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Windows 8 could baffle, perplex customers (+video)

Windows 8 represents a radical departure from previous Microsoft operating systems, one that some early users have found frustrating.

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Technology blogger Chris Pirillo posted a YouTube video of his father using a preview version of Windows 8 for the first time. As the elder Pirillo tours the operating system with no help from his son, he blunders into the old "Desktop" environment and can't figure out how to get back to the Start tiles. (Hint: Move the mouse cursor into the top right corner of the screen, then swipe down to the "Start" button that appears, and click it. On a touch screen, swipe a finger in from the right edge of the screen to reveal the Start button.) The four-minute video has been viewed more than 1.1 million times since it was posted in March.

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"There are many things that are hidden," said Raluca Budiu, a user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group. "Once users discover them, they have to remember where they are. People will have to work hard and use this system on a regular basis."

Mace, the software CEO, has used every version of Windows since version 2.0, which came out in 1987. Each one, he said, built upon the previous one. Users didn't need to toss out their old ways of doing things when new software came along.Windows 8 ditches that tradition of continuity, he said.

"Most Windows users don't view their PCs as being broken to begin with. If you tell them 'Oh, here's a new version ofWindows, and you have to relearn everything to use it,' how many normal users are going to want to do that?" he asked.

The familiar Windows Desktop is still available through one of the tiles, and most programs will open up in that environment. But since the Start button is gone, users will have to flip back and forth between the desktop and the tile screen.

There's additional potential for confusion because there's one version of Windows 8, called "Windows RT," that looks like the PC version but doesn't run regular Windows programs. It's intended for tablets and lightweight tablet-laptop hybrids.

Budiu believes the transition to Windows 8 will be most difficult for PC users, because Microsoft's design choices favor touch screens rather than mice and keyboards. Alex Wukovich, a Londoner who tried Windows 8 on a friend's laptop, agrees.

"On a desktop, it just felt really weird," he said. "It feels like it's a tablet operating system that Microsoft managed to twist and shoehorn onto a desktop."

Not everyone who has tried Windows 8 agrees with the critics.

Sheldon Skaggs, a Web developer in Charlotte, N.C., thought he was going to hate Windows 8, but he needed to do something to speed up his 5-year-old laptop. So he installed the new software.

"After a bit of a learning curve and playing around with it a bit more, you get used to it, surprisingly," he said.

The computer now boots up faster than it did with Windows Vista, he said.

Vista was Microsoft's most recent operating-system flop. It was seen as so clunky and buggy when released in 2007 that many PC users sat out the upgrade cycle and waited for Windows 7, which arrived two and a half years later. Companies and other institutions wait much longer than consumers to upgrade their software, and many will keep paying for Windows 7. Many companies are still using Windows XP, released in 2001.

Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Financial, is optimistic about Windows 8, pointing out that it's snappy and runs well on PCs with limited processing power, making it suited for compact, tablet-style machines. But he also notes that through Microsoft's history, roughly every other operating-system release has been a letdown.

Intel Corp. makes the processors that go into 80 percent of PCs, and has a strong interest in the success of Windows. CEO Paul Otellini said Tuesday that when the company has let consumers try Windows 8 on expensive "ultrabook" laptops with touch screens, "the feedback is universally positive." But he told analysts that he doesn't really know if people will embraceWindows 8 for mainstream PCs.

"We'll know a lot more about this 90 days from now," he said.

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