What went wrong?

Steve Dinneen
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As Microsoft prepares to make a spectacular U-turn on key features of its new operating system, Windows 8, we ask:

Facebook’s “Like” button has been called the Holy Grail of internet marketing – the most lucrative concept on the web. But there is one virtual button that’s earned more money than Facebook can dream of – the Windows Start button.

Over 17 years, the unassuming little icon in the bottom left of the screen became ingrained in the consciousness of PC users; a gateway to the operating system’s eponymous windows.

It was, therefore, something of a shock, when Microsoft announced it would be ditching the traditional version of the Start button from the latest version of its operating system, Windows 8, along with a whole host of its immediately recognisable features. It was a bold move, aimed at taking Microsoft into the age of the touchscreen, with the software centring around a series of “Live Tiles” that can display anything from your latest tweets to the weather.

However, Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer’s launch speech, in which he said he was “betting the company” on Windows 8, is starting to take on a tinge of infamy. Far from stemming the tide of customers migrating to (predominantly Apple-made) tablets, the software has been blamed for speeding up the process. The problem is thus: people seem to really hate Windows 8. PC sales have slumped 14 per cent year-on-year in the first three months of 2013. If Ballmer is indeed a betting man, he might have been better off putting his money on the 2.15 at Chepstow.

So, just six months after its launch, Microsoft has announced a major upgrade – codenamed Blue – which it hopes will revive its fortunes. Given that sales of Windows licenses make up around half of the company’s revenues, it better get it right this time. Here are four key issues Microsoft needs to address:

1. Support, support, support
Probably the most frustrating thing about Windows 8 is that things don’t “just work”. Users of the Metro version, for instance, have complained that you can’t just click and watch videos on YouTube – instead you have to go into settings and select “view on the desktop”. The new video player, which has replaced Windows Media Player, doesn’t automatically support a lot of video types. These are pretty simple things to get right.

2. Customisation
This seems like a no-brainer. One of the main reasons people still choose Windows desktop PCs over their Mac rivals (albeit a secondary concern to price) is the ability to really dig beneath the surface of the operating system and make it work how you like it. You want to change your mouse cursor to a GIF of Cartman from Southpark burping? You goddit. Windows 8 makes customisation much more difficult – even down to the inability to do very much with the Live Tiles except for shuffle them about a bit.

3. Integration
Another major gripe with Windows 8 is that it is essentially two different operating systems welded together like a dodgy cut-and-shut car. The Metro interface is the slick new touch-oriented look, while the desktop view is the more traditional interface. Navigating between them is easy enough but having two in the first place is a bit confusing.

4. Remember your core users
The new operating system works pretty well for tablet users – but desktop users are less convinced. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other. The Metro view in particular feels clunky when you’re using it on a desktop PC. Microsoft needs to work out how to keep the feel of the software the same across devices while making sure it’s still optimised for the people who pay the bills: laptop and PC users.