Shout “Windows 8” and you’re likely to hear “Vista” echoed back at you. For Microsoft, Windows 8 has received a Vista-like reception and it’s showing in tepid sales and an abysmal market share.

Windows 8 was released to the general public on October 26, 2012, over five months ago, and only just recently captured 3% of the total desktop operating system market share.

When it was released in October 2009, Windows 7 gobbled up 10% in the same amount of time. Rubbing more salt into its wounds, Windows Vista still retains a market share lead (5%) over the new (and vastly better) 8.

So why is that? Why is Windows 8 still sputtering and choking along? We have a few theories.

RT? Really Terrible?

As always, Microsoft took something simple, and made it annoying.

To clarify, there are two retail versions: Windows 8 and Windows 8 Professional. Then there’s Windows 8 Enterprise that Microsoft will push at corporations and such. Simple.

There’s also Windows RT, which isn’t Windows even though it’s called “Windows” because RT doesn’t run a single application written for Windows – not a one. Got that? Zero. And that is annoying.

Early adopters of Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet were probably burned the most on this. Hardware-wise, the Surface RT is a very good tablet. It has an excellent display and superior build quality. Microsoft over engineered it and by all accounts, the Surface RT has a lot going for it, except it has an anemic processor and Windows RT.

Of course, it might not be nearly so confusing if Microsoft hadn’t slapped a full-fledged desktop environment onto RT. If it only ran Metro and Windows Store apps, it would be a more focused product. But RT is a three-legged dog in terms of execution and just makes the Windows franchise look confused.

Plus, using the desktop on a touchscreen (any touchscreen) is an exercise in patience and the Surface RT doesn’t even come with a stylus or pen to help users tap buttons and manage windows.

The Start screen and the @&#*ing Windows Store

To adapt a line from the movie Barfly – I don’t hate the Start screen, I just feel better when it’s not around.

The Start screen is a touch-centric interface. On a tablet, it makes total sense. To me, the average desktop user though, it’s kind of … big? I don’t need an entire monitor to launch apps and Start flops as a place where I want to spend a great deal of time. In fact, my most oft-used apps are already pinned to the taskbar.

But even if you are using a tablet, do you really want to use the Start screen? It doesn’t do anything to really hold my attention and as I already mentioned, the app offerings are lacking. So while the potential is there, it’s likely not enough for most people to justify converting their existing systems over or upgrading to new hardware. Why start using a completely different interface when you can get the same apps and functionality out of a competing device such an iPad or Kindle?

Also …

The Windows Store is just awful. It’s disorganized, clunky, confusing and about 99% the apps are terrible. Instead of being a polished place to browse and buy apps, it’s just sad and lonely and even the most basic stuff you can get on the internet for free, costs money here. And it seems no one wants to make Windows Store apps because Microsoft has taken to bribing paying developers in a desperate attempt to spur interest in the platform.

Even the apps that come with Windows 8 are almost all destined to deletion because there are so many better pre-existing apps but oh, that’s right, RT can’t use those existing apps so you have to use Windows Store apps and man, are they unsatisfying. To date, I’ve uninstalled all but four (it comes with something like 13) of the apps that originally came with the system.

How many Apple Mac owners uninstall all the apps that come with their computer?

Pricey hardware

The Surface RT has (aside from being slow and Windows RT) one giant fatal flaw: it’s $499.

$499 to use a tablet that runs none of millions of existing applications and programs. $499 to jump into an app ecosystem that is untested and has a scarcity of quality. $499, and you only get 32 GB of storage and no keyboard (or simple pointing device).

Want to add the Touch Cover? You’ll have to pony up another $100.

Meanwhile, there’s the Surface Pro, which does run regular old Windows 8 (so you can at least tap into the big vein of software that’s available to every Windows user). It’s also a powerful desktop-replacement quality computer, so it will run everything quite ably.

Problem, even it starts at $899 for the 64 GB version (add $100 for 128 GB) and again, you don’t get a keyboard. Of course, you can add any USB keyboard you want but if you really want to take advantage of the Surface’s portability and appeal, the Touch Cover will set you back $119.

By way of comparison, an equally equipped iPad – 128 GB/Wi-Fi/Smart Cover/Apple Wireless Keyboard – is about $900.

That’s still quite a chunk of change but the iPad is arguably the best tablet in the world and you can get the top model from Apple with the most essential accessories, for less than a barebones Surface Pro with half the storage space. Bonus, with an iPad you have access to the Apple App Store and its 800,000+ apps vs. the Windows Store (shudder) with its paltry 50,000.

Of course, if you’re really frugal minded, you can just buy a Nexus 7, Nexus 10, or Kindle Fire HD for over half the price of either a Surface or iPad. In fact, you can buy a Nexus 10 plus cover and keyboard for less than the cost of one Surface RT.

The point is, there is a plethora of device options, they don’t run Windows but that is a sacrifice many people are willing to make and have been making for quite some time.

Pricey Software

And what if you simply want to install Windows 8 on existing hardware?

If you want to upgrade to Windows 8, Microsoft wants you to pay $119.

If you own a recent model Apple Mac, you can upgrade to the latest version of OS X for $39.  Meanwhile, Android is free.

Upgrading is almost completely unnecessary

Windows 7 is still perfectly useful and modern and its millions of adherents understand this.

When someone is compelled to upgrade their operating system, it means that the new version is an offer they can’t refuse. It addresses needs not being fulfilled with the current version. Windows 7 was a must-have upgrade because it fixes glaring problems in Vista and is demonstratively better than XP or any of the 9x versions.

Windows 8 is not a must-have upgrade. It is a great desktop OS (though the Control Panel is still a mess) and is in fact, better than 7 in almost (see: Control Panel) every way. 8 also introduces a refined task manager, a ribbonized Explorer (which, I have to say, I like), excellent multimonitor support, and much more.

However, it’s not revolutionary. If there’s one thing Microsoft does well by now, it’s the desktop. As a full-fledged upgrade though? If Windows 8 were just being released as desktop software (with the traditional Start button/Start menu) it would be more like Windows 7.5.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Apple after all has been updating OS X incrementally every year. Each year, they come out with a new point release, slap a big cat on it, charge existing OS X users $39, and install it on all their hardware from there on out. Nobody really complains about this and it keeps Apple relevant.

Meanwhile, Microsoft waits years and years between releases so when it flubs everything with a Vista or an 8, it’s a big deal – who wants to wait 5 years (the time between XP and Vista) only to say “I waited for this?”

The more people feel let down, the more they’re liable to jump to alternatives like Apple, Google, Ubuntu, or simply not upgrade.

Are you feeling Blue?

So how will Microsoft address these issues? The answer may come as early as this summer when it releases its first update to Windows 8. At this time, everyone is calling it Windows Blue, but it’s more than likely going to be known officially as Windows 8.1.

Such a point release would be a significant step in the right direction for the company. In the past we’d likely just see a service pack while we waited (years) for a new Windows. This however, essentially gives Windows 8 a new name, a continuation of the prior product but still distinct like Windows 3.1 or Windows 98 SE. Hopefully this will help Windows 8 distance itself from its current taint. Kind of like how OS X gained more widespread acceptance from the Mac community when it was updated to 10.1 and especially 10.2.

Early reports reveal that Microsoft is addressing many of the issues that hinder the Start interface. Whether these improvements make it wholly better remains to be seen but at least the company is proactively working on it.

Ideally, it’d be nice if RT transformed into something more focused and useful. One solution would be to drop the desktop environment altogether and just give RT users Start and apps to work with but given the current state of both, that doesn’t sound like a very attractive device. Since the desktop will probably stay, Microsoft can at least offer Surface RT buyers a stylus or a digitizer pen such as the one that comes with the Surface Pro.

Additionally, Microsoft could spur product development of Windows-branded ARM devices by lowering or eliminating RT’s price to OEMs (reported to be as high as $85).

Finally, $499 for a tablet that doesn’t run any existing software and $899 for one that does is laughable. If Surface is to be Windows 8’s hardware standard bearer, Microsoft might have to take a page out of Google and Amazon’s playbooks and sell its stuff at a cut rate price. The only way it will dig into Apple’s market share is if it subverts them by offering comparable hardware and software at affordable prices. One out of three is not going to win any converts or soak up new buyers any time soon.

I have little reason to think Microsoft won’t work out the kinks and quiet many of its critics but for those of us who use their products day in and day out, and also benefit as a result of their success, it can’t happen soon enough.

Profile Photo for Matt Klein Matt Klein
Matt Klein has nearly two decades of technical writing experience. He's covered Windows, Android, macOS, Microsoft Office, and everything in between. He's even written a book, The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8.
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