Windows 8 Requires Microsoft's Instruction, But Also a Willingness to Accept Change

PHOTO: A instructional screen that appears before you start using Windows 8.Microsoft
An instructional screen that appears before you start using Windows 8.

A couple of weeks ago, one of our talented designers was playing around with a Windows 8 tablet I had lying around the office. At 32 years old, she is no computerphobe. Indeed, she is quite the opposite, spending her days and nights in Photoshop and InDesign.

After an hour or so with the tablet, I stopped by to see what she thought of Microsoft's brand-new operating system that was designed for tablets, laptops and all kinds of computers.

She said she loved the colorful design and thought it was a really bold step for Microsoft. Somewhere during the conversation, I took a hold of the tablet and started messing around with it. I began swiping apps in from the left side and then placing apps side by side. I also pinched the homescreen to see a bird's eye view of all the apps on the Start Screen.

She was even more impressed after my quick demo. But despite being incredibly computer savvy, she didn't know about those features just by poking around herself. She needed someone to point them out.

I've seen the same reaction from lots of people in the past few weeks as I have been testing different Windows 8 tablets and laptops. While it's simple for most to get the hang of opening apps and scrolling through the Start Screen (the new home screen with square-shaped applications that replaces the Desktop), other features need to be pointed out and explicitly taught.

That's the reality of Windows 8, which will be finally released to the world Friday. It's the biggest change to happen to Windows since, well, Windows itself. It requires a new set of learned behaviors and it certainly requires effort on the part of Microsoft to educate buyers. But it's not just Microsoft that has to make an effort.

Microsoft's Part

Microsoft is well aware that it has released an operating system that requires users to learn new things.

"We have a different view of product design and usability than I think other companies do," Steve Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live division, said last week when I asked him about what Microsoft was doing to help people learn the new software. "We have optimized the design language of this product to be approachable, fast and fluid, but there are a few things you need to learn."

It's clear that Microsoft actually knows its new software isn't as easy to use as an iPad. "Once you invest a short amount of time in learning those, the system becomes way more powerful than the opposite end of the spectrum, where anyone can walk up and touch it and do something because it is easy," Sinofsky said.

So what is Microsoft doing to help people learn its new software? A few things.

Every new Windows 8 PC, including Microsoft's own Surface, will come with a small card inside the box that explains the basics of Windows 8: Use the mouse in the corners and use touch on the edges.

Also, when you first turn on a Windows 8 PC or even right after you have installed it on an older system, you will get a series of animations, which explain some of the new features, including the Charms, which are the set of shortcuts you can always get to by swiping from the right side.

Microsoft is also launching a full-on advertising campaign, which will show off some of the new features in video. There will be other videos you can watch on, as well.

Lastly, it will be launching 34 more holiday stores nationwide (making 65), where there will be trained sales representatives to help teach and instruct people to set up their new Windows 8 PCs and even upgrade their existing Windows PCs to the new software.

Is Microsoft doing enough? Probably not. Can it do more? Probably. It's really too early to say, although I will say it's easy to start seeing where it needs to spend more effort on education. For instance, it hasn't done a very good job explaining the difference between Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro and Windows RT (a version of Windows 8 that doesn't run older apps) very well yet, even to journalists.

Our Part

But it isn't all on the shoulders of the software giant. Don't get me wrong, it is on Microsoft to educate and give new PC buyers the tools they need to know how to use the new set of computers. But we can do something: We can embrace the change and make the effort to learn because it might just be worth it.

Yes, there is a learning curve. I can attest to that. I can also attest that the operating system does become second nature after you spend time with it, and the change isn't just change for the sake of change. There are worthwhile and useful changes that make things faster to use and push the ways we interact with touchscreens.

Younger users will adapt to the features and ways of navigating much faster. Just look at this video of a 3-year-old who has mastered using Windows 8 with a mouse. The video has nearly 50,000 views since being posted last week.

Older users, the ones who grew up using a Windows desktop and Start Menu (which has been removed in Windows 8), will undoubtedly have a harder time. For them, it's going to require relearning how to close applications or how to switch between them. It's going to require forgetting a lot of things about the way they have used Windows in the past. It's going to require an open mind, which it seems is even something Microsoft itself struggled to come to for the past couple of years.

But with that and Microsoft's educational efforts (if they are good enough), we might discover that Windows 8 is, well, better than the Windows we have gotten so used to.