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Learning curve free with Windows 8

Ever slide into the driver’s seat of an unfamiliar car, only to be swept by a bout of momentary paralysis as you try to figure out how to operate the contraption?

Sure, the essentials – steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals – are in their appropriate places. But where’s the wiper switch? Who thought it was a good idea to put the controls for the headlights over there? What do all these tiny little icons mean? Do I push or turn this button for the audio system? What’s that beeping?

Eventually, though, you succeed in mastering the cryptically labeled and oddly placed controls enough to get the car moving. You might even learn to get comfortable with or prefer this new design.

Such are the internal conversations and deliberations that will be going on in businesses and homes across the nation in the coming weeks over how to operate something that has become as vital to modern life as the car – the personal computer.

On Friday, Microsoft officially introduced its latest PC operating system, Windows 8, one that promises to be radically different from previous versions.

Rolling out a new operating system, and doing so with great fanfare, is nothing new for Microsoft. What’s noteworthy this time is the breadth and depth of the change. Windows 8 is designed to carry the look and feel of a mobile-device platform to a PC, to work with touch-screen-enabled devices, although you can still have a mouse-and-pointer version if you want it.

There’s where we encounter the PC world’s equivalent of that unfamiliar dashboard.

Computer users are not averse to adopting and adapting to new ways of operating – if there’s something in it for them. The move to a graphical interface (i.e. Windows 3.0 and 95) was a huge improvement to life and productivity over the era of indecipherable and memorization-defying DOS commands (leading to the phenomenon of computers festooned with sticky notes bearing those strings of letters, numbers and punctuation).

But outside the tech world, computer buyers and users aren’t all that fascinated with what’s revolutionary. The more pertinent questions: What works? What’s easiest to use? What’s it cost?

Converting to a new operating system is not free for any of the parties involved. New operating systems usually require new equipment for optimal performance. Training takes time, and time is money. Even with formal training, there’s still a learning curve to be climbed, during which productivity falters as users figure out where the software developers hid the button whose location you used to know, what bit of jargon they invented to replace a term you were familiar with.

The default answer to the questions of what works and what’s easiest is: Whatever you’re using now.

That poses a bit of a challenge for Microsoft in marketing Windows 8 – how to excite potential buyers that a revolutionary change is worth the investment of time and money while also quelling their fears that this new-fangled approach to computing will be so disruptive as to cost them in time, output and mental health.

If buyers don’t see the need or attraction to changing, and life with Windows 7 or XP or even the much derided Vista is satisfactory, then they’ll sit on the sidelines, content to let the early adapters wrestle with Windows 8. If they’re convinced the new operating system will make doing what they want on a computer screen – handheld, laptop, desktop – faster and easier, they’ll buy and switch.

The decisions they make have huge implications for Microsoft, its competitors, the tech industry, the economy, and most of all the put-upon business and consumer users who may find themselves poking at keyboards and screens, their hopes of accomplishment diminishing as frustration mounts, all the while wondering, “Why couldn’t they just leave well enough alone?”