Writer’s Note: if this post finds you know I had a really hard time with how I was going to start this review; so like the Win8 developer preview this post is prone to buggy-ness and crashes.
According to Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO,the next version of Windows would be a big gamble. People had been wondering what the Redmond WA software company would do in response to Apple’s iPad and IOS platform. There were questions and suggestions that they should just take Windows Phone and use it for tablets. The analysts and bloggers were reporting that Tablets (mainly the iPad) were eating into the PC market.
And everybody asked where was Microsoft?
On Tuesday September 13, Steven Sinofsky, President of Windows and Windows Live services, debuted Windows 8 to the world. Or more specifically, over 5,000 developers on site, tech reporters/bloggers, and everyone else watching the Build developer conference online.
How we got here
Windows 8’s start can be traced to the first Tablet PC concept as first shown by Bill Gates in 2003, a computer with the ability to use multi-touch and pen.
For years Microsoft has promoted Tablet PCs. Starting with Windows for Pen Computing in the late nineties, Microsoft has pushed for mobile computing form factors outside of the desktop. For example other than tablet PCs there’ve been pocket PCs (PDA and later smart phones) and Ultra Mobile PCs (think iPad like functionality). The results of branching out were mixed. Tablets PC’s never took off in the consumer space but did well in vertical (service and healthcare) markets. Pocket PCs became the basis for Windows Mobile which had to be remade. And Ultra mobiles faltered due to high prices, OEM mismanagement, and the simple fact that the Windows desktop was not built for a small screen.
The other issue with Microsoft and tablets was poor execution. First was the fact that Windows was not built for touch nor was it ever optimized for it. Microsoft has, until Windows 8, slowly added touch features but never optimized the OS to properly work with a touch user interface. If you look back at any of those mobile computing platforms you’ll see that Redmond just ported Windows as is. Only once, Ultra mobile PCs, was any attempt at a touch optimized solution done. But even then it was just an application over to the side; not integrated into the system.
And this was the story about Microsoft and tablets…..until now.
Catching the Metro
First thing to understand about Windows 8 is that it is a Tablet computer and not a tablet. This means that underneath the exterior you will find the same system you run on your laptop and you can access it. Windows 8 is meant to be run on desktops, laptops, and tablets. Microsoft is not distinguishing the tablet from anything else; its a form factor. So Redmond is still running with the concept it showed in 03.
Except now they aren’t half assing it.
Touch is now what is called a first class citizen. It is not a simple overlay, its is integrated into the system. When you start your device you’ll see a start screen (Similar to what you’d see when you turn on a smart phone). Once you push up the start screen, you can unlock your device through picture sign-in or number lock. After that you’ll see the first major change.
Instead of the desktop view, you’ll see a start screen with applications arrayed to a grid. They are called tiles and were brought over from Windows Phone. Similar to their mobile cousins these tiles replace icons and widgets (small graphical icons that give quick info). The tiles can be arranged any way you’d like and can be grouped. Since Microsoft has restyled Windows for touch, it also redesign how you move inside the system.
First they have added side controls for what they call charms. The side control is sort of like the the desktop stat button; it provides quick access to frequently used programs. Here they have five fixed ones called Charms (search, share, home, devices, and settings). I’m going to come back to this later.
To get to the desktop, you can either hit Start or you click on the desktop tile. On the desktop, the start button will bring up the charm functions if you hover over it with a mouse; if you press the button it sends you back to the start screen. In the desktop you still have the taskbar and access to a more traditional environment. They made changes to Windows Explorer (the file manger) by adding the Ribbon UI. If you want to see a list of applications you go to search; it both shows programs and allows users to search for any application or file on the device. Beyond changes to the file manger Microsoft has also said they’ve added virtualization (Hyper-V) and the ability to mount ISOs and VHD (virtual disks and hard drives). They also added better multi-monitor support.
And that ladies and gentleman was the dinner portion of the show. Now for the Desert.
Let’s go back to the start screen. This screen represents the tablet part of Windows 8. The tile based interface as said before is brought over from Microsoft’s Windows Phone. Its there on the screen because Windows 8 is intended for touch based devices. Tiles are part of what is called Metro; a set of design principals and styles; and applications in this space are referred to as Metro apps. They allow a program to both have an icon but also have the ability to show quick snippets of information. Now the Metro interface is not for everyone, I like it but you may not. But it is the way Windows will work on a slate device. Here quick access is done by the using the left and right sides of the screen. The right side brings the side taskbar with the charms. If you want to go back to a previous application you slide them over from the left. The Metro applications run full screen (similar to other tablet OS). Within Metro apps, accessing app specific controls is done by sliding up from the bottom or top of the screen. This will be familiar to you if you’ve played or have a Blackberry Playbook. Microsoft also enables the ability to let apps share information (the reason for the share charm). As stated before, users have the ability to customized and group apps and remove them from the start screen. This new Metro start Screen will also bring a Windows Store (though I prefer Marketplace) which will curate both Metro apps and desktop programs. Windows 8 also allows for multiple applications to run at the same time; programs be snapped similar to how they do in Windows7. Windows tablets will also be able to be viewed in portrait.
Let me start off and say I love Metro. Ever since I first saw the design in one of Microsoft’s concept videos. It’s a design that sets it apart from its competitors and for me is like this constant source of inspiration. And Windows 8 is ambitious; they are saying that the dividing line between tablets and traditional PCs doesn’t exist. If you want an iPad like device you can have it, and if you want to use that same device in a more traditional way you can. It is a high wire act that can end in success or failure. Before this thing reaches Beta it will have to convince a lot of skeptics; power users who don’t want a “toy” UI, businesses (not really), people who felt XP was the high water mark, and regular consumers.
While a lot of people will concentrate on Windows 8 and business, the real customer for Win8 is the consumer at home. I mean this will come with Xbox live as an integrated part. Microsoft is seen as losing mindshare with regular computer buyers; Windows 8 is a play for that market Also people complaining about Windows 7 deployment forget that Microsoft has said that does implementing Windows 7 should continue to do so. Windows 8 is a consumer play (yes there will be a business story). They must also convince developers, especially ones like Moonbot Studios, that Windows 8 is a viable ecosystem for touch apps. Microsoft has also got to fight the growing notion that tablets are either a fad or really just another Apple market (like MP3 players) . If Apple made the tablet form factor popular, Microsoft is going to have to make it viable.
The other conflict will be with the Windows user base. Already people who like Windows as is are complaining; they don’t like the start screen; why can’t they just make a tablet OS ; etc. Many want the benefits but not the changes. Others keep asking why keep the desktop, why is compatibility such a big deal.
For me there is a lot to like. Metro brings an interesting style to tablets. So does the fact that Microsoft is integrating all its services as options. I like the idea of having a roaming profile which allows me to move applications and preferences from machine to machine. I like the fact that its possible to access both touch applications and the desktop. But I also have some concerns. Windows 8 is meant to be friendly to both touch and mouse. So far it looks okay for touch but not so much for mice; a lot of the system in the desktop relies on shortcuts which not everybody knows. On the touch side, I’m hoping for a better way to move through multiple apps opened. Now you just slide them in from the left (I think there is a way to thumb through but I don’t like the approach). Also I hope we get task manger within the Metro UI as opposed to doing it from the desktop. The only other nitpick, which others have said, is that the desktop should borrow more elements from the start screen so I can stop hearing how its so jarring.
Windows 8 is sign that Microsoft wants to really compete in the consumer side of technology. Its doing so from its strength but also from borrowing from others. I don’t know if this is a iPad killer, it doesn’t have to be. What I know is that it is a good foot forward move.
Below is a link if you want to download and run the Developer Preview. If you do download it remember this is a pre-beta build aimed at developers; it is buggy and applications are not in final form (most are purely for demos). Microsoft will be making updates over time. Plug-ins will run only on the desktop and not in Metro. If you want Windows 8 and want to get rid of the Metro interface there’re ways but they also blow out most of the new features (I have no links for this).