Windows: I Don’t Know You Anymore

Windows 8
Windows 8 is an abomination. After using both the Consumer and Release Previews (that is, the one which is nearly final, bar localisations and some minor tweaks/optimisations), I’m beginning to understand what Microsoft are trying to achieve. Windows has been their bread and butter, along with Office – a lucrative licensing revenue cash cow for many years, but one that is in decline. The Windows Phone platform is immeasurably better from a user’s perspective than Windows Mobile 6.5, but yet it’s losing market share. Ballmer rages and seethes in his ivory tower and orders his minions to work. Microsoft sees the future of touch-enabled devices (see the Surface and Courier) as a way to naturally interact with computers, no doubt aided by the blinding success of the iPad and the reduction in desktop PC sales. They have been planning to take a bold leap into moving the Windows platform into the natural touch arena, in the face of rapidly-approaching threats and this is their big play.

However, there’s a problem – it just doesn’t work. Not in the way it’s supposed to. Allow me to explain.

We all know and love Windows XP and Windows 7, for some of us we’ve used Windows since the 2.0 days (and DOS before that). Likewise for businesses, if you know Server 2003/2008 and AD/domain management, you’re in good company. Along the years, there’s been some substantial changes and improvements, but this is the first time that such a substantial change has occurred – it spells nothing more than a complete shakeup of the personal computing landscape known as Windows. If you haven’t already used W8, and you’re a traditional Windows user, your world is about to be rocked to the core. Gone is the Start menu, that holy grail which gives birth to productivity, controls and everything in between. Gone is the ability to resize and move windows to a size that suits your needs. What you’re left with instead, is what appears to be Windows 7, but with glossy shrink wrap on top that you can’t remove.

It’s Windows 7 that’s been dressed up in a clown suit and sent to a battlefield.

The Metro launcher interface is made up of lots of tiles. Some represent Apps, some represent shortcuts, and some are widgets with live information. If you’ve used Windows Phone 7/7.5 before, it will look familiar, apart from being far more eye-blindingly lashed in rainbow colors. Aesthetically, it’s far more similar to their mobile interface than the Windows desktop of yore. It’s still possible to get a traditional desktop (sans Start Menu), so you know it’s still underneath the hood somewhere, but all roads lead to Metro. HTML5 web apps, a simple and clean interface, an app store and very heavy promotion of Microsoft’s own properties are the headline act. They should be commended for finally tying all these things together and reducing confusion, and for finally introducing a beginner-friendly face – but the goodness is short-lived.

So on the surface at least, it looks promising – it’s slick, pretty and with a touch-enabled interface, you can scroll along just fine, flicking pages left and right, pinching and zooming. It’s clear that touchscreens and tablets were in the forefront of design. For traditional Windows users or power users who valued using the keyboard/mouse and having a higher level of information density or customisation, you’ve been placed on alert. Is this a bad thing that Windows 8 waters everything down for the masses? Look at the simplicity of iOS and it’s subsequent popularity, some might say. But that level of polish and consistency is just not present on Windows 8 on extended use. Accessing what should be simple system settings are confoundingly buried many layers deep under a myriad of presses, swipes and gestures. It’s an exercise in frustration and Microsoft consistently patches up workarounds to restore the Start Menu: they are doubling-down on Metro, for better or worse. A Metro that, once you actually have your own content on there, becomes a apocalyptical wasteland of noise.

In short, Windows 8 is trying to do too much, with too little. Instead of building up from the WP7 platform (which they are clearly trying to emulate), to encompass portable tablet devices. They’re building DOWN from the desktop Windows platform, not because it’s easier, but because of one word – legacy. There are an absolute ton of Windows applications and hardware which demand compatibility, and that’s the downside – they’re working within the restraint of having to pull this luggage around. This doesn’t explain why Windows 8 RT (the ARM-based version) exists – it can’t run x86 applications, nor WP7 ones – in short, it’s there to look pretty. A finicky Flash whitelist system also renders many popular web-apps meddlesome. Yes, I know change is difficult, especially for something as familiar as Windows. But this is different – it’s the most dramatic change in Windows history (arguably more than the 3.11 => 98 change) and it’s for the worse.
Windows 8 is the Asus Padfone of the OS world, or for an even more ill-fated example, the Motorola Atrix.

I’ve owned no less than five Android tablets, multitudes of Android phones since 2010, an iPhone 4 at one stage, I regularly use an iPad 3 and I run Mac OS X, Ubuntu, Mint and Server 2008 in VM’s – all this to better ‘know’ and understand computing in it’s essence – it’s my passion. So when I say I really wanted to like Windows 8, I tried to use it as my daily OS for more than a week, I really tried. I’ve been an ardent Windows desktop user for decades and I even stuck with WinME and Vista for a period of time, studiously tweaking, over-clocking and plugging annoyances as best I could. I spent countless hours trying to improve the font-rendering (which pales in comparison to Linux and OS X) and digging deep into the bowels of the beast. But Windows 8 alienates the power users, and the business users. The ability to get anything more than just the basics done is blunted and the transition from a natural ‘touch’ interface doesn’t translate well with a keyboard and mouse.

Microsoft is trying to apply old-school thinking of ‘do it all’ into a modern package. But let’s take a look at where computing is heading – OS independent cloud computing (the vastly improved recent Chromebooks) prove that you can more or less live in a browser. Immediate portability and ubiquitous data connection is a given. In this scenario, there is no space for an outlived legacy. Even Microsoft Office has it’s days numbered, and it will become relegated to the niche. The day of a standalone installed binary application on a machine is inevitably coming to an end. Just search the general feedback and vibe on the Windows 8 RP – it’s a nearly universal agonizing howl. When Windows 7 was in public preview, the feedback was nearly universally promising. Windows 8 is the new Vista, but this time, the stakes are much higher.

This got me thinking – just what was Windows 8 supposed to look like? We know about why laptops and desktops have never really embraced touch-screens in force – human’s understanding of touch interfaces doesn’t flow well into controlling and viewing things on a separate axis. We like to interact with things that are under our fingers. Keyboards and mice are great, but for emulating a pseudo-touch interface, they are poor substitutes. A method of implementing common touch gestures AND user-friendly interfaces borrowed from mobile platforms, WHILE preserving the main strengths of traditional Windows is what it should be. But it’s gone a few steps too far.

So what next? No doubt Windows 8 will still sell decently well, aided by a $15 upgrade price. There are users who care little about more than checking emails or punching out a document here or there who will gladly switch across to Windows 8, or those who know nothing apart from Windows. But for these users, there are far better and simpler options. Mac OS X goes from strength to strength, Ubuntu is beginner-friendly and this is before counting those who no longer find the need for a standalone OS outside of a mobile one. Businesses have always been behind the curve with Windows adoption (many are still on XP systems) – so there will still be a market there for legacy compatibility (especially with proprietary applications). But the influx of BYOD policies, stronger enterprise integration from Android and iOS and the portability requirement of future workers all play into it’s demise.

From here, the way forward is straightforward – know and understand Windows 8, because as flawed as it is, it will still be the norm for the foreseeable future and this is still a non-final version. We will still need to deal with it on a daily basis, especially if it’s your job to. It’s not going anywhere soon. But from a personal perspective, during that period of dramatic change, there’s a brief moment when users (even loyal ones) will ask the question – ‘If I have to learn all this again, why wouldn’t I consider something else?‘. Personally, I’m hedging on Mac OS X and will be running Windows (and my other OS’s) in a VM – the upcoming refresh of the Macbook line (stigma aside) look promising, and as much as it pains me to say so – Mac OS X combines the best of both worlds.

Damn you Ballmer, you came to my house and you mercilessly obliterated my favorite cake and left without even closing the door.

I’ll leave you with a write-up from somebody who can explain it far better and more precisely than I can, definitely worth a read.

To see what the reviewers are saying, have a look here.

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