Why would a company take its core product and mess with it so that a significant proportion of its customers will almost inevitably dislike it? Welcome to Windows 8. Microsoft has taken its familiar operating system and bolted on a Tablet OS called variously Metro-style, or the Immersive UI, or from the developer perspective WinRT (Windows Runtime).
I have been working with Windows 8 since the launch of the Consumer Preview at the end of February, both on a slate device and on my usual desktop PC. It has not been a bad experience, but it has been distinctly odd, and at times distinctly annoying.
Putting two disconnected web browsers with different user interfaces in Windows 8 is a usability disaster, for example. I find myself losing tabs, or right-clicking to raise the tab selection UI forgetting that I am in the desktop browser.
Another problem is that the taskbar, reliable task-switcher since Windows 95, is broken in Windows 8, since it does not show which Metro apps are running.
Presuming you are not using a slate, the pragmatic solution is to avoid the Metro side and just use the desktop. This is difficult too though, partly because of the Start menu which is Metro-only, and partly because some utilities are now Metro. Sometimes these also exist in their old versions, at least in the Consumer Preview, leading to a surreptitious Metro-avoidance search.
Take the new Remote Desktop Client, for example. Raise the Start menu, type Remote, click Remote Desktop, and off you go. Then you discover that the settings are minimal and hard to find, and that when you do connect, it only runs full-screen (like all Metro-style apps). What if you do not want it full screen? Maybe the old one is buried here somewhere?
So you press Windows+R for the Run dialog and type mstsc, and up comes the old one. Thank goodness, pin to taskbar.
This is all very well, but if you run a corporate helpdesk the prospect of constantly advising users on how to avoid Metro or work around its limitations is unwelcome. Unless Microsoft can work some magic between now and launch, businesses will be patting each other on the back for sticking with Windows 7 for years to come, at least until Windows 9 arrives.
That will a shame, since there are also plenty of good things in Windows 8, even leaving aside Metro. Hyper-V virtualisation is one, Storage Spaces another (though probably of little relevance to businesses), networks connect faster, and performance feels snappier overall.
So what is Microsoft up to? The problem it faces is encapsulated by a conversation I had with someone who works in the City of London the other day. "I am getting an iPad," he said. "It is changing the way we do meetings."
Apparently it is now common for documents to be sent out as PDFs and viewed on an iPad. Somehow, the difference in usability, portability and battery life between a laptop and an iPad is enough to tip the balance from paper to electronic documents.
Microsoft fears this, because it sees that as iPads and other tablets improve, and the apps become more powerful, the moment will come when there is no need for a laptop at all.
Put another way, it is touch-controlled tablets that will be the growth area in personal computing, not the usual cycle of Windows upgrades.
This is why Microsoft cares more about the tablet experience in Windows 8 than about the desktop experience. In particular, the Windows on ARM devices, which should be equally as lightweight and power-efficient as an iPad, will in theory be a compelling option for City users who want an e-reader for meetings. They get real Excel and Word as well as all the usual Tablet benefits.
That is the theory, though after using Windows 8 on a tablet at a conference last week I have concerns there as well. The snag is that it is even harder to avoid the desktop when in Metro, than it is to avoid Metro when in the desktop. Windows 8 has a much better on-screen keyboard than Windows 7, but all the fundamental usability issues of touch-control in Windows remain in the Windows 8 desktop.
The fix will be more and better Metro apps, but by the time Microsoft has it right, how far behind Apple and Android will it have fallen in this market?
I am reserving judgement, because despite the annoyances, Metro-style Windows does work well on a tablet, and I do value having a combination device that runs everything. Microsoft is apparently re-working Office for Windows 8, even though it remains a desktop application, and this combined with improved Metro apps should considerably improve the tablet experience.
The controversial Start menu becomes one of the best features when you are working with touch, and apps are easier to find and launch than on iPad or Android.
It is not all bad then; but there are plenty of reasons for caution when it comes to Windows 8 in business. Perhaps the real significance of Windows 8 is not so much Metro, Windows on ARM, and the debate about how well they will do, but rather the underlying trend which has caused Windows 8 to be what it is: the unexpectedly rapid ascent of tablet (and by implication, cloud) computing thanks to Apple's iPad.
Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Making sense of Windows 8, the oddest Windows yet.
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