With the undeniable success that is Windows 7, Microsoft is ploughing full steam ahead with the next incarnation of Windows, imaginatively codenamed: Windows 8. The release of the Developer Preview has answered a few questions about new features, however there are already grumblings about the difficulty to use and the lack of support for legacy apps.
With no direct experience of it though, I’m not going to second guess or deride it here, instead, I have a couple of ideas for the next step in Windows evolution that I hope Microsoft are either a) already thinking of or b) willing to take on board.
The big daddy of the document world, the most used office suite bar none. Others have tried to topple its crown, most notably Open Office, the open source alternative to MS Office and for a while it looked promising. MS pretty much ignored the shot across the bow that Open Office fired and, unfortunately, in the end they were proven right. OO can be a pig to get working right, I myself chucked in the towel one day after spending an hour trying to get the dictionary feature alone to work with no success, and I begrudgingly re-installed Office in an attempt to actually get some work done.
Google on the other hand didn’t so much as fire a warning shot as they did point Suite-seeking missiles at Microsoft and then push the big red button labelled “FIRE EVERYTHING!” (say it in a screaming Gary Oldman voice, alá Leon, for added effect!) Their Google Docs was just suddenly there one day, open to all, free to use for the basics and even if you wanted more functionality, it was available for a low cost monthly fee.
Ok, while things likes its version of Excel (simply called Spreadsheet) lacked the complexity of a full-bore MS Excel, you have to remember it’s a very small percent of users who can use Excel to its full potential. For most, Google Docs did the job and it did it without fuss, without becoming a massive resource hog, coupled with regular automatic backups preventing you from losing anything and the key factor (I believe) its availability.
Microsoft’s response was Office 365, its own, paid for, web-based Office Suite which in itself is very good, but there is no free option, Microsoft still want your money to use their product. Of course you get the free trial similar to the trial package installed on new PCs/laptop but it’s time-limited. It’s also slightly more expensive the Google Docs.
I know businesses that run on Google Docs, non-techy people who, without any network experience, set up their own shared folders, reducing the need to be emailing across the latest versions of documents that already exist in the cloud. And when their staff were out on the road, smartphones provide push email and constant access to the work office environment. No longer did you need to wait for someone to get back into the office to update a spread sheet with the latest order numbers, the staff do it on their smartphones or 3G-enabled tablets while having a coffee after a client meeting. Orders are truly live and there is minimal delay.
How does this tie into my idea for Office and Windows 8? Well, I’m in a situation that a lot of you are probably familiar with, being the only IT person in my family, it invariably falls to me to fix any issues with the rest of the families laptops, PCs and even smartphones. I once joked the only reason my Dad rings me anymore is not to chat and catch up, but he’s just lost a document off his work laptop and needs my help!
So it was little surprise when my little brother landed me with the job of setting up his girlfriend’s new laptop, during which time she felt obliged to rant and rave at me about when she was buying the laptop and the sales person said, “Ok, now you’ve picked the laptop, would you like to buy the software (MS Office) to go with it?” She was outraged, she had always assumed Office just came installed on PC’s and laptops. I argued the point with her that MS Office has always been separate and you can’t expect someone like Microsoft to give away something like Office for free when it makes them so much money, it got the stage where I was pointing out other examples of this in action such as buying the base level of a new car model and then expecting all the bells and whistles to be added for free, it just doesn’t happen, but do you know what?
She was right
Why are Microsoft still charging for full bore Office? Why not put in a bare-bones version that is completely free to use? Sure they’ll lose some revenue but it’s a bold step, a step I think, that’s needed. Microsoft is worried about losing ground to rivals apps? It’s already happening! While I’ll admit they haven’t exactly buried their head in the sand with regard to the threat Google Apps provides, I feel they’re treating the problem a little bit like the music industry is treating piracy, that is to say, going about it the wrong way.
Microsoft need to embrace what’s happening and realise people who just need Office to do the basics don’t want to be forking out €80 to €100 for a software package and only use 10% of its potential when they could have gotten something else for free that does exactly what they need it to do, it’s only breeding resentment.
The old days of Office being the only kid on the block, the only choice people had, are over. Sure, there are still people who can only think Microsoft when you say Office application suite, but think about this. The next generation are always on the way, more tech-savvy then any generation before it, you have kids learning to use an iPad before they can read a full sentence, do you think they’re going to grow up with blinkers on? Not realising they have a choice? I don’t.
One thing Microsoft cannot afford to overlook in Windows 8 is connectivity, specifically, cross-platform connectivity. Mobiles, texting, Twitter, Facebook, we are all connected and almost always reachable, thanks to technology, the only real bottlenecks are platform compatibilities. I’m typing this article on a laptop running Windows 7, my smartphone runs Android 2.3, the iPad 2 on my workmates desk runs Apples iOS, all very different pieces of software from very different vendors yet thanks to things like Dropbox, we can, with little effort, communicate almost anything.
This demonstrates a very important fact, just because Microsoft, Google and Apple don’t like to play ball together, that doesn’t mean they can’t. There are people out there who make a living designing, developing and implementing custom software solutions to solve a problem that, when you think about it, shouldn’t really be a problem in the first place!
The sooner the big boys realise and embrace the fact that all we want to do as a species is communicate openly with each other the better. Vendors need to stop working on ways to lock down their OS’s, to stop retreating into their own space and recognise the fact that the world out there is bigger than them.
The battle to be the best OS should be based on a balance of who has the best functionality, the most intuitive interface, it should be ease of use combined with the ability to connect cross-platform with minimal effort. Human beings like things to be easy, and while a person with an IT background might have no problem setting up a home network, the majority of people just want something to work as soon as it’s taken out of the box and admittedly, we all just want our lives to be that little bit easier.
Imagine if tomorrow, the barriers fell and going forward, things just work seamlessly. You get an email on your smart phone of a friend on holiday and instead of passing around your smartphone you whip the picture towards large LCD tv in front of you. The TV (having synced previously with the your phone) instantly displays the picture for all to see.
Software like this is not farfetched (Google search Bump for iPhone and Android) all that needs to be done is allow it to become integrated and truly cross platform compatible, we just need one of the big companies to be the one to take that first step in realising you can have an open platform and still maintain a customer base when the features of your OS are the most intuitive and user friendly.
C’mon Microsoft, step up, or step off.