Windows 8: An Unexpected Journey

This week will mark Microsoft’s largest gamble since the introduction of Windows well over 20 years ago. It’s slightly fitted, then, that this time of transition happens once again with their signature piece of software. Windows 8 will mark Microsoft’s transition into the future. An operating system that is not only touch-based, but also keyboard and mouse friendly, constantly online and fiercely connected with its various web serves.

And yet, Windows 8 is more than just an operating system. It will act as the keystone in a bold rebranding that will place Windows 8′s design-language and codebase on just about every platform they have – including a few new ones they’ve had to custom manufacture.

It’s a shift that’s become more and more common in technology, after Apple triumphantly demonstrated how one company could have its cake and eat it too at the turn of the decade.

But where that company, via the late Steve Jobs, saw the post-PC market coming a mile away, the Microsoft of old mostly rested on its laurels, losing ground in both their once-dominant PC space and the emerging mobile sector.

The answer, it seems, is the internally developed Surface tablet – not to be confused with the failed Surface interactive tablet Microsoft failed to launch some years ago – a mixture of both the modern and traditional. A tablet, that runs a variation of Windows 8, that also sports a keyboard and trackpad in its protective casing.

Then there is also the relaunch of their Windows Phone platform, now rebuilt from the ground up to share code with its desktop brother.

In fact, the companies logo, left untouched since the late 80′s, has also been redesigned, now touting a modified version of the infamous four-pane Windows logo. And why not? The Windows division – which also includes Office – generates well over $11 billion a year for the company.

Windows. Windows. Windows.

And yet, for all the focus on simplicity – a “no compromise design” as Windows President Steven Sinofsky calls is – Microsoft has had a difficult time constructing a compelling narrative for what Windows 8 is, how it works and why consumers should get it. There’s also been a shocking lack of clarity in marketing Windows 8 about the limitations between its about-to-be-released tablet and Desktop cousin.

Allow me to elaborate…

 

 A Tale of Two Desktops

At first glance, Windows 8 seems like its from another planet. I’d go as far as saying it’s core aesthetics are truly a step forward for consumer-based operating systems. Gone is the complexity of sub-menus, shortcuts, and multiple windows. The beloved Start button has been replaced with a Start screen: a sleek tile-centric interface littered with your applications.

Looking for your E-Mail? Just hit the large colorful E-mail tile and the application will launch immediately in full-screen, removing any unnecessary distractions from your computing experience. Or, if you’re simply curious as to how many new messages you have, just look at the tile itself, it will notify you as to how many unread messages you have, while cycling through awaiting subject lines. Microsoft calls this feature Live-Updating, and it comes standard with most applications.

If Windows 8 seems better suited for a tablet, you wouldn’t be completely wrong. The OS takes heavy inspiration from Microsoft’s much praised, but little adopted Windows Phone 7 platform. The style, which was known as Metro until recently, is becoming the de facto language with which each new Microsoft product is written.

I’ve often said the biggest problem with desktops is that their too-complicated for people like my Mother. By no-means a stupid woman, she simply could never wrap her head around concepts like Start-bars and command short-cuts. It’s a lot to ask of a person.

Windows 8 almost alleviates those headaches.

Almost.

Rewriting the Windows experience comes with its own unique set of challenges, namely the possible alienation of users turned off by the new interface experience and exclusions of decades-old software not meant to run in Not-Metro.

As such, Windows 8 also comes with legacy support in the form of the traditional desktop experience. Buried underneath, so to speak, the new Start Screen, the desktop retains all the classic Windows features users have come to know and love, save one – the Start button.

Standing back, this desktop duality makes a sense. If the end game is a complete Not-Metro-esq experience, as some seem to be the case, then transitioning the user from old to new is necessary. Especially when you consider the radical shifts in input Windows 8 makes.

Gestures, for instance, factor heavily into 8′s new interface, be it swiping from left to right or pinching to zoom. When using mouse and keyboard those psychical movements are translated to a series of hot-corners, keyboard commands, and a new pull-out menu. Hell, there’s even a separate version of Internet Explorer just for the desktop version.

If it all sounds a little bit complicated, it might just be.

Earlier this year journalist Chris Prillo sat his father down in front of a early beta of Windows 8. The and recorded the experience. The results where a little telling.

The New York Times similarly pulled aside five strangers and asked them to spend some time with Windows 8. The reactions where mixed. “This is so cool,” one person proclaims. “I felt like the biggest computer user amateur ever. It made me feel stupid,” another laments.

To be fair, a lot of these complaints can be attributed to growing pains. Familiarity is a touch nut to crack, and asking users to re-think decade old muscle-memory is never easy. That said, the larger question looming over Windows 8 is if these new inputs are the most efficient and elegant solutions possible?

 

There’s probably an app for that

Like Apple, Microsoft is introducing a marketplace with Windows 8. It’s purpose will be to sell Don’t-Call-Me-Metro-styled applications for the new start interface, while simultaneously allowing Microsoft to vet software for suspicious and potentially harmful software. A novel, if not somewhat necessary, move considering past Window’s lofty-security.

The Store, however, doesn’t cater to the desktop experience. Conversely, applications designed for the desktop (as legacy software from Windows XP, Vista and 7) will not be able to make use of 8′s embedded functionality such a SkyDrive sync, Xbox Live support or live tiles – although application short cuts to the Start screen are permitted.

Interestingly, the Windows marketplace has created something of a rift between developers and Microsoft. The Store will position Microsoft as the curator of its ecosystem. Where previously the desktop was an open platform for all to play in – take Steam, Minecraft and Photoshop as examples – Redmond will now be tasked with approving and rejecting apps based on set-guidelines, while also taking a share of potential profits.

As with Apple and Google’s store model, any app sold through the Windows 8 marketplace will net a 20% cut for Microsoft (30% for the first $25,000 in sales). A move that has pissed off some, like Steam’s Gabe Newell, who have been profiting off the Window’s platform (rent-free, mind you) for the last decade.

Exclusion from the store has larger consequences for the future. Currently, Microsoft’s desktop support extends only to the PC and Intel-based tablet market. If Microsoft’s priorities shift completely to the post-PC paradigm, as many predict it will, this will force the hands (or more specifically the bottom-lines) of many established applications.

Another question-mark is Microsoft’s current App offerings. It’s pretty bare. At launch, only 5000 or so Not-Metro apps will be available across North America – heavy-weights like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube will not be among them. There’s good reason for initial developer shyness, namely the poor adoption and support offered by the Windows Phone 7 marketplace.

This could all change, however, once Windows 8 goes public. In fact, it kinda has too.

 

Take my money already

As usual, Microsoft will release several version of Windows 8, future complicating the story. Consumers will be asked to choose from Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise and Windows 8 RT. Wondering what the differences are? Don’t bother going to Microsoft’s official page, they don’t have any literature on the subject.

Windows 8′s pricing structure break down like this:

Windows 8 (regular) will include most of the features the average consumer needs. This includes the new Please-Don’t-Call-It-Metro UI, Desktop mode, live Tiles, Windows Store, Internet Explorer 10 and the Desktop. As for the price, an OEM license from NewEgg.com will run you $99.

That said, Microsoft seems more interested in selling you on the Pro version, which includes all of the above, as well as Media Center support, Remote Desktop and a handful of security features. This version (more specifically the “Upgrade” version) will retail for $39.99… provided you’re already a Windows user with a legitimate copy of Windows XP, Vista or 7… and provided you apply for the online-only upgrade pricing before January 31, 2013.

Oh, and if you’ve purchased a Windows 7 laptop in the last few months, you can upgrade for only $14.99.

If, however, you decide to pick up Windows 8 Pro at retail, you’ll pay anywhere from $69.99 (the price Amazon is currently charging) to $199.99 (its suggested retail price).

Oddly, Microsoft is being a bit fuzzy on the launch day details, saying only that visiting Windows.com on October 26 will inform consumer of how to upgrade or purchase the OS.

No compromises, right?

Windows 8 Enterprise is not for you. So, don’t worry about it. It’s also not sold at retail.

Finally, there is Windows 8 RT, which I will touch on in part two of this piece. You also can’t buy it directly, and its not exactly the full Windows 8 experience. Or maybe, its the true Windows 8 experience. I’ll touch on this later.

So really, Microsoft is just releasing Windows 8 Pro.

Kinda.

Sorta.

Apple, by comparison sells its latest OS, Mountain Lion, for $19.99. And there is also only one version of it.

 

 No Compromises

If I where to lodge one complaint, its that Windows 8 should be better than all of the above. The ideology is solid: rethinking the desktop experience for the post-PC world. Mission accomplished. But moving forward doesn’t mean holding on the past. If “No compromise design” means including everything and the kitchen skink, then mission accomplished.

However, I can’t help but think the solution to Microsoft’s problem – attracting new users, while keeping old ones – is far simpler than two desktops.

How about two separate operating systems?

One for my mom. And one for the power-user. The Metro Interface. And the updated Desktop mode.

Think about it this way, Metro-UI seems like overkill for big business. The technological equivalent of Hawaiian shirt day at the office. And yet, Windows 8′s added security features and stabler code-base are no joke. Bundled with the fact that 50% of Enterprise companies are still using Windows XP, there’s no better time for Microsoft to get more aggressive with product specialization.

You can’t be everything to everyone, and I suspect this will be Microsoft 8′s biggest misstep.

That said, this is Act One, Chapter One, Scene One, of Microsoft’s latest story. I look forward to see what happens next.

In part two, I’ll cover Microsoft’s Surface, Windows RT, Windows Phone (its relaunching, for some reason) and what the future holds.

* Amusingly, Microsoft seems to agree.  Their pre-packaged versions of Office for Windows RT only run in Desktop mode. Although, its possible future versions of Office will be built from the ground-up for Metro.

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Author: Paul Stachniak View all posts by
Paul Stachniak is a freelance writer and former correspondent for The Space Channel. He often says things people disagree with. He can be twittered @paulstachniak.