Windows 8.1 is beginning to make the pre-release rounds with the influencers as this post by Ed Bott in ZDNet documents. Version 8.1 brings me back to the 1990s and 1980s for various related reasons because it is not unlike what happened with Windows 3.0 when it was followed by version 3.1.
In the Windows 3.0 era Microsoft could do little wrong. It was before the Justice Department and the European Union started wondering how they could continue to monopolize the market legally. But back in the 1980s it was all good. Windows 3.0 liberated us from monotonous green screens and multiple confusing attempts at application level user interfaces; so what if there were bugs? That’s the environment that 3.1 was launched into and it’s not unreasonable to say that version of the OS launched the company on a decades long trajectory that helped build the industry and made Bill Gates the richest man in the world.
This time with 8.1, the tide has turned. There are many critical voices about version 8.0 and it’s shortcomings and the 8.1 release is more of a rescue mission than 3.1 ever was. But Microsoft isn’t the only company to fall from grace with its critics and the experience can do a lot to help a company grow we saw that in spades in another instance from the 1980s — the introduction of New Coke.
You may not be old enough to remember that one but on April 23, 1985 Coca-Cola decided almost unilaterally that it had to change the Coke formula. The recipe had been almost unchanged from the company’s founding in the late nineteenth century and the company was famous for efforts to protect it that made the Atlanta headquarters look like Fort Knox.
The short story is that customers didn’t simply express displeasure or talk about having to get used to it, they spontaneously rebelled to the extent that the company had a public relations disaster on its hands. New Coke made a graceful exit under the circumstances and became Coke II but whatever it was called the company learned a few things about its position with its customers.
First, customers liked Coke just as it was, an important finding. Most importantly though this may have been the first time in history that a company discovered that its brand wasn’t exactly its exclusive property. Customers have a great deal to say about a brand and what it means and for me some of what we understand today about brands can be traced directly to that moment when the customers effectively told Coke, “We’ll tell you when something’s wrong and in need of fixing. Otherwise don’t fix what ain’t broken.”
Fast forward to 2013 and version 8.1. Perhaps this is Microsoft’s New Coke moment. It’s not that the company has never before faced customer displeasure over a release of the operating system. Vista was a notable moment in customer disappointment and parenthetically it made me a Mac user and I expect it had that effect on others too. This time, Microsoft is responding with something approaching customer empathy.
The long list of fixes that Windows 8.1 will deliver is an interesting mix of making the user interface easier to work with and bringing back things that worked and that people had come to expect from Windows — I am talking about the Start button.
One of the more puzzling aspects of Windows 8.0 was the way users started using it. Over a period of years and several generations of the OS, people had come to rely on the start button. It was familiar and regardless of whether Microsoft had found a better way to use the product, customers had figured out that the start button was fixed in the firmament.
Version 8.1 is an important moment, maybe even a New Coke moment for Microsoft and not a moment too soon. I think the real learning from this experience is that the operating system is no longer the center of the customer’s universe. With so much computing going on line and on so many different hardware platforms, the idea of a PC based operating system acting as the gateway to all things online seems quaint. In fact the idea of software living and running on a local machine is becoming old school.
So perhaps this episode will say something to Microsoft about customer expectations and the value of tinkering with things in the product that many people had considered settled issues. It might even give Microsoft the freedom to deploy resources to pursue other business rather than focusing on re-inventing the PC operating system every few years.