When the 3.7 million computer users who are testing Windows 10 go to use certain new features in the software, a small question appears in the bottom right hand corner of their screen: do you like how this new feature looks, or not?
It’s not just an idle question that Microsoft is asking the testers, whom it refers to as “Insiders” even though anyone is able to join the test program in the run up to the launch of Windows 10 a few months from now.
The question represents a whole new way of doing business for Microsoft, the once dominant software company that, with Windows 10, is hoping to make itself relevant again by learning some humility.
Back at the company’s headquarters in Redmond Washington, the man in charge of “user experience” for Windows, Chaitanya Sareen, is counting those answers. The question, which has to do with what the Windows task bar looks like when the user is taking advantage of Windows 10’s new virtual desktops, is a “straight vote” by the public, says Sareen. It’s a public referendum. Whichever look gets the most votes will be how Microsoft implements that feature in the final version.
The company has released two dozen versions of Windows in the past, but it has never asked the public to vote on features like that before.
Joe Belfiore, the Corporate Vice President in charge of Microsoft’s operating system group, says the shift to asking users what they want is a direct result of the “mixed reaction” users had to Windows 8.
Removing secrecy culture
At the same time Microsoft was developing Windows 8, it was also working on its Surface tablet, the first time the company had ever released a computer that competed directly with the PCs built by its business partners. It decided to keep Surface a secret, and quickly a culture a secrecy permeated the whole development of Windows 8, he says.
“Secrecy was the dominant cultural theme in Microsoft in the Windows 8 timeframe,” Belfiore told The Australian Financial Review.
When the public finally got to use Windows 8, it was shocked by what it saw, to say the least. Almost three years after Windows 8 was released, the operating system is yet to take off, and still languishes far behind Windows 7 and, according to a recent study of internet users conducted by Net Applications, even behind Windows XP as the most popular version of Windows. Only 11 per cent of Microsoft customers use Windows 8.1, compared to 58 per cent using Windows 7 and 17 per cent using Windows XP.
XP was released in 2001, meaning that for many of its customers Microsoft is more than a decade behind its rivals.
That explains why, when Windows 10 is released – Microsoft isn’t saying when, but the upgrade is expected some time around July – it will be first version the company has ever given away free of charge to existing Windows users.
At the Microsoft’s Build conference in San Francisco last week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said Microsoft is hoping to have a billion customers on Windows 10 within the first two or three of its launch, making the platform bigger than Google’s Android and Chrome and Apple’s iOS and Mac OS platforms, combined.
Learning from Windows 8
Says Belfiore: “Having seen the way Windows 8 played out, we thought it was appropriate to change the way we did business, so we moved to a model that’s way more open.
“It’s a huge cultural change. In reviews we’re doing with senior people in the (Windows 10) team, one of the main data points they’re using is the current quantitative analysis of the Insider’s view of what needs to be addressed and what doesn’t.
“It’s not the only data point we use, but it has become a real big one.”
The newfound willingness to get feedback from the public is not without its risks.
Microsoft’s HoloLens, a radically new virtual reality headset that’s meant to become the fourth platform for running Windows 10 applications – the others being PCs, phones and Microsoft’s “Surface Hub” electronic whiteboards – has been showed off to developers and to the press well before it’s ready for release, leading to mixed reviews. So too with the mobile phone version of Windows 10, which is lagging behind the PC version and won’t be released until later this year.
“You’ve never seen our work at the two-thirds done point before, so people are suddenly thinking we won’t be ready”, says Belfiore.
Nevertheless, the cultural shift shows every appearance of being company wide.
In the past several months, Microsoft has released free versions of its treasured Office applications for iPhone and Android users, potentially increasing the value of Android and iPhone and at the same time undermining Microsoft’s ability to get users to pay to use Office. In April, Nadella announced that the free software had been downloaded more than 100 million times, double the number of paying commercial users for Office 365, the commercial version of Office.
At the Build conference, Microsoft bowed to third party software developers and released tools that would let iPhone and Android apps easily be converted to Windows 10. Its software development tools, which once steadfastly ran only on Windows, now run on Apple Mac OS and on Linux PCs, where a lot of app developers prefer to work. And Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure, now takes advantage of popular open-source tools, such as Node.js and Hadoop.
All of those moves are designed to set the stage for Windows 10, which Microsoft is hoping will reclaim the ground it lost to Apple, Google, Amazon and other rivals.
But first it has to finish Windows 10. Though most of the components are complete and have been merged back into a finished product, it’s still out for testing amongst Insiders. Indeed, the testing is only going to accelerate in coming weeks, says Belfiore, now that the hard task of merging the components has been completed, and Microsoft can focus on polishing off the look and feel of the finished product. Even after Windows 10 has been released, Insiders will still be able to download yet-to-be-released updates, so additional features can be tested and polled.
“We’re totally bought in,” says Belfiore.
Sareen, the Microsoft exec in charge of the Windows user experience, says it’s not just active polls of Insiders that are determining what Windows 10 will look like, but “passive polls”, too.
When too many testers stop clicking on a feature, indicating they don’t like or need it, Microsoft quietly removes that feature from the next test version, he says.
Had the software company done the same with Windows 8, the operating system might itself have been quietly removed before it was ever released.
John Davidson attended Microsoft’s Build conference as a guest of Microsoft.