Why Microsoft redesigned Windows

New Windows chief Julie Larson-Green explains why the company felt the need to rethink the basic interface of its popular operating system.

New Windows chief Julie Larson-Green.
New Windows chief Julie Larson-Green. Microsoft

Windows 8 has its fans and foes, but Microsoft felt the time was ripe for a new look and feel for a product used by more than 1.2 billion people.

Julie Larson-Green , the new head of Windows product development, recently spoke with MIT Technology Review about the reasons behind the major changes in the latest version of Windows.

Touting the new Windows 8 Start screen, Larson-Green said that in the past Windows users worked at a desktop with a monitor. In her view, people typically launched one window, put it away, and then launched another window. But in Windows 8, all the apps and windows you might want to launch are visible through Live Tiles.

"Instead of having to find many little rocks to look underneath, you see a kind of dashboard of everything that's going on and everything you care about all at once," Larson-Green said. "It puts you closer to what you're trying to get done."

It's no secret that Windows 8 is designed with touch screens in mind. Larson-Green sees that as simply a "natural way to interact." After using a touch-screen device, even people still using the mouse and keyboard on a regular desktop may find themselves reaching out to the screen to try to move something with their finger.

And touch screens are the future, in her opinion. Though she concedes that there will always be some PCs without touch screens, she believes the majority will be touch-enabled.

"We're seeing that the computers with touch are the fastest-selling right now," she said. "I can't imagine a computer without touch anymore. Once you've experienced it, it's really hard to go back."

Windows 8 has been criticized for trying to be all things to all people. The Start screen environment is geared more for touch-screen devices, but the familiar desktop is still easier to use with mouse and keyboard.

Microsoft made a purposeful choice to offer both environments in the new OS, according to Larson-Green. A mouse will always be more precise than your finger, while a physical keyboard will always be easier to use than an on-screen version, she said. But she feels that eventually people get more comfortable with this new way of working.

"We didn't want you to have to make a choice," she said. "Some people have said that it's jarring, but over time we don't hear that. It's just getting used to something that's different."

Just how long does it take people to get used to Windows 8? Microsoft employs a program called "Living with Windows" in which it observes people using the new OS at home over the course of several months. Some have no trouble adjusting right off the bat, but others take anywhere from two days to two weeks, according to Larson-Green.

And how are people adjusting to Windows 8? To get that answer, Microsoft uses data from users who agree to be part of the Customer Experience Improvement program. And so far, the company is encouraged by what it's seen.

"Over 90 percent of customers, from our data, use the charms and find the start screen all in the first session, Larson-Green said. "Even if you're a desktop user, over time there's a cutover point around six weeks where you start using the new things more than the things you're familiar with."

Of course, as the new Windows development head, Larson-Green has to not only explain but defend the choices Microsoft made in Windows 8.

With PC sales down and tablet sales on the rise, the company undoubtedly felt it had to revamp its familiar interface to adapt to a new world.

Did the company get it right with Windows 8? That's clearly a question still open to heated debate.

But the bigger question is: Will enough of Microsoft's loyal customers ultimately take the plunge to the new and different Windows 8 or stick with the familiar and comfortable Windows 7 and its predecessors.

 

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