Leak hints Microsoft will recant 'make-them-eat-Metro' strategy for Windows 8

'Milestone in the proof that the strategy didn't work,' says analyst of possibility that Microsoft will skip the Start screen by default in pending Windows 8.1 update

Microsoft will renounce its "make-them-eat-Metro" strategy in an update for Windows 8.1 slated to ship this spring, if leaked preliminary builds reflect the final product.

According to Wzor, a Russian site that regularly gets its hands on unauthorized builds, Windows 8.1 Update 1 -- a refresh of last fall's revamp of the original Windows 8 -- will enable the "boot to desktop" setting, currently an option, as the default, bypassing the "Metro" Start screen and the flat user interface (UI) that relies on colorful tiles and runs mobile-style apps rather than traditional Windows applications.

The boot-to-desktop setting debuted in Windows 8.1, one of several changes Microsoft made to appease customers who struggled to navigate Metro apps and the Start screen with keyboard- and mouse-controlled hardware, which continues to dominate the PC market and makes up nearly all its installed base.

Then, boot to desktop was an option users had to manually trigger.

If the final Update 1 switches on the skirt-Start screen feature, it will mark a major repudiation of Microsoft's original game plan for Windows 8, analysts said.

"This as a milestone in the proof that the strategy didn't work," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "But for anyone following this closely, they would have expected it. It's for business, plain and simple. Business put up a brick-wall front and told Microsoft, 'If you don't fix this, we're not going to buy Windows 8.'"

The strategy Moorhead referred to was to force Metro, the label for the touch-and-tile UI, on every Windows 8 user by making them start each session at the Start screen, and if nothing else see it before they shifted to the classic desktop. Microsoft hoped that customers would recognize the benefits of its touch and app models, then take to new touch-enabled PCs or tablets. In turn, the idea went, those sales would push developers into quickly creating a massive app market -- a virtuous cycle, at least in theory.

Well before Windows 8's launch, Microsoft in general, its CEO-for-now Steve Ballmer specifically, promised that the millions of existing PCs as well as every new system sold would be a candidate for the OS, creating an instant market for apps.

In October 2012, shortly before Windows 8 went on sale, Ballmer made one last-minute pitch and promise. "There will be customers coming and looking for apps. That I can assure you," Ballmer told developers. "It's going to create a heck of a lot of opportunity for folks in this room to make millions."

That was predicated on the start at the Start screen. In any case, it hasn't happened as Ballmer hoped.

Instead, consumers increasingly turned their backs on traditional PCs, opting instead to spend their money on smartphones and tablets, the latter substituting for or augmenting older personal computers. Most of their money went towards Android- and iOS-powered devices, ignoring Windows tablets, which continue to struggle for more than a single-digit share.

And businesses, while continuing to purchase PCs -- their buys have kept the industry from even more horrific declines -- ignored Windows 8 and standardized on its predecessor, Windows 7. While their reasons for shunning Windows 8 were many, most detested the Metro UI as disruptive to productivity, and clamored for a return of the desktop to its primary position in the Windows hierarchy.

Microsoft, faced with a repeat of the setback that was Vista, has been accommodating them in fitful steps, first with Windows 8.1's return of a pseudo Start button and the boot to desktop option, and with Update 1, reportedly several more, including boot to desktop by default, an on-screen power button within the Start screen, and the ability to "pin" Metro apps to the classic desktop's taskbar.

Windows 9, now seemingly set for a Q2 2015 debut, will make more such moves, including a Start menu of sorts and allowing Metro apps to run in resizable frames on the desktop.

But if Microsoft sets boot to desktop as on with Update 1, that decision will, strategically at least, be the biggest by far.

"Microsoft really dug a big hole for themselves," said David Smith, of Gartner, in an interview Friday, referring to the firm's approach with Windows 8. "They have to dig themselves out of that hole, including making some fundamental changes to Windows 8. They need to accelerate that and come up with another path [for Windows]."

Like Moorhead, Smith attributed the repudiation of Windows 8's original design -- two UIs, two application models, but with Metro getting primacy -- to businesses balking at the changes. Microsoft was prodded, if not forced, into the switcheroo because the bulk of its revenue and profits continue to come from the commercial side; with PC sales tipping even more toward enterprises, it had little choice but to placate those customers even if it forsook consumers.

"These moves," said Smith, talking about a default boot to desktop, among others, "are not stuff that will make Windows 8 instantly successful. At the most it will stem the decline in Windows, and bring them back to where they were before [Windows 8]."

It's unlikely Microsoft will portray the decision, assuming Wzor is correct, as a defeat, but will instead continue the messaging it's used previously to explain the retreat -- that it is complying with customer feedback.

That would be disingenuous at best: Microsoft heard complaints from users about make-them-eat-Metro long before it launched Windows 8. Its vaunted telemetry -- gathered from millions of opt-in PCs -- may have either failed it or been ignored.

Julie Larson-Green, who now heads the unit responsible for Microsoft's hardware development but at the time a co-leader for Windows, hinted at the latter when she got defensive in an interview in May 2013 as she said, "We're principled in the direction we're heading, but we're not stubborn. We're not going to spite you (emphasis in original)."

"Pragmatically, this is good news," said Moorhead of a boot-to-desktop by default. "I think this is the only way for Microsoft to weather the next few years, because people have a hard time using Metro. I appreciate that they've recognized that they didn't have an app ecosystem in place when they needed it, and so they're picking this middle ground."

Moorhead traced the failure of Metro, and thus the need for Microsoft to backpedal from that UI's intended predominance, to the company's marketing of Windows 8 as a touch-first operating system. "But there weren't enough touch devices at the launch," Moorhead said, repeating a mantra voiced by others, including DisplaySearch, which last year pegged touch-enabled notebooks as accounting for 11% of all 2013 laptop shipments, with that share climbing to near 20% this year and to about 40% by 2017.

Microsoft executives have blamed the shortage of touch notebooks for Windows 8's slow start, too. If touch PCs had been more prevalent, they have argued, Windows 8 would have gotten out of the gate faster. And once touch was more widely available, the new operating system would power a rebound in PC sales.

While shipment declines slowed in the second half of 2013, they are still projected to be in negative numbers this year compared to the last: Windows 8 and touch have not yet rescued the industry from its doldrums.

Moorhead and others expected that Microsoft will adjust the boot to desktop by default setting to account for the hardware, leaving it enabled on clamshell notebooks, for example, but turning it off on tablets. How it will handle hybrids, such as its Surface devices, which it touts as tablets that double as notebooks, as well as the surfeit of 2-in-1 designs now coming out of OEM factories, is unclear.

Windows 8's future direction will be only one of the many items on Microsoft's next CEO's to-do list, but undoubtedly will be near the top.

At least the new executive -- which seems almost certain to be cloud chief Satya Nadella -- will have the gift of hindsight, and so will be less likely to repeat what now-outbound CEO Ballmer said in 2011, within hours of the launch of Windows 8's developer preview.

"We think we've got it right," said Ballmer in a September 2011 meeting with financial analysts. "We think the formula that says that you bring the best of the tablets and the best of the PC together, that you embrace the cloud, you embrace emerging HTML standards, is exactly right."

Whoops.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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