When tech innovations bite users in the butt

Tech giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft have an obligation to make technical changes tolerable for those who pay the bills

Everyone loves the rapid pace of technological change -- until disruption rears it head and bites them.

In recent weeks, we've seen Google drop support for IE8, a move that leaves millions of Windows XP users out in the cold. We've watched as Apple confounded users and accessory makers by radically redesigning its dock connector, then offering a bulky, not fully compatible adapter for a fairly hefty price. Mozilla stuck it to business users last year by putting its Firefox browser on a rapid release schedule that made it next to impossible to qualify for the enterprise; the open source group eventually backed off after a firestorm of criticism.

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Then there's Microsoft. Like the other outfits, it had reason to make radical changes. But in dumping the Start button and other critical Windows UI elements in Windows 8, it's tossing out the huge investment in time and training that businesses and users alike have made to become proficient with the operating system and related applications.

"Changes happens in every era. You could have written about this five years ago," says IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell. "When people don't see the benefit of a major change, they get upset."

O'Donnell is correct. Change in technology is hardly new, and yes, some people were upset when they could no longer run their beloved DOS versions of WordPerfect. But whether change has been disruptive, as it has with Apple's dock connector, or generationally, as it has with Windows, the need to consider the people who foot the bill -- the users -- is more important than ever.

Microsoft's split approach: Long-lasting apps, but major OS disruptions
For all its deserved popularity and design genius, Apple has never gone out of its way to smooth the bumps when it revs its technology. How many users wondered what to do with their data when the Mac no longer had a floppy drive? Or what about people who can't run the latest flavor of OS X because their MacBook is a couple generations behind?

It's ironic that Microsoft, with its notoriously user-unfriendly software, cared so much for its installed base that you could keep your old PC for years -- even decades -- and run key applications. OK, you might have to add memory, and after a while that 500MHz Pentium didn't have the horsepower to push Windows, but businesses could take their time to adjust.

But Microsoft's assurance of very long periods of application compatibility hasn't translated to Windows. Case in point: Windows XP. When Microsoft moved to sunset the OS four years ago, InfoWorld's petition to save it was signed by more than 210,000 users from around the globe. Indeed, the 11-year-old Windows XP is still the most popular flavor of the world's dominant operating system. According to data from Web analytics firm Net Applications, Windows XP captured a 42.7 percent share of the market, compared to Windows 7's 42.2 percent. By the way, those numbers were compiled just two months ago.

The switch to Vista was such a moment of mass upset. Users did not see the benefit of moving to Vista -- so they didn't. Two generations later, Microsoft is pushing another disruptive change in operating systems, and unless Windows 8 proves it's not Windows Frankenstein, it will be many years until businesses adopt it.

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