Gabe Newell gave the quote of the year today: “Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space.” But the question is: why. What is it about Windows 8 that makes it such a disaster? As an experiment, I’ve been using Windows 8 for over two weeks as my main PC. I have no recourse to any other PC or OS to do work or play games. What’s gone wrong?
Metro apps are weird and baffling and makes no sense on a desktop.
The Metro interface you so regularly see on screenshots isn’t actually what you spend your days in. That only appears if you press the Start button, or if you’re in a specific Metro App. Windows 8 comes with a mishmash of desktop (otherwise known as ‘proper’) apps and Metro apps. Paint and Notepad, for instance are desktop apps. But certain essentials are Metro: the default email and Instant Message apps are full screen, big text affairs.
It isn’t just that the Metro apps are bad, although they mostly are. It’s that Metro itself is a distraction engine: it doesn’t let you concentrate on the task your completing. And moving between the two interface paradigms to complete a single piece of work is frustrating and annoying. Metro belongs on tablets. It doesn’t belong on the desktop.
So why are Microsoft so keen to foist it on gamers?
Windows 8 wants to take your money, day in-day out
Windows 8 is the cheapest operating system Microsoft have ever put out. But that's fine, because those who use it will be squeezed for every penny. Windows 8 is all about consumption: about watching Videos, listening to Music, and playing games; all bought from the three stores built into the Windows interface. If you’re a gamer, your credit details are instantly added to your Windows 8 account the moment you log in (mine were transferred from my XBox Live account), and you’re invited to go shopping. The Metro video player is also an aggressive shop. As is the Metro Music player: they all invite you to make further purchases.
The real issue for gamers is the Windows 8 Store, where you can buy new apps. We all know that the most popular apps will be games.
Windows 8 has no interest in promoting high-end PC games
The guidelines for getting your app or game listed in the Windows 8 store are fiercely weighted towards touch and Metro apps. If you want to be listed, your app has to start in two seconds or less. It must include a snapped view (i.e. be playable while taking up a third, or two thirds of the desktop). There are guidelines on how the app behaves in low power state, to the type of content it can include. Frankly, most of today’s games just wouldn’t be allowed on the store: “Your app must not contain content that encourages, facilitates or glamorizes extreme or gratuitous violence, human rights violations, or the creation or use of weapons against a person or animal in the real world.”
Even if you pass the taste test, the Windows Store offers fresh headaches. To create a game for the store, it must be packaged via Windows RunTime, a new development environment introduced in 2011. The good news is that if you create a Windows RunTime app, it will run on both Intel and ARM processors. The bad news is that Microsoft are pushing for RunTime to become the dominant programming environment from today. RunTime is built for Metro, which was built for touch. Microsoft want developers to make touch programs.
Microsoft believe that touch = profit
Right now, Microsoft don’t get a cut from PC software sold and they have to rely on outside sources to make great hardware. Microsoft’s success is predicated on developers and hardware manufacturers doing great work.
That business model was a success story in the last decade, but it knows it can do better: while the Windows division still accounts for the vast majority of Microsoft’s business, it knows that there’s more money to be made. They only have to look at the success of Apple’s hardware, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad, to see that melding a hardware platform to a software or content store can deliver vast profits.
In the long term, Microsoft want to take a cut from any software or content sold on its devices. And Microsoft also knows that the only growing market for computers is in portable devices like laptops and tablets. Microsoft’s strategy is to weld portable computing with desktop computing, by pushing a Metro interface onto the desktop. In the process they get to approve all apps, determine what content reaches customers, and crucially, take a cut from everything sold.
The problem for those who rely on open platforms: Apple showed that that strategy works.
Microsoft are willing to throw their hardware partners under a bus to make Metro work
The announcement of the Surface Pro tablets came as a surprise, not just to consumers, but to PC manufacturers. With the Surface tablet, Microsoft are now setting the precedent that they are willing to compete with their hardware partners by building their own devices. For a third party hardware manufacturer with Windows 8 tablets in development, Microsoft’s moves are a signficant threat. Expect Microsoft’s tablet team to work closely with the Windows 8 developers to optimise and improve their own hardware efforts, and expect the Tablet team to co-opt Windows 8 marketing to promote their own hardware. Expect, too, Microsoft’s own tablet to be significantly better than what their competitors produce.
What’s worrying for PC gamers and hardware manufacturers is that Microsoft are now offering a hardware alternative that competes directly with the traditional PC and laptop. When it comes to their next PC purchase, consumers get a choice: a desktop, a laptop, or a shiny Windows tablet.
There is a place for games on the Windows 8. It’s called the Xbox
There are some clues as to Microsoft’s next-gen gaming strategy in Windows 8. The first is the Xbox Companion - an app that lets you control your Xbox from your PC, tablet or laptop. You can start games, message friends, close apps and move through menus in much the same way that the companion apps for iOS and Android work. I’m still trying to work out ‘why’.
The second is the Xbox Store - a separate app that lets you buy Xbox games from your PC and have them download automatically onto your Xbox hard-drive. Within the Xbox store, hidden behind sub-menus around at the back, there is also a placeholder PC game store.
Yes. Microsoft is happy to sell you PC games. But only from the Xbox store.
I wonder if, when the Xbox 8 is launched, it will essentially be a Metro PC that’s hooked up to your television - able to run all the Metro apps you’ve bought from the Windows 8 store, the Xbox games you’ve bought, and the PC games Microsoft deem acceptable to list in the PC section of the Xbox store. The implications of that to the PC gaming industry are beyond enormous.
Closed platforms close off innovation
The PC’s openness is what makes it great. Everything we take for granted about PC gaming is based around it being open to all to develop, promote and create. On an open platform, an entrepreneur like Gabe can build a digital distribution network that reaches 40 million players. On an open platform, the business case exists for creating expansion cards and upgrades for our hardware that delivers faster, better graphics. On an open platform, a huge business like Blizzard can invest billions to producing a world conquering MMO, safe in the knowledge that they get to own the proceeds. On an open platform, game developers are safe to produce, innovate and create without fear of an approval process, of paying for patch distribution, or their entire business model being outlawed by an ever changing EULA. Open platforms encourage innovation.
Before Gabe Newell called Windows 8 a catastrophe, he called out Apple for their closed nature. “It’s sort of ominous that the world seems to be moving away from open platforms. I’m worried that the things that traditionally have been the source of a lot of innovation are going – there’s going to be an attempt to close those off so somebody will say ‘I’m tired of competing with Google, I’m tired of competing with Facebook, I’ll apply a console model and exclude the competitors I don’t like from my world.’”
At the time, he singled out Apple: “I suspect Apple will launch a living room product that redefines people’s expectations really strongly and the notion of a separate console platform will disappear,” he warned.
Since then, Microsoft turned into the aggressor.