Windows 8 was enough of a fiasco that Microsoft was willing to skip a whole version number, all the way to Windows 10, just to put some symbolic distance between the past and the future of Windows.
But for all its problems, Microsoft executives say that people who used Windows 8 regularly actually liked it a lot.
For Chuck Friedman, the Microsoft Corporate VP in charge of the Windows shell — the inside baseball name for the parts of Windows that you actually use, like navigating files and folders — the Windows 8 situation presented a “fascinating entrepreneurial moment,” he tells Business Insider.
When he took over in this role in July 2014, Microsoft was just about a year from shipping the final retail version of Windows 10. His job, then, was a balancing act between isolating the things that made people happy about using Windows 8, while also tearing out the stuff that earned it its bad reputation.
“Instead of blame the past, it’s embrace the past,” Friedman says.
A big part of that was learning to accept Windows 8 for what it was, not what it could have been, Friedman says. If they weren’t willing to bring pieces of Windows 8 along to Windows 10, not only would they risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater — there would be a bigger risk of completely alienating those who upgraded from 8 to 10.
But just adding Windows 8’s touchscreen-friendly interface together with Windows 7’s more traditional Windows experience wouldn’t have been enough, either. Simply mashing two things together would have caused more problems and confusion for users upgrading from both operating systems, and it’s key to maintain “empathy for the user,” he says.
“It’s not good enough if you’re just bringing the world together,” Friedman says. So Friedman decided they needed to start over and rethink what people actually wanted from Windows.
For instance, one of the biggest criticisms of the original version of Windows 8 was not having the traditional Start menu (though it was later added back in 2013’s Windows 8.1 update), so that was a logical place to begin.
But it wasn’t enough: That was just meeting the most minimum expectations.
“It turns out you don’t get credit for having a Start menu,” Friedman says. “You need create a reason for people to buy.”
Best of both worlds
And so, Windows 10 debuted a Start menu that also works in some of Windows 8’s “Live Tiles” design, which presents information to you, like the weather or your next meeting, without forcing you to open the relevant app. It also added Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual digital assistant, which can automate a lot of tasks.
Plus, Windows 10 took inspiration from the “super snappy” performance of Apple’s iPad, so even when you are using it as a touchscreen, it’s more responsive than Windows 8 before it…even though most of the swiping gestures were carried over.
Friedman notes that people aren’t necessarily looking to buy a tablet, or a laptop, or even Windows itself — people are looking for a way to get stuff done, whether that’s gaming or making spreadsheets. That means less of a focus on any given feature, and more emphasis on what it’s like to actually use.
Friedman understands the stakes better than most: Before he was in charge of the Windows “shell” (the term for the part of Windows that people see, as opposed to its underlying guts), he was an exec with Microsoft’s troubled smartphone division. No matter how technically proficient Windows Phone was, it never got much traction in the market against iPhone or Android, because there it didn’t provide enough of an advantage in getting things done over its competitors.
“There wasn’t a reason to buy it,” Friedman admits.