Explaining Windows 8 to Your Parents

Here’s what I believe is the easiest way to explain Windows 8 to non tech savvy people. In this order, everything becomes clear. And yes, I am aware of the irony.

The basics:

  • Windows 7 is like a Mac
    It is a traditional desktop computer.
  • An iPad is a different kind of computer
    Lighter and easier to use, but it cannot run Mac desktop applications.
The new stuff:
  • Windows 8 comes in two versions: Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro.
  • Windows RT is like an iPad
    A tablet computer: it doesn’t run your old Windows 7 desktop applications.
  • Windows 8 Pro is like a Mac… which could also run iPad apps
    Runs Windows 7 style desktop applications AND Windows RT tablet style applications.

That’s it really, you can stop reading here. The rest of the article is just tech and marketing ramblings that I wanted to get out of my system. Enjoy explaining Windows 8 to your parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and confused colleagues!



Tech ramblings: Well, actually…

Well ok, that’s not really all there is to it. The analogy is far from perfect, and breaks at several points. So let me add a few points to satisfy our geeky core, with a caveat: I believe that “normal people” will only be confused by them. These are basically things that tech savvy people reading the initial explanation will be itching to correct or specify, with a well placed “Well actually…”. But in “real life”, they don’t really add a huge amount of value to the general understanding of what Windows 8 is. So use them with care, and only if they’re really interested in a purchase for example.

Here we go:

  • The interface was designed to work with mouse, touch and stylus, so tablet apps can work on a desktop. Marrying all of these seems almost impossible, but most people who have used it seem to think Windows 8 does indeed make it work.
  • Because of this, Windows 8 Pro can also come in tablet form. The “Pro” tablets will probably be a bit heavier than the “RT” tablets, but if you add a keyboard and a mouse, these tablet can actually turn into a “real” Windows computers.
  • Windows 8 has an “App Store”, which is the only way to add apps to Windows RT. The number of available apps might make you cringe at first. On Windows 8 Pro you can use the app store, or install applications as you always have.
But wait, there’s more:
  • There is actually one “Windows 7 desktop style application” that can be used on the iPad-like Windows RT: Microsoft Office. It’s the only one that gets a “free pass” from Microsoft, but it’s a big one. It’s not ideal for touch, but with a keyboard and mouse this “tablet-like” device will also allow you to do most of your “real” work.
  • Microsoft is also working on a new version of Office, called Office 2013, which will work well on both versions of Windows 8: one variant will be similar to the desktop version we know, and the other will be ideal to use on a tablet with a touch interface.
  • Oh, and one last thing for the most astute among us: yes, Windows is an OS and Macs and iPads are devices. I know. But I’m writing this for your mom / dad / grandparents, remember? You get the difference, I’m assuming they don’t.

Ok, I think that should do it. Now go spread the good word, people!


Marketing ramblings: Focus

If you think Microsoft should have found a way to explain all of this to consumers (instead of making ads where people jump in the air making clickity click sounds), I would agree. Brand building is great (and I love the original Surface video), but if people don’t understand what you’re selling, it’s a problem. And I think most would agree that consumers are mightily confused by Windows 8 right now.

So how should Microsoft explain its latest OS? Well, let’s get back to the core of my “easy” explanation. In concept, they should shoot for this:

  • Windows RT is a great tablet OS, fun and easy to use.
  • Windows 8 is a better Windows 7… and it can run Windows RT apps, too!

Everything else is easy to understand because it already exists in people’s lives: everyone knows what Windows 7 is, and everyone knows what tablets are. But a desktop system that can also run tablet apps? Now that’s just crazy.
It’s easy for us to dismiss this issue, but I believe that this is the real difficulty of understanding Windows 8: this simple fact that “Windows 8 Pro can also run Windows RT apps”. The problem is explaining it the other way around is the easier intellectual path: Windows 8 is an evolution of Windows 7, so we naturally say “Windows RT is Windows 8 without the dekstop”. But it doesn’t work, because “Windows is the desktop”. You can’t understand “Windows without the desktop” if you don’t have the “Windows RT” context.

Instead, we (and Microsoft) should forget the chronological “7 to 8” order: explain what Windows RT is first, as a separate entity (a tablet OS), and only then add the idea that Windows 8 pro is a “Windows 7 that can run that too”. For most people, it will be a much easier reasoning to follow.

And I know that marketing people will want to explain how much better Windows 8 is than Windows 7. And that it has great peripherals compatibility. And it comes in lots of versions and form factors. And it works with mice and touch and keyboards. And that it’s great for businesses, too. Oh, and it’s cheap. But super-duper high quality. Etc etc etc.

Well, all this is true, but they’d be wrong. I think they’d be wrong for any product release, but they’d be especially wrong in the case of Windows 8. When you make such a drastic change, you have to focus your message as much as you can. Decide on one or two things that you want customers to understand and remember, boil them down to their essential components, get rid of the superfluous in that, craft the easiest message your million dollar communications agency can buy you, insist they make the message shorter, make it even simpler again, and then hammer it into the skull of your consumers with consistency and focus. Focus, focus, focus, focus, focus. Focus. Windows 8 is a complicated evolution, and all its communication should be focused on making sure that consumers understand its core concepts. Windows RT = tablets, Windows 8 = Windows RT + Windows 7 desktop. You can trickle in everything else once they’re interested.

That being said, in a year or two none of this will matter. I think this confusing approach will waste time and money, but ultimately, Windows is a juggernaut that will impose itself on the market no matter what, and that consumer will end up understand it anyway. Oh, and the fact that it’s actually a great system doesn’t hurt.


October 31st, 2012
  • This is excellent Patrick! The only bit that I’m not sure about is this bit:

    “Microsoft is also working on a new version of Office, called Office 2013, which will work well on both versions of Windows 8: one variant will be similar to the desktop version we know, and the other will be ideal to use on a tablet with a touch interface.”

    Firstly, Office 2013 is the same version of Office (with one or two minor differences) that is shipping on the Windows RT tablet, so it’s probably not an “also” coming from your previous sentence about Office on Windows RT.

    Secondly, unless you know something that I don’t, there will only be one variant of Office 2013 and that’s the one that looks like the desktop. They’re not really developing a version of Office 2013 that’s designed for a tablet yet (all they did was add a mode in Office 2013 which makes all the buttons in the desktop app slightly bigger, but it’s the same application). The exception to that is OneNote and Lync. Microsoft has actually made separate, more limited versions of those that are designed as touch first, run in the new environment and are free in the Windows Store.

    Hopefully in the next version of Office, they make a new version (even if it’s a separate express version) that is built for the new Windows UI and doesn’t run in the desktop.

    Awesome article though, a nice easy way to describe Windows 8/RT for people like my parents 😀

  • Cam

    The “Oh, and one last thing” under the Tech ramblings looks like Steve’s “One More Thing”… well… without the surprise.

    Otherwise about the marketing part, I personally think that focussing on the device is a good thing. The Surface arrival changes something in Microsoft global strategy, they’d want to cushion the cost of their choices which is more Apple-like than before. (Selling a device along with an OS)

    Now as for the desktop version, is it really important to advertise on it ? Isn’t it better to make the consumer think that the desktop version is like the tablet one rather than the opposite ? So that consumer will more likely buy a Microsoft Surface rather than a random PC with Windows 8 on it.

    p.s : this comment only relies on what I’m thinking after reading this article, I didn’t look into Microsoft’s Strategy or anything, so I might be completely wrong, what do you think ?

  • From what I understand, iPad and Android versions of Office will come out in Q1/Q2 2013. I would be very surprised if a WinRT version didn’t show up as well.

  • The problem is that you can’t really explain Windows 8 without covering both the tablet and desktop version. I think that by focusing solely on the tablet version, you’d lead people to believe it’s *only* for tablets…

  • Indeed, Microsoft adopt the same Apple device policy. But, I think it’s not a problem, they want to fight on equal. Now, the most important will be the development of a good ecosystem.