Windows 8 was an incredible change, if not quite incredible. It wasn't until Windows 8.1 that a lot of the kinks were smoothed out. Now, Microsoft's annual BUILD conference is coming in April, and rumor has it that Windows 9 might be showing up. That's all well and good, but please Microsoft, don't go backtracking on us.
Rumors of a brand new operating system—codenamed "Threshold" and probably synonymous with "Windows 9"—come from the historically well-connected Paul Thurrott, who says the the new OS will be announced this spring, but probably doesn't exist yet in any way, shape, or form. Windows 9, if it is called that, marks a big opportunity for Microsoft, a decision point at which it can stalwartly stay the course, or running screaming back to Windows 7.
Or it can just change what the damn thing is called.
If Windows 8 has one truly gigantic challenge, it is fighting the uphill battle against itself. Windows 8 has never been unusable. Yes, it has always been weird, but that weirdness is inherent—intentional even—and is tied up in its ambitious goal of being the next PC OS, and the next table OS at the same time. That's no small order.
And so millions of users (many unsuspecting) were dropped into an all new tile-based world with Charm bars and full-screen apps and side-swipey touchpad gestures, with few traditional Windows touchstones to grab ahold of. Sure, there was a desktop, but with no Start menu/button, it'd lost its corner stone.
And that would have been one thing, if not for the jank that accompanied it. Windows 8 was never broken, but much of its new interface was unexplained and often alien. Fullscreen apps could snap and share the screen, but only at a bizarre 30:70 split. A press of the keyboard's Windows button was all it took to be catapulted into what felt like a completely different world. Even the friendly, familiar desktop looked worse than ever thanks to scaling issues, and that pesky missing Start button.
To top it all off, Windows 8 came with no built-in way to explain itself. No auto-start or even optional tutorials to explain to Grandpa what the hell was going on. It was sink or swim, and the water was shallow but chilly.
It's no wonder some people are repulsed by the notion of Windows 8. It was a bad trip.
But most of that—virtually all of it—is better now. Windows 8.1 was little more than a package of small tweaks, but they made a huge impact on Windows as a whole, without breaking anything that was already working. Tiny things like an included tutorial, and a Metro background to match the desktop helped to smooth over so much of what was uncanny and unpleasant about the first go-round.
And yet still, it didn't quite take off. The great, free upgrade made it to fewer than than 25 million PCs. Maybe the biggest flaw that Windows 8.1 just couldn't fix was the part where you still have to say "Windows 8" to get to it.
At this point—and all along—there's no need to backtrack. Windows 8.1 is a great operating system in its own way. And the core tenants of Windows 8 are as vital and apt as they ever were. This isn't Windows Vista; Windows 8 has always come with its fair share of under-the-hood improvements, which served as a tempting call to even the most staunch anti-Metro advocates.
And where going to "Windows 9" is the perfect opportunity to run away from Metro entirely, it's also a chance to shed bad memories, and push forward with a product that's only been getting better, without the painful stigma it's accumulated.
What Windows 9 is is all speculation and rumor right now. But possible changes include a windowed, desktop mode for Metro apps, and the triumphant (?) return of the traditional Start Menu. And though both of those are pretty explicit admissions of defeat on Microsoft's part, neither of them would be particularly horrible or retrograde.
Windowed Metro apps could help keep the Windows App Store ecosystem afloat—perhaps make it more feasible than ever—while the option for a Start Menu lets enterprise folks and other die-hard desktop junkies stay away from Live Tiles forever. The danger comes only if that's not where it ends, if the release of Windows 9 heralds some crazy desktop-only business version that would kill the Windows App Store dead in its tracks. So far there are no rumors to suggest that's the case, but with phrases like "Windows 9" floating around, anything is possible.
The promise of Windows 8 is still sound, it always has been; it's just the ground-shaking transition that's been botched. So please, Microsoft, take this opportunity for what it really is: a chance to pitch that same solid vision again, but with a new name and two year's worth of lessons learned. You've come too far to turn and run.