Straight talking 56

by Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson argues that Microsoft could be sailing into stormy waters with Windows 8.

HardCopy Issue: 56 | Published: May 1, 2012

On a sunny afternoon in Barcelona, during the Mobile World Congress, Microsoft unveiled Windows 8 Consumer Preview, in effect the beta of the next version of Windows. “We challenged ourselves to bring the best of mobility and the best of PCs, and to bring those together in an experience where you don’t have to compromise,” said Windows President Steven Sinofsky.

The reality, at least as evidenced in the Consumer Preview, is not quite like that. Windows 8 is the essence of compromise: Microsoft’s attempt to grab a meaningful slice of the tablet market without losing its core market, namely business and consumer PCs and laptops.

Microsoft’s rationale for Windows 8 struck me forcefully as I researched another article, on the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement and its partner the Consumerisation of IT. Company after company told me that the impetus behind BYOD was from employees wanting to use Apple iPhones and iPads at work. An offhand remark from a City of London executive is also significant. “The iPad is changing the way we do meetings,” he told me. It has allowed them to dispense with most paper materials for the first time. The long battery life and convenient size of the iPad, with no flapping screen to get in the way, means that attendees now prefer electronic documents.

Windows 7 is the most successful operating system of all time, as Sinofsky reminded us in Barcelona; yet Microsoft can see its hold on business computing gradually eroding as these new devices take hold. The impact is profound. Once you remove the presumption that business users have a Windows client, many aspects of a company’s IT strategy have to change. Virtual Windows desktops help, but that is a transitional tool. This puts huge pressure on Microsoft to transition Windows to the tablet world, and not in the old way with expensive and heavy devices, short battery life, styluses and twist-screens. Tablets have only taken off with the general public since Apple demonstrated how to dispense with all those things.

Following the Barcelona launch, I eagerly installed Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a Samsung Slate tablet, bought for the purpose. Later I installed it on a dual-screen desktop PC, and have been using it for most of my work since then.

Windows 8 has two personalities: a Metro-style user interface (Metro being Microsoft’s design language first seen in Windows Phone 7), and a familiar Windows desktop. Familiar that is apart from one thing: the Start menu has gone, and when you do summon Start you land in Metro-style tiles, even if what you want to run is a desktop application.

straight talking 56 quote

There are many good things in Windows 8. I found that that the Metro environment lives up to Microsoft’s “fast and fluid” claims, and that it really is easy to control with touch. The Weather app is a great example of Windows 8 Metro working as it should. The Live Tile gives you a one-line summary of today’s weather in your location. Go into the app and you get a six-day forecast and more detail. Swipe right and you get an hourly forecast, maps, and a summary of historical weather patterns over the year. Microsoft has done good work on the desktop side too. “Every subsystem from the user interface all the way through the kernel, all the way through all the device drivers, the models, the peripherals, have all been touched and improved,” said Sinofsky at the Consumer Preview launch; and in general it does feel snappier than Windows 7, particularly in certain areas such as connecting to Wi-Fi. Windows 8 also includes Hyper-V virtualisation, which is significant for developers since it is more advanced than the old Virtual PC and makes it easy to move virtual machines between desktop and server.

Job done? Unfortunately, not altogether. The Weather app is nice, but for doing real work I find myself in the desktop almost all the time; and the Windows 8 desktop is no more touch-friendly than the Windows 7 desktop. Windows 8 Metro is a new platform, and as such, the only apps available are the ones Microsoft bundles with the operating system, and the few preview apps and games that developers have put out. Microsoft is no doubt holding back on some improved apps for the launch, but the desktop will still be hard to avoid for most users.

Therein lies the problem. The desktop is good, the Metro side is good, but the joins between them are not. It is not just the different look and feel. Metro apps run either full-screen or in a special split-screen mode called Snap. Desktop apps are windowed as you would expect. This means that if you are working in the desktop and then open a Metro app, your task bar and notification area is covered, removing what has been the primary app navigation tool since Windows 95.

Microsoft supplies a Metro PDF reader which is the default application for Acrobat files. I have found that I prefer to use Adobe Reader on a desktop PC, for precisely this reason. Opening Metro apps is annoyingly disruptive to your workflow.

Despite these annoyances, Windows 8 is more than usable. Most applications which run on Windows 7 still run, and if you are one of the few with a suitable tablet, the Metro user interface is a joy to operate compared to earlier versions of Windows.

Microsoft has received mixed feedback on the Consumer Preview. For every user who praises the bold new approach in Metro-style Windows, there are ten who complain that they do not need Metro and it gets in the way of their work. Most of those complaining are not using Windows 8 on a tablet, but why should they?

Windows 8 could easily be made more palatable for desktop users. The two things that would make the most difference would be to allow the old Start menu as an option, and to have an option for Metro-style apps to run in a window rather than full-screen.

As it happens, developers using the Visual Studio 11 beta can do exactly that. When you debug a Metro application, there is an option to run it in a simulator. The simulator is wrongly named: it is actually a remote session into your own machine. Since it runs in a window though, it plays nicely with the taskbar and with other desktop applications.

Another way of improving usability would be to allow the taskbar to remain in view under Metro-style apps. Whether Microsoft will make such changes in response to the beta feedback is an open question, at the time of writing.

It is safe to say that Windows 7 is the new Windows XP: the version of Windows that conservative businesses will run for years to come. But how will Windows 8 fare in the market?

If typical Windows 8 tablets are like my Samsung slate, then they will make little headway against the iPad. The machine is expensive and heavy, the battery life is only adequate, it comes with a stylus, and you need a physical keyboard to get the best out of desktop Windows. Although it is a powerful device, it does not deliver the convenience, simplicity and usability of Apple’s iPad.

There is a new class of machines that may fare better, which is those based on the ARM build of Windows 8, now officially called Windows RT. Here users cannot install desktop applications (although Microsoft Office has a special pass) which means they will be forced to use Metro-style apps most of the time, which may be a good thing. ARM CPUs, and the SoCs (Systems on a Chip) based upon them, are more power-efficient than Intel equivalents. Windows RT devices should be as light and convenient as Android or Apple tablets. If Microsoft’s hardware partners come up with an enticing range of Windows RT devices, and if Office 15 works well with touch, and if momentum builds behind Metro apps and Microsoft’s new Windows Store, then Windows 8 could be a huge success.

But another scenario is that hardware vendors come out with mostly Intel tablets, laden with styluses and add-on keyboards, whose users will discover that Windows desktop applications still do not work well on tablets. In such an event the Metro side of Windows may be regarded mainly as a nuisance.

Windows 8 deserves better. There is much excellent engineering in the new version of Windows, and WinRT is a well-designed platform which is fit for the next generation of personal computers: touch-friendly, secure, responsive, and equally suitable for development in .NET languages, HTML and JavaScript, or native C++.

Despite the annoyances, I do like Windows 8, and I admire Microsoft’s boldness in re-designing Windows for the new world of mobile, touch-controlled devices. However Windows 8 as represented by the Consumer Preview is flawed by the uneasy relationship between Desktop and Metro, and it is not clear that Microsoft is willing to address the problem. Microsoft is also dependent on its hardware partners, who do not always make the best of Windows innovations.

The safe business advice is to wait and see before making a significant commitment to Metro-style development. That said, the early days of a new platform are the moment of greatest opportunity, so perhaps you should not be put off.