*This post has been updated since it was first published.
It all started with a bang. Now, Windows 8 seems like a belly flop.
Rumors about rampant user confusion, the annoying colored tile interface, and dire incompatibilities make me wonder if Windows 8 is the biggest tech fail of the decade. And we're barely even into 2013.
What's interesting is that Windows 8 is such a major release. This is the biggest OS ever from one of the biggest companies in technology. Microsoft basically rebranded itself with a tile interface it borrowed from its own Zune player and Xbox 360 console. Now, the tile interface is everywhere: in the Windows phone, every new desktop and laptop, and the Surface tablet. It seemed like every other commercial over the holidays was pushing Windows 8 in some way.
The problem: Users don't get it. In my own tests with several family members over the last two weeks, handing a Surface RT tablet to someone unfamiliar with how it works is like asking them to run a nuclear power plant: They can pull a few levers and twist knobs, but no one is sure how anything works.
One example: Not a single person could figure out how to close an app. This is not a power user function, either. Closing apps is a necessary step for conserving RAM and cleaning up your desktop. In some ways, it's simple: You drag down from the top of the screen to the bottom. Yet, a simple gesture is not always intuitive to grasp at first. No one could figure out how to restart the computer either. (You have to swipe from the right and access the Settings menu, then select power, then restart.)
Even bringing up the right side menu (the one with all of the options you need for the app) caused confusion, since users did not realize they could drag from the edge of the screen.
Another problem is with the tiles themselves. There are too many, and they don't make sense. One user tried to start Skype on a new HP ENVY laptop. He clicked the big Skype tile, but that takes you to the Windows store. (In the age of iPad, an icon that takes you to a store doesn't make sense.) When he downloaded the app, it appeared in a different location off to the far right--lost in a sea of tiles.
Performing admin duties is also terrifically confusing. First you have to enable admin tools. Microsoft should have kept these icons on the desktop, because they are buried to the far right of the screen. Just asking someone to change his login password is a good 5-minute exercise in futility.
I find this surprising given the usability testing that Microsoft conducts. Each release of the Halo shooter involved thousands of hours of user testing to make sure gamers stayed hooked. With Windows 8, it almost seems like no one bothered.
So the question is: What can be done? In many ways, the damage is already done. Anecdotally, I have heard from several businesses--including an insurance company and a firm that makes Windows software--that they plan to stick with Windows 7 for now, largely because they fear the new user interface will confuse employees and require too much training. For Microsoft, my advice is to get another release out the door as fast as possible. Fix the user interface problems, which might mean making the tile interface much more optional. (You can still go to the desktop and put apps there, of course.)
A better plan would be to resolve these interface glitches. The tiles work well for tablets, but not on a laptop or desktop using a mouse, even when many laptops have a touchscreen these days. Then add rudimentary interface elements--like UI buttons to close an app or restart. Ease new users into the operating system by making the most basic functions easier to use, instead of hiding them.