NEW YORK — The release of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system is about a week away, and consumers are in for a shock. Windows, used in one form or another for a generation, is getting a completely different look that will force users to learn new ways to get things done.
Microsoft is making a radical break with the past to stay relevant in a world where smartphones and tablets have eroded the three-decade dominance of the personal computer. Windows 8 is supposed to tie together Microsoft’s PC, tablet and phone software with one look. But judging by the reactions of some people who have tried the PC version, it’s a move that risks confusing and alienating customers.
Tony Roos, an American missionary in Paris, installed a free preview version of Windows 8 on his aging laptop to see if Microsoft’s new operating system would make the PC faster and more responsive. It didn’t, he said, and he quickly learned that working with the new software requires tossing out a lot of what he knows about Windows.
“It was very difficult to get used to,” he said. “I have an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, and they never got used to it.”
Windows 8 is the biggest revision of Microsoft’s operating system since it introduced Windows 95 some 17 years ago. Ultimately, Windows grew into a $14 billion a year business. Now, due to smartphones and tablets, the personal computer industry is slumping. Computer makers are desperate for something that will get sales growing again. PC sales are expected to shrink this year for the first time since 2001, according to IHS iSuppli.
The question is whether the new version, which can be run on tablets and smartphones, along with the traditional PC, can satisfy the needs of both types of users.
“I am very worried that Microsoft may be about to shoot itself in the foot spectacularly,” said Michael Mace, CEO of Silicon Valley software startup Cera Technology and a former Apple employee. Windows 8 is so different, he said, that many users who aren’t technophiles will feel lost, he said.
Microsoft is releasing Windows 8 on Oct. 26. Computer companies will make Windows 8 standard on practically all PCs that are sold to consumers.
Microsoft finance chief Peter Klein said he isn’t very concerned that user confusion could slow the adoption of Windows 8. When Microsoft introduces new features, he said, people eventually realize that “those innovations have delivered way more value, way more productivity and way better usability.” That’s going to be true of Windows 8 too, he said.
Instead of the familiar Start menu and icons, Windows 8 displays applications as a colorful array of tiles, which can feature updated information from the applications. For instance, the “Photos” tile shows an image from the user’s collection, and the “People” tile shows images from the user’s social-media contacts.
The tiles are big and easy to hit with a finger — convenient for a touch screen. Applications fill the whole screen by default — convenient for a tablet screen, which is usually smaller than a PC’s. The little buttons that surround Windows 7 applications, for functions like controlling the speaker volume, are hidden, giving an uncluttered view. When you need those little buttons, you can bring them out, but users have to figure out on their own how to do it.
“In the quest for simplicity, they sacrificed obviousness,” said Sebastiaan de With, chief creative officer at app developer DoubleTwist.
The familiar Windows Desktop is still available through one of the tiles, and most programs will open up in that environment. But since the Start button is gone, users will have to flip back and forth between the desktop and the tile screen.