NEW YORK – The release of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system is 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. They were like, ‘We’re just going to use Mom’s computer.’ ”
Windows 8 is the biggest revision of Microsoft Corp.’s operating system since it introduced Windows 95 amid great fanfare 17 years ago. Ultimately, Windows grew into a $14 billion-a-year business and helped make former chief executive Bill Gates the richest man in the world for a time. Now, due to smartphones and tablets, the personal computer industry is slumping. Computer companies 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, a market research firm.
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, the CEO of Silicon Valley software startup Cera Technology and a former Apple employee. Windows 8 is so different, he said, that many Windows users who aren’t technophiles will feel lost, he said.