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Windows 10 a good move for Microsoft

Hats off to Microsoft for its “Back to the Future” decision to release a new version of Windows that’s likely to be familiar to most users.

Windows 10 is basically damage control for Microsoft. A couple of years ago, after years of research and development, the company released a radically different version of the world’s most popular computer operating system.

Windows 8, which followed on the heels of the very successful Windows 7, was billed as a “reimagined operating system, from the chipset to the user experience,” that “introduces a totally new interface that works smoothly for both touch and mouse and keyboard.” It almost seems as if they tested Windows 8 on complete computer novices while ignoring the hundreds of million people who already know how to use a computer. And, while Microsoft was certainly correct about the “totally new interface,” it didn’t work all that “smoothly” for mouse and keyboard users.

I use Windows 8.1 on a couple of machines and, while I like it on tablets, I’m not thrilled with the desktop experience though by installing a third-party Start menu and using some other tricks, I’ve been able to make my Windows 8 desktop PC behave more like Windows 7. However, users shouldn’t have to rely on third parties or sophisticated hacks to have an experience that is familiar to them. And even with these hacks, Microsoft’s radically new (and I would argue inefficient) so-called “modern” interface still pops up unexpectedly at times, which can be a major annoyance.

Microsoft heard, but at first misunderstood the outcry over Windows 8 and tried to sooth users by issuing Windows 8.1, which brought back the “Start” menu. But instead of giving people a menu that looks familiar, all it did was bring up that new modern interface, which makes matters even worse.

As far as I can tell, Windows 10 appears to address at least some of the user-interface problems though I’ll withhold judgment until I can actually test the final version of the operating system — likely sometime next year.

Windows 8 is hardly the only popular product to suffer from an unwelcome interface change. Last year Google made changes to Gmail and Maps that continue to annoy me. They took away the “search nearby” box in Maps that I used to use to find businesses near addresses such as a hotel near a convention center. You can still do that in Maps, but it’s harder now.

Google also changed the user interface on Gmail, making the common task of adding a CC or a BCC (blind copy) to a message a lot less obvious. And there was the famous Apple iOS 7 release that angered a lot of iPhone and iPad users and caused Mashable to write “Navigating iOS 7 has been far less intuitive than previous iterations.”

 I’m still struggling with the major user interface change that Microsoft made in 2007 when it introduced a new version of Microsoft Office which, according to a Microsoft blog post, “replaced the traditional menus and toolbars with this new Ribbon so that you can find and use the features you need — and use — a lot easier.” They claimed to have “made it so that it’s intuitive for you and, perhaps most importantly, easy to get accustomed to,” but I’m still not accustomed to having to hunt around to find an icon on a ribbon versus accessing a feature from a clearly marked and well-organized set of menus. To deal with it, I wound up purchasing a third party add-in called “ClassicMenu” that gives me the option to using the old menus.

Ironically, this is only an issue on the Windows version of Word. Apple insists that Mac apps have traditional menus so even though Microsoft offers the Ribbon on Mac Office; it didn’t take away the menus.

And therein lies the solution to interface changes. It’s fine to add features and new interface options, but companies should give users a choice as to whether to use a new way of interacting with a product or stick with what’s tried and true.

While Apple has made its share of user interface blunders, it got it right in 2011 when it introduced Launchpad as part of its Mac OS Lion release. The new interface replaces the Mac desktop with an iOS-like full screen array of icons that let you launch apps with a single click. But Launchpad is optional and it doesn’t launch by default. Mac users who want it are welcome to use it while the rest of us continue business as usual, knowing that it’s there if we want it.

So, software developers, please respect your user base when revising your products. I understand your need to come out with new products (and hence new revenue) and convince your user base to upgrade to something newer and better, but the way to do that is to make real improvements that enhance the user experience without having to force people to change the way they with your products.