Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Windows 8: Neither fish nor flesh?

Now that the Windows 8 Consumer Preview has arrived, we have a better idea of what Microsoft has in mind with the next version of the OS. I say "version", but this is quite obviously more than just a version, it's a radical break with the past at every level from the UI surface to the technical underpinnings.

The Developer Preview release seemed so far from finished that it was hard to draw any conclusions from it. The major impression it left was of the yawning gap between the new Metro interface and the old desktop metaphor, and the jarring jumps between the two. With the Consumer Preview release, this gap, while still present, seems to have been smoothed over to some degree.
It's very clear that the new UI is aimed squarely at tablets and notebooks with touchscreen interfaces. This is no bad thing, but it's difficult to pass judgement when testing on a traditional desktop PC. Using a mouse with the Metro UI definitely requires some adjustment, but is logical. The biggest single mental adjustment is in seeing the traditional Windows desktop reduced to a mere app. We've been trained since Windows 95 to view the Desktop as the root of all activity on our machines - if you start Windows Explorer, your computer, your network locations, the Control Panel and everything else appear as nodes of the desktop - and it requires a big mental shift to see it differently.

That's not to say that it doesn't make sense, though, especially considering what's going on behind the scenes. The old and trusted Win32 engine is still present for backwards-compatibility, but the new WinRT engine with the Metro UI on top is obviously the way forward. It's all of a piece with the WPF and XAML technologies that Microsoft have been promoting at developer events for years now, and now they're deeply rooted in an OS written from the ground up with them in mind. This is earth-shaking for developers (in the best sense, I think).

What does it mean for the rest of us? For the home user, Windows as a tablet OS may prove to be an attractive alternative to iOS, but as I say, without having the chance to try out the touch interface it's difficult to judge. It certainly looks extremely polished, and in both form and function makes the ancient iOS interface with its undistinguished uninformative rows of icons look very dated.

For the business user, it's more difficult to see the benefit in the absence of killer Metro-style apps. Windows 8 will support any application that runs on Win7, but Windows 7 is such a supremely capable OS that it's difficult to see the business benefit of upgrading. I'm inclined to think that businesses will only upgrade once a critical mass of useful Metro-style apps is available, and by the time these apps are available and offer functionality superior to the traditional equivalents we're probably looking at Windows 9...or further.

Which is not to say that Windows 8 is in any way a failure. This feels to me like the right move, the radical break with the past that Microsoft have been talking about since Longhorn, while backwards compatibility is crucially preserved for now by the inclusion of the Win32 engine. This is an architectural argument, however, and it remains to be seen whether the new OS will be a sales success. I certainly hope so; everyone (not just Windows users) will benefit from a strong and convincing bold step forward in the OS space. Microsoft are to be applauded for their daring.

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