Microsoft made the “Consumer Preview” (beta) of the next version of their Windows operating system, Windows 8, available on February 29, 2012 in Barcelona. Since then, they also tweeted that they had over one million downloads within the first 24 hours. Needless to say, the interest in the new operating system is very high. It is so high that the casual users are screaming “I love it” and some of the power users are screaming “This is a piece of confusing mess”. Here is my take, trying to take a step back and wondering aloud, if there is a method to the madness.
One day later…one million downloads of the consumer preview
— Building Windows 8 (@BuildWindows8) March 1, 2012
One of the biggest changes in Windows 8 is the removal of the Start Menu and the replacement of the same with the Start Screen. Not only is the medium different – the Start Menu is exactly that, a menu, whereas the Start Screen is a screenful of brightly colored tiles with animations showing photos, notifications, etc. – but also, Microsoft has made it difficult/impossible to revert to “classic” style. Microsoft has made it clear, there is no going back, and this is the way to the future. This is the cutoff from the past and Microsoft’s entry into the PC-Plus era. “Touch first”, “fast and fluid” and of course, “no compromise”. The latter has been the topic of a lot of controversy, as you will see later in this article.
Windows 8: The Good
First of all, let’s look at what has been well-received – the Metro interface in general has received positive reviews from the press. It is delightful, it is informative, and it lends itself to touch. The OS is truly fast and fluid. Switching from one app to the other is quick, with gentle animations which provide the impression of being fluid. There is no lag between clicking a tile and the app opening, despite this release being a “beta”. If you are on a touch device (most likely you won’t be, since previous Windows tablets have generally been bad, but work with me here) the edge gestures are intuitive. Swipe from the various edges to trigger various actions: opening previously run apps, making contextual “app bars” visible, or opening the new Charms bar which allows further interaction with the rest of the system.
Speaking of Charms bar, that is yet another feature of the OS which has been received well. If app developers would embrace the various Charms (as they should), you get a vibrant flow of information from one app to the other in a very natural way. For example, the Photos app could very easily share with a twitter app, without the twitter app developer knowing anything about the Photos app. Similarly, an RSS reader app could be sharing with a Facebook app without knowing that an article in the app could be shared with Facebook.
Generally speaking, all the new features added have been received well by most of the folks who have used the Consumer Preview. Most.
Windows 8: The Bad
Windows 8 is beautiful, fast and fluid. What could go wrong, right? Well, apparently a lot. There have been a lot of complaints voiced on the internet about Windows 8, mostly from the power users and also from “IT pros” whose work may involve deploying Windows to many PCs and worrying about the corresponding training/support costs. Besides, there is the big issue of rebuilding or supporting legacy line-of-business , or LOB, apps on Windows 8. Some concerns with Windows 8 that have created the most noise on the interwebs:
- The missing Start orb: Let’s face it, power users have developed a muscle memory to get things done. Folks who don’t like to dump a bunch of icons on the desktop typically use the taskbar to launch programs or go to Start > Search in Windows 7 to just search for the programs. With the missing Start orb, things change. On a non-touch computer, when you hover your mouse over the bottom-left corner, you see an icon for your Start Screen and clicking on it will bring you to the Start Screen. With Windows 8, you can now simply start typing on the Start Screen to invoke search, so effectively, the new interaction mode does the same exact thing as Windows 7. For power users though, it is a disruption because they have to leave the Desktop mode and enter the Start Screen.
- Shutdown being “hidden”: Another series of complaints has been the fact that shutting down a PC is now “hidden” and/or more difficult to execute. The shutdown option is now under the Charms bar > Settings. While you can argue that it is the same number of mouse clicks, or that it is even better with touch (Charms bar is invoked by just swiping from the right edge, and the power button is right where your thumb would be), there is no argument about it not being immediately visible. There is also an argument to be made that modern computers don’t need to be shut down and putting them to sleep is effectively the same as what shutting down used to be. In fact, in my personal case, I don’t shut down any of my computers except for when there are OS or security updates which require a restart.
- Metro Start Screen does not span multiple monitors: I am not sure why, but Metro Start Screen always stays on one screen in a multi-monitor setup. You cannot stretch it to two screens and you cannot send one of the full-screen Metro apps to another monitor while having some other Metro app open on the first monitor. Whatever new features have been introduced in Windows 8 related to Metro apps (like snapping another app next to a full-screen app) are limited to one screen. This means, in setups with 2 or 3 monitors, users are forced to see the Windows 7-style Desktop on other monitors. This is a bummer, because one way to reduce the jarring that occurs when switching from Metro to Desktop is by limiting the exposure of Desktop and making Metro more fully-functional for day-to-day use. Having a multi-monitor setup means no matter how immersed you are in Metro, your second and/or third monitors will scream “Desktop”, which of course, is not desirable.
- Switching between Desktop and Start Screen is jarring: Needless to say, it is jarring to go from the bright-colored, big tiles in the Start Screen to a plain old Desktop, and even worse from a power user’s perspective, going from Desktop to the Start Screen.
- Large monitors: Windows 8 for mouse and keyboard introduces interactions at the corners of the screen to invoke certain commands. For example, bottom right corner has an icon to show all apps (semantic zoom mode) and top left shows the previously accessed app. The mouse has to travel a lot of distance on large monitors to get access to those corners, and so memorizing keyboard shortcuts for those actions will become necessary. Also, depending on how an app is built, there is a chance that most of the big screen would end up being filled with white space.
- No Compromise may actually be a Compromise itself: I have heard two separate wishes voiced in reaction to Windows 8 – the first, is the ability to turn off Metro Start Screen, and the second is the ability to hide Desktop and make it unavailable. This is Microsoft’s biggest problem: they are trying to create a no-compromise solution by merging both the old and the new, but maybe their customers on both consumer side and enterprise side may be looking for only one or the other? Do you see the “No Compromise” path actually like a compromise? Rather than go with two separate OSes, Microsoft compromised and built (quite nicely, as a v1 effort) a blended OS. Time and customers will tell when Windows 8 comes out, if that was the best option but at the moment there is enough concern from both the sides to create some level of worry in Redmond.
Before jumping into trying to make sense of Windows 8, let’s understand that Windows as an OS is used by users across the entire spectrum of intellect and familiarity. From the basic user who never changes default browser, home page, desktop wallpaper, etc. to the power user who has scripts for every single task and is absolutely picky about where the icons are on the desktop and the taskbar. As a result, there is no single “user” of Windows, and also that means, for any change that is made in Windows, there is going to be some type of users who will feel they have been short-changed. It is futile to look at it from a user perspective, and it is better to view it from a usage perspective:
- Simpler devices: There is no doubt that we prefer to use simpler devices like iPad for our common uses. Not only are such devices simpler to use in general, they are also touch-enabled. Touch as a gesture is intuitive and easy to learn. Two or more years from now, there is a good chance we will do more on such simpler, touch devices than on “regular” PCs. These devices will tend to be cheaper, and as a result be changed/upgraded more often than PCs have been. Having an ecosystem lock-in, therefore, is crucial.
- Consumerization of IT: In businesses, with advancement in virtualization and fueled by smartphones, there is a growing trend to allow employees to bring their own devices to work (also referred to as “Consumerization of IT”). Sometimes it is not about being allowed to, it is about employees taking control of it, and living with self-supported devices at work. I am a prime example of such a trend: A few years ago, I ditched by company-supported Blackberry for an iPhone 3GS and after constant emails to IT, was able to get support and connectivity to Exchange. Last year, I did the same thing with my Windows Phone 7 device. The bottom line being, employees are bringing what they like, and IT is forced to oblige and allow such devices to connect to the network.
- Enterprise upgrade cycle: Finally, enterprises are typically always at least one revision behind when it comes to large-scale deployments of operating system upgrades. Most enterprises have only just implemented the Windows 7 upgrades, or are in the process of, or considering it. Going to Windows 8 across the enterprise will not be a trend for at least a year after Windows 8 launches. Enterprise usage of Windows 8, therefore, is not going to be worth discussing until late next year.
Making sense of Windows 8
Given the trends above, it is easy to see where Microsoft is going. Windows 8 today is clearly targeted at smaller, lighter, touch-based devices like slates or tablet PCs. It is a consumer-focused release, targeted clearly at the consumer market. This is also the market where iPad is being sold in large volumes. With Windows on ARM (WOA) especially, Microsoft is hoping they have a good competitor to the iPad. For touch-enabled devices, it is clear that Windows 8 will work very well. The assumption of course, is that there are enough Metro apps and enough of the control panel settings are available to be used on the Metro side of Windows 8, thereby reducing the need to dip into the Desktop.
Having said that, we know that laptops, Ultrabooks and similar non-touch devices are not suddenly going out of style. For such devices, with a little bit of learning of new gestures, Windows 8 works reasonably well. The old keyboard combinations are going to be used more and the new mouse gestures will be put in practice more. For the casual user, as long as there are compelling apps in the Windows Store, Windows 8 should be ok. Worth going out and getting a new PC just for Windows 8? Perhaps not. Worth considering a Windows 8 tablet in the holiday season instead of an iPad? Perhaps so.
The issue will remain for the power users – those who use laptops for development, or those who have multiple monitors, or those who work on large monitors – where they will have to work with the dual interfaces, the long mouse traversal, etc. This group is definitely a small percentage of the overall non-enterprise Windows users. These power users will have to get used to the keyboard shortcuts and the occasional switching between the Desktop, presumably their primary environment, and the Metro Start Screen. This group is also perhaps going to be the most vocally against the new operating system unless there is a way for them to turn off Metro Start Screen.
As for enterprises, and IT pros within such enterprises, we can make a safe assumption that they are not going to move to Windows 8 for a few years. As a result, this release can be considered a warning sign for them, a reminder for what’s coming up. They can plan on their Windows 8 strategy starting now, implement Windows 7 now, and have Windows 8 come 3-4 years later. They have enough time to come up with a plan for supporting their legacy LOB apps, either by porting them to Metro style, or coming up with an alternate strategy like Hyper-V. They will also have time to look at how Windows 8 works with consumers and create a training and support plan for Windows 8 in their enterprises. In other words, I am assuming that enterprises won’t be moving to Windows 8 until a few years from now, and by then, Microsoft may even get a chance to release a service pack which may address some of the business needs which may not be covered in the initial release.
Change is not easy. Windows 8 is a major change for Windows. It is bound to have skeptics and naysayers, but Microsoft needed to do something dramatic to cut away from the past or risk losing relevance in the increasingly mobile, connected world. Windows 8 seems to be a great step in that direction, and given how positively it has been reviewed by the press so far, it does seem to have legs. Let’s also not forget that Microsoft is unifying this Metro experience across all the screens it owns (Windows Phone, Xbox, and PCs of various form factors). There are a lot of questions about the dual interfaces, and the power user scenarios, but looking at a simple device scenario (touch or otherwise), Windows 8 may actually turn out to be a decent upgrade over Windows 7 and a credible competitor to the iPad. The commercial success of Windows 8 will of course depend on the ecosystem, as I have written earlier.
What do you think? Any scenarios I have missed? Will you be embracing Windows 8? If not, why not? Do you think there is a chance Windows 8 could face a Vista-like “downgrade to Windows 7” situation?
Let me know!
Image credits: Microsoft (Windows 8 Preview site, Windows Team Blog)