Has Microsoft finally realized PCs are different than tablets?

Windows 8's tile interface is fine on mobile devices, but Microsoft may have just figured out it’s terrible for traditional computers.

IDGNS San Francisco

If recently published reports are to be believed, Microsoft is finally realizing something I’ve been saying ever since Windows 8 first reared its ugly head: the so-called Modern (formerly Metro) tile interface may work fine on smartphones and tablets, but it basically throws traditional computers under the bus. The Windows 8 start screen is just plain silly on traditional computers.

The situation gets worse the larger the screen of the device in question. Ever look at Windows 8 on a 27-inch monitor? What about on a pair of big-screen monitors? Despite features that let you organize the tiles, the bottom line is that the bigger the screen, the more Windows 8 turns it into a jumbled, confusing mess.

Word is that next year's Windows will present a traditional, Windows 7-style desktop interface on traditional desktops and laptops, while still showing those tiles on smaller, touch-screen devices.

Thank heavens!

Horrendous failure?

On the one hand, this could be seen as a horrendous admission of failure for Microsoft. It bet the company on Windows 8's radical new interface, hiding the traditional desktop and start menu behind a wall of cryptic touch-centric tiles that may have seemed "modern" but never made sense for traditional computing tasks. Making computer users pretend they’re working on a tablet raised the ire of rabid commentators and scared off traditional consumers ever since.

Competitors like Apple and Google, meanwhile, offer separate operating systems and interfaces for computers vs. phones and tablets. They, like almost everyone outside of Redmond, seemed to understand that while smartphones and tablets are technically computers, people use them in very different ways for very different tasks. If I’m sitting at my desk working, I have completely different needs than when I’m checking my Facebook feed on my phone or watching a video on my tablet.

While Apple’s Mac OS X and iOS are getting more similar all the time (as are Google’s Android and Chrome), they still look and feel very different from each other. Which is a good thing.

Promising sign of humility?

Still, I prefer to see Microsoft’s possible move in another light. Rather than a failure, let’s call it a recognition of reality and a demonstration of a willingness to change and adapt. That’s exactly the kind of thing that Microsoft had trouble doing under its previous leadership (I’m looking at you, Steve Ballmer).

There’s no shame in getting things wrong. Even Steve Jobs made plenty of boneheaded blunders. The key is to recognize your mistakes and make them right. If Satya Nadella has the maturity to admit Microsoft’s mistakes and find a way to fix them, those mistakes are less likely to be fatal.

In this case, I believe, that means forking Windows to create an operating system (or several) that’s optimized for the different things that people do with smartphones, tablets, and traditional computers.  

I, for one, won’t consider using Windows 8 on a traditional desktop until that happens (I do sometimes use a Surface 2, and I’ve long been a happy Windows 7 user). And judging by the latest operating system usage figures, I’m not alone.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

SD-WAN buyers guide: Key questions to ask vendors (and yourself)