Once upon a time, there was a computer operating system called DOS. It was a command-line, non-graphical OS that required users to type in commands to run the programs they wanted to run. And for a while, Microsoft Windows ran on top of it. Your computer would start up into Windows, but you could exit it and run DOS programs. Windows and DOS each had extremely different user interfaces and different ways of doing things, even though they both ran on the same computer.
Running the Consumer Preview version of Windows 8 is like living back in the days of DOS.
I’ll elaborate further, but suffice it to say, from everything I’ve seen so far of Microsoft’s newest OS, I’m not a fan. Windows 8 is designed first and foremost for tablets with touchscreens instead of PCs with mice and keyboards. It draws heavily from Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform, prominently featuring the multi-colored tiles of its Metro UI, while pushing anything resembling a traditional Windows desktop as far away as possible. On a touch-based tablet, this approach makes sense (even if Metro itself is hideous), but on a laptop or desktop, this touch-centric paradigm is a train wreck. Microsoft has clearly bet the farm that everyone will be using only tablets in the future, somehow forgetting that the majority of its customers are enterprises that deploy thousands of laptops and desktops daily.
Here are my initial impressions after playing around with the Consumer Preview:
First, installation and start-up times are blazingly fast and easy. That’s the good news. The computer doesn’t boot up to a logon screen, though. In fact, it doesn’t really boot up to anything. It just goes to a black screen. You have to click and drag the screen for anything to show up, and then you just get a lock screen with the time and date. You then swipe up (or click and drag the screen up) or press CTRL+ALT+DEL to bring up the logon screen. Note that there’s no visual indication that you should do any of these things. It’s only through trial-and-error that you figure it out, a theme that will reoccur throughout this evaluation.
Once logged in, you’re taken to new Start screen, the first major indication of just how different Windows 8 is. Instead of a desktop with a Start button and shortcut icons, you get dozens of colored boxes with white flat icons. Welcome to the world of Metro. From here, you can launch any of the full-screen Metro apps or download more from the app store.
Apps can be easily rearranged by dragging them around, and you can unpin them by right-clicking on them. (They can also be completely uninstalled from the Start screen, which is handy but dangerous.)
By right-clicking on the screen, you can go to All Apps and find other apps and programs and pin them to the Start screen.
(Notice the difference between the Metro apps on the left and the traditional Windows programs on the right. More on that in a minute.)
Or to launch an app, just start typing anywhere on the Start screen.
Metro apps all run full-screen with large, touch-friendly features. Which feels really strange on a laptop, quite frankly.
Getting to the Start screen is the easy part. Getting around is a bit trickier, and at first it’s extremely frustrating. Maybe it’s a lot easier on a touchscreen, but with a mouse and keyboard, it awkward to say the least. But again, Windows 8 isn’t built for laptops or desktops. As I mentioned earlier, there’s no Start button, and because Metro apps run full-screen, there are no buttons to close them or minimize them. Instead what you get are hot corners. Move your cursor to the top left corner of the screen to bring up a taskbar with thumbnails of running apps. (Alt+Tab also still works for app-switching.) Move your cursor to the bottom left to go back to the Start screen (or hit the Windows key on your keyboard, which I found to be a life-saver). And move the cursor to either of the right-hand corners to bring up the Charms Bar, which is where you’ll find Settings, Search, etc.
Just as with the logon procedure, there’s no visual indication that the hot corners exist. If you don’t know they’re there, you just have to stumble on them. Nothing is obvious or intuitive. Even the All Apps, um, app isn’t clearly marked. At one point in my notes, I wrote in all caps, “THIS IS REALLY CONFUSING.” And I would consider myself a pretty experienced Windows user, having supported Windows in an enterprise environment for over 10 years (including two years at Microsoft). Which makes me wonder how the average user would react. My mother would fling the whole thing across the room and never turn it on again, I’m sure.
By the way, to shut down or restart the computer, you have to open the Charms Bar and to to Settings and click on Power. Again, this isn’t very intuitive, but then, tablets aren’t supposed to be turned off so why would it be?
The “regular” Desktop.
Don’t worry, there is a traditional Windows Desktop in Windows 8, though. Just click on the Desktop app, and voilà. All the shortcuts, menus, and taskbar that you’re accustomed to (minus the Start button, of course).
(The teal, by the way, is eerily reminiscent of Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 95. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.)
Explorer is much the same as Windows 7 but adds an Office-style ribbon. Notice that the windows have squared corners instead of Windows 7-style rounded corners. A subtle nod to Metro.
And Task Manager has been nicely upgraded.
Metro vs. Windows.
The biggest change by far with Windows 8, though, is the inclusion of Metro. Not just in terms of navigation, but in terms of the overall experience. Using Windows 8 is like using two separate operating systems. You have the Metro OS, with its flat, multi-colored tiles and full-screen apps, and then you have the Windows OS, with its translucent Aero windows and ribbon menus. These are two drastically different UIs with two drastically different usage conventions. There’s absolutely no cohesion between the two environments, and except for the Segoe font and Charms Bar, there’s no consistency.
The dichotomy goes even further when you start talking about Metro apps vs. Windows programs. Open a Metro app from the Start screen and it opens full-screen within Metro. Open a Windows program from the Start screen, and it launches inside the Windows Desktop. Or go to Explorer in the Windows environment and open your pictures, and you’re immediately kicked out and back to the Metro pictures app.
Oh, and just to be even more confusing, there’s two different versions of Internet Explorer: a Metro one and a Windows one. And the two don’t share history or favorites between them.
The Metro version of IE:
The Windows version of IE:
Clearly Microsoft believes Metro is the future of Windows. And clearly they are betting hard on the future of tablets. But there’s also this acknowledgement that as forward-thinking as they want to be, they can’t really let go of the past. They can’t abandon the traditional Windows environment without losing all backwards-compatibility and alienating all but a handful of customers. Yet they can’t not push ahead without a tablet OS at a time when they’re already losing in the mobile arena to Apple and Google. So they’ve tried to have it both ways, with two different operating systems clumsily bolted together.
For the end-user, this is awkward enough, but where does that leave developers? Will Microsoft only make Metro versions of Office and other apps going forward, forcing users off the Windows Desktop (as the Technical Preview of Office 15 would suggest)? And will third-party developers follow suit? Will there both Metro and Windows versions of Firefox, Chrome, iTunes, etc.? Nobody really knows, but you can see how this shift is riddled with major potholes.
Of course, this is all assuming that the final version of Windows 8 will be as Metro-oriented as the Consumer Preview. There will be different versions of Windows when it finally launches, after all, and it’s hard to believe that at least the Professional and Enterprise versions would have no way to disable Metro. Rather, what Microsoft is likely doing with this beta version is showing off the full range of its capabilities and its vision for the future. If you’re a tablet user and you like the Metro experience, then this is good news. But for all the huffing and puffing about the navigational difficulties on a laptop or desktop, it’s important to take it all with a hefty grain of salt as this is far from the final product. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if businesses upgraded up to Windows 7 and stopped, skipping Windows 8 entirely just as they did with Vista. Seismic change may make for a lot of headlines, but that also amounts to a lot of risk and uncertainty for enterprise IT departments, which is never a good thing.
I speculated a while back that Windows 8 would look a lot more like iOS than Windows, and I was right in a way. It obviously more closely resembles a Windows Phone than an iPhone, but my prediction that Win8 would be stripped-down, app-driven, web-integrated, built to target the iPad instead of the iMac was spot on. The question that remains is just how much of that will make its way to the PC. Will the final version be an evolution of Windows 7 or the reincarnation of DOS?