Windows 8 should never have mashed up desktop and mobile

Microsoft made a big mistake not breaking free from Windows when it entered the mobile sphere and coming up with new OS and a new name

Hal Berenson has a magnificent article about the choices Microsoft faced when designing Windows 8, asking "What if Microsoft had done Windows 8 differently?" The essay is a masterpiece, but I can't bring myself to agree with his conclusions.

Berenson presents several different Windows 8 development scenarios: What if Microsoft had developed separate versions of Windows for the desktop, tablets, and phones? What if Microsoft had grown Windows Phone "up" to tablets, leaving the desktop pretty much as is? What if instead of developing a separate "Metro" version, Microsoft had made the old-fashioned desktop more touchable? He comes to the conclusion (forgive me for paraphrasing) that the path Microsoft took was better than any of those three scenarios.

I have to respectfully disagree.

It seems to me the fundamental problem stems from Microsoft's dogged determination to continue using the brand "Windows" to describe products as different from each other as the QEII ocean liner and a yellow rubber ducky. Since the brass at Microsoft continues to think of Windows as something that spans every imaginable type of computer product, it goes to great lengths to make those products look -- and in some cases act -- the same. That's why we get sparkly live tiles that display the weather forecast on a headless Windows server.

By trying to be all things to all customers, Windows as a brand is perilously close to losing whatever credibility it once had. Everywhere.

Several years ago, it became clear that Windows was heading to the old folks' home. I'm not trying to be mean about it, but the people who had access to Windows 7 sales figures must've seen that Windows sales had reached an inflection point -- possibly a maximum -- no doubt corresponding with the release of the original iPad.

At that point, the obvious reaction (obvious to me at least) would be to prop up Windows sales as best they could while searching frantically for another revenue stream. That isn't what happened. Because of Microsoft's insistence on using the term "Windows" to cover dessert toppings and floor wax (or toasters and refrigerators), Win8's designers heaped completely incongruous stuff onto Win7 and expected the world to wink, nod, and go along.

If you'll forgive a strained analogy, Windows 7 was tromping along like a Grand Canyon mule: slow, sure-footed, but steadily and inexorably headed downward. Instead of figuring out ways to help the mule keep doing its thing just a little bit longer, Microsoft tossed an 800-pound gorilla on its back.

I don't claim to have Microsoft's insight into Windows marketing, nor do I have a magic crystal ball. But I know lots of Windows users. I answer their questions every day, and a very large majority of them are fed up with Windows. They'll put up with Windows if their company requires it, if they have to run specific programs, work with Word documents or spreadsheets, or if they rely on someone for help and that person only knows Windows. But given half a chance, most of them would never buy another Windows machine -- ever. There's too many hassles, too much bad karma.

Here's where I disagree with Berenson. I think Microsoft made a big mistake in tarring its mobile efforts with the Windows brush. In my opinion, Microsoft would've made a much better splash if it had kept Windows -- client and server -- doing basically what it's been doing for years: helping to keep that Grand Canyon mule on life support. But Microsoft should've broken free from its checkered past when it entered the mobile sphere.

Pick a new name, Microsoft, any name. Grow a new operating system that isn't burdened with the ghosts of Windows past. Put that OS on phones, on phablets, on tablets. Don't try to make a mobile silk purse from an over-the-hill desktop sow's ear. And whatever you do, try hard to keep consumers from identifying that new, shiny OS with the old, bad Windows.

For sure, even with a new name and a new image, Microsoft would've had a hard time competing against the entrenched giants Apple, Google, and Samsung. But it could've been a contender.

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