Rocks or sucks: Windows 8

I love testing new stuff out. No, it´s not always perfect, but neither is the software I write myself. Making software perfect is a process of developing, getting it our there, reading your users´ responses and correcting the bits you´ve missed. It´s like that for me, it´s like that for Microsoft. So why not help them make things better by testing the new stuff out, right? And thus I´m typing this on my old PC running Windows 8 with Office 2013, Visual Studio 2012, and so on. Like!

To start out with, when I say old PC, I mean: OLD PC. I think the last upgrade I did on this one is about 5 years ago, maybe even more. So it’s packing a Pentium 4 3GHZ CPU, 2GB of RAM, an old NVidia graphics card and a dreadful slow HDD. To say the least, it’s not the recommended hardware to run Windows 8 on. Microsoft states that Windows 8 will run beautifully on all PC’s which run Windows 7. They lie. This one wasn’t good friends with Windows 7 either, but performance surely was better than it is now running Windows 8. Big performance hits: the full screen transitions / effects and IE.

So I’m not awed by performance, but that’s mainly due to the hardware being used. That leaves just the operating system itself to impress me, which might be even better review wise.

Let’s start with the obvious: the Metro style (which isn’t called Metro any more I believe, but I’m going to go with Metro for this article) is different. It’s not what we’re used to see and that takes time. But it looks good out of the box and works great once you get to know it. It’s a matter of being open and willing to explore a new OS. You’ll won’t find everything as quick as you did in Windows 7, since it’s all in a different place now. Give it some time and it’ll quickly start making sense.

The apps which come with it like e-mail, calendar and weather are clean, simple and good looking. At first you tend to think it’s all a bit too simplistic, but after using if for a while I must admit that I don’t really miss some of the more advanced features of applications like Outlook. That’s probably due to the fact that we’re getting used to the simplicity of phone apps.

One of the major advantages Windows 8 will have is the shared core, WinRT. Sharing core code means the OS will have the same foundation on every device: your PC, laptop, tablet and phone will all run the same bits. That’s a powerful thing, and with SkyDrive / the cloud as a central hub, it means you don’t really have separate devices any more (which you have to keep in sync). Every device will give you ways to access the same data which is stored online. And every device will work the same, so there’s no separate learning curve for each device. That’s a big plus and Microsoft is the only one out there offering this (although Apple is most likely going to do the same soon, there not quite there yet).

A big advantage for Microsoft is the fact that most PC owners run Windows. So although it might take some time, Windows 8 will be spread across the world in many households and on many enterprise desktops. And once someone knows Windows 8 and likes it (which I think many people will), they will probably at least consider buying a matching Windows tablet instead of an iPad which is incompatible with the cloud services and works different. Of course Apple has an enormous head start on the tablet market, but it’s still relatively small on the desktop. I think the gap between Apple and Microsoft folks will grow even more because of Windows 8, and I wonder which side is going to end up winning.

So it’s all nice and cool and awesome? No. There are still some issues which I think Microsoft should have fixed before launching the product. And most of it boils down to the old “Windows 7 mode” which is included.

Leaving it out wasn’t an option, I get that. You need to be compatible with old software and you can’t expect software vendors to all start creating Windows 8 apps all of the sudden. Time will tell if all software is capable of going Windows 8 / metro at all. And Microsoft is guilty of this itself. The new Office 2013 isn’t a native Windows 8 app, neither is Visual Studio. That’s ok, but it means that using these programs will make you go to Windows 7 desktop mode, which is what you know.

That last bit is a big problem: users know the Windows 7 desktop mode and know their way around it. I expect that a lot of users will log into Windows 8, click the desktop button and will revert to using Windows 8 the way they’re used to. In order to get people to want to use the metro mode, Microsoft should be pushing users there, but they don’t. It’s far too easy to escape metro mode and revert to your old habits. I understand it’s a necessity for legacy applications, but the basis should be: use metro unless you really need to use desktop mode. At this moment, it’s the other way around; you use desktop mode unless there’s a good metro app.

A lot of Windows parts have been only partially translated into metro style. There’s “settings” for instance, which let’s you adapt your computers settings as the old control panel did. Works great, but some options didn’t get metrofied and thus revert you back to desktop mode. It looks like they did they parts needed for tablets and didn’t care about the rest. The old control panel lives in desktop mode and so you’re going to use that, because you know it. They should have made everything metro, or at least construct it in a way that you automatically are brought back into metro mode once you’ve finished altering the settings. Now you just get pushed into desktop mode and left there.

Small applications like the calculator aren’t available in metro style either. So yet again, when you need to do a simple calculation, it’s back to desktop mode again. And that scenario fits so well into the split screen scenario available in metro mode (1/3 of the screen for app X, the other 2/3 for app Y).  Really Microsoft, make a metro calculator app!

As for Internet Explorer, it’s now running IE10 in metro mode, but also has IE9 in desktop mode. IE10 works ok, but there are no plugins (I use lastpass for instance) available. Also, not all pages work well on IE10. And since there’s no compatibility mode or anything like that (I haven’t found it), that forces you back to IE9 in desktop mode. There’s even an option “View on desktop” which let’s you do this with a single click. This again brings the user to desktop mode without making it interesting enough to go back into metro mode. It’s like they really want you to use desktop mode a lot.

It all feels a bit half way there. I really love the idea, I love the bits that have been made thus far, but it feels like it’s not finished yet. Ok. I’m running a preview version, but since it’s going RTM in September I really don’t expect that much change any more. That’s a shame. I’m afraid Windows 8 maybe won’t receive the credit it deserves.

What I’m hoping for in the final version:

  • More native apps and screens being in metro style instead of classic desktop apps.
  • Metro should be the default mode and the user should be persuaded to use Metro instead of desktop mode.
  • Things like “open in desktop mode” in IE10 should open IE9 in fullscreen mode (no chrome). Closing the page should bring you back to IE10 or the metro start screen, not a blank desktop.
  • Existing techniques like Silverlight, Flash and IE plugins should be supported. Not supporting them will make users go back into desktop mode again. I made that point by now I guess.
  • The desktop mode should be altered to look less familiair, less Windows 7. Make the chrome simpler. Lose the transparancy effects. Make the taskbar buttons metro style. It’s not that hard now, is it?
  • A product which feels finished, not half baked.

I like Windows 8. I think it’s a powerfull OS which is going to work great on tablets, touch screens and smartphones. But for the desktop, it feels like an in between version. Like there was just too little time to do it right. If people’s first impression is “it’s not that great yet”, this will be hard to overcome in a future version. It also won’t help tablet and phone sales, since users will think “Windows 8 on my PC sucks, so it’ll suck on tablets and phones as well”. That’s not what it deserves, it deserves a good chance.

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