lifespan of a machine seems to have lengthened considerably. This won't play in to the hands of Windows 8 well.

Third there is the "Vista" effect. XP is an old system, it's being "unsupported" from the middle of 2014. Vista came out after it and offered very little but a terrible sluggish experience. Vista barely ever achieved a 15% share, and sunk quickly when windows 7 came out. There may well have been an appetite for individuals and companies to upgrade by the time Windows 7 came out, and the delay between XP and Windows 7 provides an entirely different context for how desperate people may have been then, compared to now, to upgrade...especially if they are tech savvy people that realise windows 8 brings few improvements over windows 7 for normal PCs.

It feels that perhaps Windows 8 is (unfairly) in my view having it's own Vista moment. The commentariat have decided that it's not good enough despite previously praising Windows 7 which is, fundamentally, the same as Windows 8. This negativity is seeping in to the public consciousness and becoming a new truth, it's a shame.

This brings us on to the fourth issue...advertising.

I don't remember Vista being advertised, I don't know if I just missed it, but I think that windows had a share and thought they could push out a new operating system and it'd just be swallowed up. Vista woke windows up to the change in the marketplace they existed in, and Windows 7 was heavily marketed.

"I'm a PC and Windows 7 was my idea" was a pervasive and ultimately brilliant campaign for your average PC user. It raised awareness of the new system and really sold the innovations it brought. What do we have now with Windows 8? Some trendy ads that showcase very little about the operating system and a whole lot about the hardware that is containing it. In fact, advertising Windows 8 can barely be called advertising the OS at all. The most prominent advertising of the OS that I have seen is actually for the windows phone, which uses the same UI techniques but isn't the same system.

To round up, I think that people don't *need* windows 8, and they know it. Combined with scare stories and an increase in volume from mac users who have grown through the use of iPads (and the pathetic fanboyism that comes with it), and you have an environment where people are willing to wait and see, to delay making that decision. But this is almost because people don't need new PCs, whereas what they do "need" is a new tablet to have an easier experience of browsing the web while they're around the house. PCs last longer, and even as far back as XP the operating systems are more stable than they were in the past, the impetus for companies to change is reducing with each new generation of processors and operating systems. Windows 7 itself is good enough that I wonder if people using it in offices will upgrade before 2020.

Windows 8's status is no reflection on the PC market, and indeed the PC market is commendable considering the change in how we use our devices and what we expect them to do. Comparing sales now to 2010 and before seems to be a lazy practice, and one built to endorse a narrative rather than create a factual one from any truth.