Microsoft has a problem with Windows 8.
We finally got some hands on time with a laptop running a near-final version of the operating system.
Our first impressions bear out what we've seen in demos: the new "Metro" interface (see right) bears no resemblance at all to traditional Windows.
That's fine -- it was designed for tablets, where Windows has never been a good fit.
But unlike the iPad (and iPhone), which were immediately intuitive, Metro is not. A lot of the apps themselves are excellent, but as soon as you get out of the apps and into the "chrome" -- the interface of the actual operating system -- it gets weird.
There are tons of tricks to learn. It's often unclear exactly what you're looking at, and what you're supposed to do with it.
Worst of all, the traditional desktop is buried -- it's just another Metro app -- but there are still some things you can only do from the desktop, and some only from Metro. That means you have to switch between the two interfaces frequently. That's not nearly as smooth as it should be.
It may be possible to build an operating system that works great both on traditional PCs and on touch-screen tablets. But based on my initial impressions, using a final-beta build of Windows 8 on pre-release hardware, this isn't it.
Microsoft will undoubtedly change and improve the operating system over time, and the final release on real hardware may fix some of these problems. But for now, it looks like Apple's Tim Cook is right: this is a toaster grafted on to a refrigerator. Unless some customers actually want two-in-one devices that can work as both a traditional PC and a tablet, it's going to be a very hard sell.
Others seem to agree -- a blog post by Michael Mace called Windows 8 "baffling" and "disturbing", and Harry McCracken in Time Magazine and long-time Windows watcher Paul Thurrott ("everything is flipped upside down") had related complaints.
Examples Of What's Frustrating About Windows 8
Yesterday, Microsoft gave me a loaner laptop (not tablet) with the latest build of Windows 8 on it. It's also got a special trackpad that uses the same touch mechanisms as a Windows 8 touch screen device would -- if you want to zoom out, for instance, you just take two fingers and swipe them outward.
It's a nearly-finished build -- Microsoft is calling it the "Release Preview" -- and Microsoft told me they're basically going to add some new art, a few more apps, localization, and that's it. The final release is expected later this summer. You can download it yourself right here -- it should run on any Windows 7 machine.
I've seen lots of demos of Windows 8, but this is the first time I've gotten any extensive time alone with it. I tried to use it as my main computer last night.
A lot of things about it drove me nuts. Here are some examples:
- Moving between apps is harder than it should be. In Windows 8, you can swipe the screen from the left side to see the last thing you were doing -- it works like the back button in a Web browser. That should be good, right? But in practice, it doesn't really work. It's not obvious how many apps you have open, and which apps you've closed. (You have to hover over the lower-left hand corner of the screen to see which apps are open at a given moment.) As a result, swipes take you between some seemingly random assortment of things you've been doing recently. The only reliable way I could find to switch between apps is to go back to the Start screen and open the app I wanted.
- What am I looking at? Sometimes, bizarre things seem to happen for no reason. A couple times while using an app, I did something near the top of the screen, and suddenly the app shrunk down to a tiny window that I could drag on a blank purple background. What was this? I never found out, because as soon as I tried to drag it the app went back full screen. Sometimes, a little hand appears when you drag the pointer near the the top of the screen, but it wasn't clear why -- until I figured out that it meant "swipe down from the top to see a new menu with choices." No doubt I would eventually figure all this stuff out. But an iPad user would rightly ask: why should I have to?
- On a laptop, there are lots of new "physical" commands, and it's not clear which to use. In Metro, some functions, like opening an app or checking a checkbox, require just a tap. They actually won't work if you press down and click (like you would with a mouse). Others, like grabbing a slider to scroll, require you to click and hold with one finger, then move a second finger. Others require you to tap in a particular part of the screen, or swipe your finger from off the edge of the trackpad onto the trackpad. When you switch to the classic desktop, the functions change -- it's more like a traditional mouse, where you can click or tap. These problems may have been a result of using a laptop with trackpad, rather than a tablet -- but a lot of people are going to be using it this way, so the experience matters.
- The differences between Metro and the classic desktop seem jarring and random. The classic desktop is presented as just another Metro app -- open it, and you're in familiar Windows 7 land, with a few useful updates. That's fine. But some functions of Metro still work: for instance, if you swipe from the right, you still get the "charms" that let you search the entire OS, share content, go to the Start menu, and so on. Others do not: if you do a hard click near the bottom, nothing. (In Metro, doing this takes you to useful functions like seeing all available apps, or pinning apps to the start menu.)
- The classic desktop is not well integrated with Metro. I wanted to pin MS Paint (which I use to take screenshots) to the Start menu, so I could easily get to it again and again. But even though Paint is a desktop-only app, I couldn't do it from the classic desktop -- I had to go back to the Metro Start screen, figure out how to open all apps (you hover over a spot near the bottom of the screen -- not easy!), then control-click (again, not easy!) and select "pin" from the bottom of the screen.
- Desktop apps are hard to find. One of the most common complaints from reviewers of early Windows 8 builds is that Microsoft removed the Start button from the classic desktop. This is indeed a pain. There's no easy way to find which apps are available to run on the desktop. The only way I could figure it out was to go back to the Metro start screen, then swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get the All Apps menu.
Microsoft's Windows team and reviewers who have been living with preview versions of Windows 8 for months will probably have easy answers to all of these questions, or will say that I would eventually be able to figure all this stuff out after living with Windows 8 for a week. Also, some of the bugs and unfinished features may be because this is still a beta version, not shipping product.
I've been using Windows since 1995. I've been using Macs, on and off, since 1992. I didn't need hands-on guidance or a week's worth of practice the first time I used an iPhone, iPad, Android tablet, or even a Windows Phone.
Imagine the initial reaction of non-technical Windows users who hate thinking about this stuff and just want to get some work done.
But it's not all bad...keep reading to see why.
What's Good About Windows 8: The Apps
The best part of Windows 8 is the built-in Metro apps. Most of them have been designed from scratch to work in Metro's touch environment, and a lot of care and planning seems to have gone into them.
Most of them -- including People, Mail, Photos, and Internet Explorer -- have been in previous builds and Microsoft has shown them off in demos. But the new build of Windows 8 has two excellent new apps:
- News. This is a customizable news reader similar to Flipboard. But unlike Flipboard, which draws its recommendations from your social networks, the News app figures out what's trending by looking at Bing searches and social data from around the Web. You can also manually select favorite news sources to include, and select topics you're interested in -- like the band Modest Mouse -- and the reader will automatically aggregate news about them. (See below.) You can even take these new news read subjects and pin them to the Start menu, so I'll have a continuously updated stream of news about Modest Mouse on my desktop.
- Sports. At first glance, the Sports app looks like just another news reader, focused on the single subject of sports. But dig in a little bit, and sports nuts will find all the information they could possibly want: schedules, standings (including last season's ending standings), top players by statistics. Users can pick favorite teams and get customized versions of all these things, plus a full roster, team stats, and so on. (See below.)
More generally, Microsoft has done a lot of stuff for application developers to differentiate Windows 8 from the iPad.
A big one: any two apps can "share" certain types of information with one another -- for instance, Internet Explorer can tap into the People contacts manager to make it easy to share a Web page with Facebook and Twitter. A third-party image-manipulation app (like a filter app) could take any photo from the Photos app and show it on the screen, or a third-party music app could use People to let you share song snippets.
All of these functions change from app to app, and are suggested when you click on the "share" charm , which you get by swiping from the right side of the screen.
It's an example of the long-term thinking that Microsoft has done about how Windows will evolve over the next decade -- there's no reason for apps to run in silos.
The One Scenario Where Windows 8 Makes Good Sense
On traditional laptop PCs, Windows 8 is going to be confusing and jarring for a lot of users. It's not clear that the Metro interface adds value over the traditional classic desktop.
Similarly, while Metro was designed for touch screens, and is going to be way better than previous versions of Windows when it comes to tablets, it does not have the immediate "it just works" feeling of the iPad.
Plus, the iPad will have had a two-and-a-half-year head start by the time Windows 8 tablets start shipping. It's the standard. It's going to be very hard for Microsoft to convince users to buy a Windows tablet instead.
The one place where Windows 8 could really shine is on "two-in-one" convertible devices, or tablets that plug into a dock to be used as a regular computer. When users are on the go, they could simply use it as a tablet -- and spend most of their time in the apps. When they go to work, they could open the classic desktop and use it exactly like they use Windows 7 today. It's like two computers in one. (If this is really the best use case, then Microsoft should make some tweaks to make this scenario smoother, like adding the old Start button back to the Windows desktop, so it's easy to find apps when you're working in the classic desktop.)
Will consumers want these kinds of two-in one devices? That's the big unanswered question. Microsoft thinks they will. Apple, among others, thinks they won't.
The market will decide.
Want to see for yourself? Download the Windows 8 Release Preview here.
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