With Windows 10, will Microsoft truly listen to customers?

Has Microsoft really learned from the mistakes of Windows 8?

Microsoft launched its "largest-ever open collaborative development effort" at the start of October to try to ensure that Windows 10, its next operating system, is a success.

The new initiative, called Windows Insider Program, offers participants a technical preview of Windows 10 and updates throughout the development period to use and provide feedback on. (The final product is slated for release in mid- to late 2015.)

The company apparently wants to avoid the same mistakes that it made with Windows 8 which was developed and released without listening to customers and widely shunned by businesses and consumers alike.

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Is Microsoft genuinely changing the way it builds its proprietary software? Does it really intend to develop the next version of Windows in collaboration with its customers, in a similar fashion to some community-based open source projects? That's what the term "open collaborative development effort" looks clearly designed to suggest.

Or is this really nothing more than a publicity exercise? Although there's some substance to the announcement, Michael A. Silver, a research vice president at Gartner, says much of it is just PR hype. "Collaborative development is really a bit much," he says. "Extended feedback is probably more accurate."

By launching the program, Microsoft signals that management changes within the company have resulted in a different attitude to customers, Silver says.

Windows 8 ignored peoples' comments," he continues. "Microsoft management at the time thought [it] knew what users wanted and made decisions about Windows 8 without listening to anyone." This was largely due to the presence of Steve Sinofsky, the former president of the Windows division. "The way he ran businesses ... largely reflected his personality," Silver says. Sinofsky left Microsoft abruptly at the end of 2012, after Windows 8 had been released.

Is 'Open Collaborative Development' Possible?

To what extent, then, will feedback from the Windows Insider Program actually result in any changes to Windows 10? Wes Miller, a former Microsoft employee who's now a research vice president at Directions on Microsoft, expects hundreds of thousands of people to sign up to the program. The logistical task of handling the amount of feedback that this many people can generate may be impractical.

"During the development of Windows XP, we were inundated with feedback from the Beta 2 release, so we just dismissed a lot of it," he says. "I am very curious as to how [Microsoft] will handle it this time around."

Miller also remains sceptical that customer feedback will cause Microsoft to make major changes to what it's planning. "The company will certainly welcome feedback, but if 50% of people say that they don't want Metro (the Windows 8 look) on the enterprise desktop, it still won't go away," he says. "The development process may be 'collaborative,' but it will have to fit with the direction the company wants to go."

[ Tips: How to Install the Windows 10 Technical Preview ]

It's interesting to note that, by inviting feedback and "collaboration", Microsoft takes the polar opposite approach to that adopted by Apple, a direct rival in the smartphone and desktop operating space. Apple is famous for not listening to its customers and, instead, providing them with features (and products) that they "didn't know they wanted."

The fact that Apple can apparently pull off this style of development successfully, while Microsoft can't as it learned from the Windows 8 experience says a lot about the differences between the two companies.

"Apple is better at being mystical and understanding what people want ahead of time. This time, Microsoft has to collaborate" to make sure it does Windows 10 right, Miller says. "It's also a reflection on (new Windows boss) Terry Myerson, who's more collaborative by nature than the previous leader."

What's In a Name? A Lot, for Microsoft

The name for the new operating system took many observers by surprise, as most expected Windows 9 to follow Windows 8.

The official line appears to be that the jump to Windows 10 signifies that the new product represents a next-generation operating system that runs on everything from Internet of Things devices to phones, tablets, PCs, servers, the Xbox and the cloud. Unofficially it's widely believed that the jump to Windows 10 helps Microsoft distance its new product from Windows 8.

[ Analysis: Microsoft's Next Operating System Fuses Windows 7 and 8 ]

Another reason that's been proposed is that the string "Windows 9" has been widely used in third-party application code to detect whether a system is running either Windows 95 or Windows 98:

if (os.startsWith("Windows 9") || os.equals("Windows Me"))

Since applications with this type of code may be unable to run on Windows 9 if it falsely detects that the operating system is Windows 95 or 98, the theory goes, the decision was made to avoid the problem by skipping to Windows 10. This hasn't been confirmed by Microsoft, and it's likely that avoiding this type of problem is a lucky by-product of skipping Windows 9 rather than the reason it was skipped.

Windows 10 Emphasis So Far Has Been Enterprise Features

So far, Microsoft's Windows 10 revelations have focused on the enterprise, as consumer preview builds aren't expected until early 2015. The reason is that enterprises have by and large shunned Windows 8, so attracting these organizations to Windows 10 is the priority at this stage.

[ Commentary: Why IT Will Love Windows 10 ]

"This is the upgrade path from Windows 7. This is what Microsoft has to win or lose," Miller says. If Windows 10 is solid, he adds, "It's inevitable that enterprises will adopt it."

Or as Windows expert Paul Thurrott put it on his Supersite for Windows, "This first pre-release version of Windows 10 has the very specific goal of convincing Windows 7 users that there is a future for them that includes the best parts of Windows 8 with none of the tomfoolery."

The business features that Microsoft emphasizes at the moment include the following:

  • An interface that's familiar enough for enterprise workers currently using Windows 7 to adopt without requiring an enormous amount of training something that wasn't the case with Windows 8.
  • Built-in device management capabilities so that mobile device management (MDM) systems can manage PCs and laptops as well as mobile devices.
  • A customizable Windows store that can include a corporate app store for licensed or bespoke apps.
  • The capability to separate users' personal data from corporate data on all devices smartphones and tablets as well as PCs which could be valuable for security and compliance purposes.

For enterprises, though, it's now a question of watching, waiting and this time providing feedback to Microsoft about Windows 10 as it develops. The Technical Preview is due to end April 15, 2015. It's likely that a more precise release date for the operating system will be announced at Microsoft's Build 2015 developer conference at around the same time. Upgrade details and pricing are also expected then though Microsoft slipped up and briefly leaked Windows 10 app volume purchase program information last week.

This story, "With Windows 10, will Microsoft truly listen to customers?" was originally published by CIO.

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