In the article “The Windows 8 Dilemma” I raised a couple of concerns about Microsoft’s “touch first” Windows 8 strategy, specifically their unrelenting aim to merge tablet computing with the traditional PC.

As Microsoft recently released the Windows 8 Release Preview (the final milestone before the final release) I thought I would revisit the operating system to see if any of my concerns have been resolved.

Before I start, let me say I’m a big fan of the Metro user interface. When Microsoft first announced Windows Phone 7 back in 2010, I was instantly impressed. The user interface was fresh, clean and had a lot of very efficient design elements that made it perfect for touch based devices. Unfortunately Windows Phone 7 was two years too late and even though in many respects it was better then iOS and Android, the lack of good applications and market awareness has resulted in slow sales.

Even with the slow start for Windows Phone, I (like many others) hoped that Microsoft would bring Metro to the tablet. In my opinion the user interface and “live tile” design would be great, easily rivalling the iPad and completely destroying Android Tablets in terms of usability.

Interestingly Microsoft decided to go one step further, by making Metro the default user interface for all their future software. This strategy included their flagship product Windows, which has had the same design elements for nearly two decades (staring with Windows 95). As part of this strategy Microsoft also made the decision that a single product should be positioned for the traditional desktop and tablets, essentially having “one operating system to rule them all”. In my opinion this decision was a fundamental error, which I believe could result in a downward spiral for the Windows brand.

The Metro user interface was designed for touch! It works great when using a touch based device like a smartphone or a tablet. Unfortunately 99% percent of Windows systems today (approximately one billion devices) are not touch. They use (and will continue to use) a physical keyboard and mouse.

As a result, Metro with its large touch friendly tiles and minimal “swipe enabled” user interface feels cumbersome when attempting to use a keyboard and mouse. This was clearly apparent in the Consumer Preview and in my opinion has shown little improvement in the Release Preview. For example, important functions such as opening and closing applications involve touching or swiping a specific part of the screen. This makes sense on a tablet, but is simply confusing when attempting to use a keyboard and mouse, especially when for 17 years users have been trained to look for a specific button to click.

The video below is fascinating, it shows a user with no prior knowledge of Windows 8, attempting to use the new operating system for the first time. I expect his reaction to be the same as most users.

For many years Microsoft attempted to butcher the classic Windows user interface designed for keyboard and mouse on to a tablet device. The results were disastrous and ended in complete failure. However in many respects Microsoft are making the same mistake again by attempting to take the Metro user interface designed for touch and shoehorn it onto the desktop. It is also worth noting that Microsoft are the only company driving this “one product” strategy. Apple for example have chosen to keep their desktop and mobile operating systems separate, instead hand picking (where it makes sense) certain parts of each operating to migrate across. I believe Apple understand the simple secret:

“Desktop and mobile are very different environments and therefore require a different user experience. Of course they can have a similarities and even share the same underlining code, but certain things that work for touch, simple don’t work on the desktop and vice versa.”

So what does this mean for Microsoft and Windows 8?

My concern is that Microsoft have sacrificed the user experience of their one billion traditional PC customers, in an attempt to capture some of the tablet market. In my opinion this is a very risky (some would say crazy) strategy, by alienating your primary market (your cash cow) in an attempt to capture a new one.

Personally, I believe the safer more logical strategy would have been to release a separate operating system for tablets, similar to Apple’s approach with iOS. It could have been a Metro style user interface (exactly like Windows RT), but leaving the traditional desktop user interface untouched.

This approach would still have had it’s share of issues and risk, as getting people to use a Metro tablet would be an uphill battle (like with Windows Phone), but at least Microsoft would still have the respect and confidence of their one billion desktop customers.

I guess only time will tell if this strategy will pay off. As I have made clear, I have my doubts, but I have also been proven wrong before. I think one thing is clear, this strategy is make or break for Steve Ballmer (Microsoft CEO) and if I was him I would be very worried, as Windows 8 could end up topping Windows Me as the biggest operating system failure in Microsoft’s history!