And another thing 58

by Jon Honeyball

Will Windows 8 and Modern UI make it in the modern world? Jon Honeyball has his doubts.

HardCopy Issue: 58 | Published: November 1, 2012

So that’s it, Windows 8 is shipping. Microsoft’s Surface RT ARM-based tablet is shipping too, and the various Microsoft stores around the USA are humming. Even a week after the launch, the store here at Bellevue near Redmond is full of people, all keen to touch, poke and fiddle with both. The TV stations are full of Windows 8 adverts, and there is no doubt that the marketing engine has shifted into top gear.

“Windows 8 is not really Windows 8 at all. It is really Touch Windows 1.0”

Not everything has been straightforward. The delivery of the first wave of Surface hardware to UK customers bordered on a farce, with the delivery agent desperately trying to redefine the “being delivered on” date to the “we might send it out on” date. But this will be a temporary problem. Hardware is shipping from some third party vendors, although many are showing distinct reticence to actually bring real hardware to market. There are many reasons for this, some of which I will cover later.

Now that the party is over, it’s time to pick up all the discarded bottles and pull down the decorations. How good was it for you?

I am left with a cloud of thoughts about Windows RT, Windows 8, the Surface RT hardware and future OEM products. Let’s pick off some of these things one at a time.

Windows 8 is not really Windows 8 at all. It is really Touch Windows 1.0. Despite the fact that it can run previous 32 and 64 bit Windows applications, the truth is that these will only be useful on a device which has a proper keyboard and mouse. The ‘desktop’ mode application support in Windows 8 is better for touch than the mess that was there in Windows 7, but it’s still a frog riding a bicycle. The reality is that old Windows apps are not touch-oriented, and won’t be in the future. These are best left to ‘legacy’ desktops and laptop/ultrabooks, and truthfully here there is no reason to run anything other than 64 bit Windows 7.

Windows RT is different. It won’t run Win32 applications other than those specially blessed by Microsoft – in other words the mutant port of Office 2013 that is bundled in (actually a preview – the final version will be installed via Windows Update when it’s ready). This kind of has touch support, but is clearly struggling to cope really well – much as Grandad might if asked to do a Karaoke version of a rap song. There is just too much history here, too much old code and old thinking. The veneer of touch control only gets you so far, and on RT that’s not very far as the Office version is a cut-down version of the Intel version of Home and Student, which means it’s not licensed for any sort of business use. Just as with the Intel, you can apply a business license to Office RT and turn it into a licensed platform for business use.

Just as with the Intel, you can apply a business license to Office RT and turn it into a licensed platform for business use. Unfortunately, unlike the Intel version, nothing happens; you still have the same limited platform after the application of license money. On the Intel version, you can upgrade to the full power full professional specification of Office; everything unlocks, and you can have Outlook too. Not so with Office RT: a business-licensed Office RT still has no macros, still cannot run Outlook, and still cannot join a domain. Rarely have we seen such licensing cynicism, even from Microsoft.

The reality is that the ARM version of Windows 8, called Windows RT, is really not Windows at all. It’s all about Modern UI, or whatever Microsoft wants to call it this week, with its WinRT runtime applications (no confusion there, of course). All of this would be just fine, but to do anything vaguely complicated, you have to drop back into the old Windows 7 style tools for the Control Panel, anything in an MMC snap-in, and so forth. And the whole experience falls apart in a manner reminiscent of looking behind the curtain at the Wizard Of Oz.

Many will say that this is just a temporary aberration – that these things will get cleaned up in the future, and that it wasn’t possible in the time available to get these things properly ported and locked down. Maybe so, but it appears it isn’t really possible to write a WinRT app to do these system administration things either, so unless Microsoft has some special magic handshake for admin apps with a Modern UI in the future, or some other sort of backdoor, it’s hard to see how this mess is going to get cleaned up.

And it is a mess. What should be a polished, competent, compelling and thrilling experience in Windows RT is far from that. There are flashes of brilliance tainted by “they can’t be serious” moments.

Worse still, Microsoft seems to be in complete denial about its position in the market. It thinks that finally these existing ‘toy’ operating systems (iOS and Android) are to be swept aside by The Real McCoy, and that we will all bow to its magnificence. After all, it’s Microsoft we’re talking about here, the company that will ship 400 million copies of Windows in 2013.

Now here you can take a glass half full or half empty view. On the one hand, iOS is selling very well on iPad where it’s a very mature OS with stunning hardware. The apps store is extremely well established and the developer community is up and running. The online store works, despite glitches. Customers love the whole product. Android is a clear number two, with a range of excellent hardware from a number of top-name vendors (and some real dogs too from unknown third parties). The OS and app store is up and running, and despite some issues of OS updating and app store problems, the whole thing is running well.

And then there’s Windows RT and Windows 8. Let’s only think about Modern UI here as it’s the clear target for touch. The Microsoft Surface RT hardware is definitely up with the best but has some significant limitations – low screen resolution, disappointing battery life, somewhat old-style CPU and no 3G option. Some of these things are fixable, especially in the Intel-based hardware yet to be released. But the app-store is starting from empty; it is a much riskier proposition for the customer, at least initially; and the launch fireworks will soon fade away leaving it look like the dysfunctional child in the playground with its doting and wealthy parents.

“Rarely have we seen such licensing cynicism, even from Microsoft”

Or you can take the opposite view. You can agree that ‘Office compatibility’ still means something, even if it is a neutered version of the package. That the juggernaut that is Microsoft will push this out come what may, and that it has the billions of dollars to, in effect, force this onto the marketplace. That the adage of “no-one got fired for buying Microsoft” will still hold true, and that we will take it despite its faults and limitations. That home customers are just sheep who will buy anything so long as it’s cheap and shiny. And who care about the business customers for the time being? They will keep installing 64-bit Windows 7 on their business desktops, ignoring Windows 8 but continuing to fill the coffers at Redmond with their rolling corporate licenses.

Despite the bravado being shown at every juncture, I can’t help feeling that Redmond is worried. Intel is late with its new Atom and i5 chipsets, and these are really critical to be able to counter the threat from ARM. The ARM version of Windows 8 is filled with compromises because of the late delivery of the Office team, and the inability of the Windows team to do anything more than a superficial port of the most simple of system, account and management tools. That the Desktop mode is still there on RT simply because it would be unworkable without it at present.

And then there is Windows Phone 8, the new release of Windows Phone that was launched in the same week. It’s code compatible with Windows 8, so you should be able to use common code across both platforms. How well this will work in practice is yet to be seen. But Windows Phone 8 is starting with a near-negligible market share compared to Android and iOS. There lies the rub: most home users don’t really care any more about desktops. We want games hardware and smartphones. Some want tablets, and find iPad to do a very good job.

Never before can I recall Microsoft being so far behind the curve, or having missed the boat on so many fronts. Compare and contrast with the steady, strong work done by the Server division over the last decade. A starker comparison to the muddled, late, and disappointing client OS position would be hard to find. I had hoped to be able to say that the time for ‘Modern UI’ had come, and that there were world-class development opportunities ready to run. Maybe the public will come around to supporting the newcomer and embrace it. I’m far from convinced this will happen any time soon, despite the financial weight of Microsoft behind it.