Windows 8, Windows Blue and the future of Windows

In the last couple of weeks it has emerged that the following things are true:

  1. Windows 8 sales are disappointing.
    Link to Computerworld post
  2. Windows Surface tablets have not sold well, particularly the Surface RT version.
    Link to gadgets.ndtv.com post
  3. Windows 8’s Bundled Applications are in need of some work.
    Link to ZDNet post

To me, if I was in charge of Microsoft, I would be hearing Windows Vista and Windows ME warning bells right about now. It is clear to anyone that Windows 8 is a step too far.  The existing user base just do not get Windows 8 and particularly the business clients who do get it, but don’t want any of it on their mainstream work PCs, as the immense costs of retraining folk to use Windows 8 and Office 2013 if they are still in the Windows XP, Office 2003 era (like one of my large Bank clients) would be horrendous.

Windows 8 is designed to move Microsoft forward, hell they even called the Metro interface the “Modern UI” when they discovered that they would face a copyright issue in Europe using that name. So they see it as the future. Unlike the Bill Gates era Microsoft, whenever they created a new paradigm, they did it in a way that businesses and seasoned users could migrate slowly to the new way of doing things by giving them the option to enable the old way of doing things and eventually turn that off as the new concept gained traction.  It seems now that Microsoft don’t care, all they can see is chasing Apple for a chunk of the iPad market share and it seems to be at the expense of their dedicated desktop PC users.  If I was on the MS board I would be asking Steve Ballmer for his keys to the executive suite and putting someone in who has a better handle on the needs of the traditional user base and in particular their business users. I cannot see that anyone who works on spreadsheets, accounts packages or edits photos or Videos would ever want to be using their finger for that?

Microsoft are working on Metro versions of MS Office and I am really keen to see how the hell you can do that using your finger as a replacement for a mouse. I am sure they will do it (I have seen the rotary dial device used in OneNote for Metro), but if you have used that you will know that OK you can get things done, but at what cost in time? It takes about 5 steps to do what you could do in 1 step in the Desktop/Mouse version.  This is not progress, it just smacks of using smart people to figure out how to make a thing work in a completely wrong environment. Most desktop users will just think this is just “art for art’s sake”.

If someone can demonstrate to me how using Metro can make me more productive when working on a spreadsheet, a database, an accounts package, a development environment or a photo editing application then I will switch wholeheartedly to using Metro, until then I remain sceptical!!!

Windows Blue

A lot of people like me were hoping that Windows Blue (A software update for Windows 8 to fix a number of issues in the current incarnation) might see Microsoft seeing sense and doing some of the obvious things that need doing to make Windows 8 usable for the majority of existing users. However it now seems from a leaked early version, that the emphasis is not on getting some sanity back into Windows 8 but is heading more in the direction of Metro and further away from the desktop:

http://winsupersite.com/windows-8/what-blue-leak-tells-us-about-microsoft-s-strategy

http://www.zdnet.com/no-windows-desktop-mode-no-7000013099/

I am in the camp that wants to believe that MS are not stupid, they know that the majority of their revenue comes from Business customers and they are your traditional desktop user not an iPad user, admittedly a lot of business users are additionally using iPad like devices, but they are the Sales Execs or senior management who use them as devices for consuming daily reports or reading news etc.  but the serious work gets done on desktop PCs with a mouse and a keyboard.

I think they (Microsoft) are after what they currently see as the bigger market i.e. non-business home users, ultimately they seem to want to move away from the desktop, but hopefully they will realise that this market for tablets is actually a fad that will subside like the “netbook” fad did.  Tablets are a new form factor and they make sense for consumers who want to do just that “consume”, they are not for people who want to be “productive” and that’s where I part company with the current Microsoft vision of the future. I cannot see how if you limit your operating system to be only targeted at the consumer that it can possibly work for the productivity user. These things are mutually exclusive.  That is why (ironically) Apple still maintain a separate operating system for desktop PCs (OSX) and a different one for their tablets and mobile devices (IOS). Why can’t Microsoft get this?

Here’s what should happen

  1. Make Windows RT the version of Windows for tablets and mobile devices, let’s call it “Windows for Mobile” (W4M). The reasons for using the RT version is that it runs only on low power ARM chips (also include whatever Intel comes up with in the future to match the ARM chips in W4M). In this version the desktop is banished as this version is designed specifically for users poking about with their fingers as the only input device. I use a Windows 8 tablet and I would be happy with this, I never want to see the desktop when I am on my tablet, if I do then I’ll switch back to my laptop or desktop PC to do that. Basically the W4M version is all about tablets and touch usage and banishes the old desktop paradigm.
  2. Make Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro the versions of Windows for desktop users (W4D & W4D Pro). In these versions the desktop is the default, but a user can turn on the Metro environment through the control panel if they wish. Instead of grabbing the whole screen, Metro apps run in Windows like Stardock’s ModernMix application (http://forums.stardock.com/440939), this means a desktop user can run Metro applications but in a way that fits in with the desktop environment (not the other way round). The W4D versions can “have their cake and eat it” because they are powerful enough and are not trying to eke out 10 hours battery life like tablets and other mobile devices usually are.

Whether Microsoft will see sense before it’s too late I don’t know, but if they persist with this “touch first” nonsense for desktop PCs I can see them being consigned to history as the company that threw away its loyal user base trying to chase a market that was already owned by Apple.

Siv

Windows 8

Hmmm…

screenshot_lockScreen_page
The new lock screen – So far so good.

I have played with the Developer Preview that was released last year in time for the “Build” conference. I installed it first on my HP laptop and my initial reaction was “OMFG!”, everything that the development of Windows to date was thrown out and it appeared MS had fallen “hook line and sinker” for the tablet paradigm basically because Apple did it with the iPad and had sold millions of the the things in a few days. Trying to run the Developer Preview with a mouse and keyboard was just horrific.

screenshot_startScreen_page 

The new big tile interface seen above is called “Metro” and it is a direct port of the operating system used in Windows Phone 7.  Basically it is designed to be operated with your fingers rather than a mouse, so everything is big and easy to poke with your finger.

I and a lot of others ranted about it on the “Building Windows 8” blog in the comments, my biggest annoyances are:

  1. After years of getting the idea of not filling your desktop with icons as a) it slows down the opening of your desktop, b) it’s old fashioned and harks back to the Windows 3.1 “Program Manager” where you had a desktop full of windows with icons in them:
    programmanager
    and generally looks a bit of a mess.  I used it for years in work and it was efficient, but I immediately preferred the start menu when we got that in Window 95.
    start-menu
    Suddenly the clutter was gone and you had a nice organized hierarchy of programs within folders and your desktop picture of that far distant holiday island could be returned to whenever you needed inspiration.
    Since XP Vista and Windows 7 this newer paradigm has been improved.  Now with Windows 7 you can almost dispense with the start menu and just pin all your favourite applications to the task bar. Net result you have an always present strip at the bottom of your screen with your favourite/most used applications available.  Additionally the raised button look, tells you what else is open when you are in one application and can’t remember if you already opened another application. If you hover over the button you can peek at the contents of the application without actually leaving the one you are in. To me Windows 7’s Aero interface was as near perfect a way of working as there has ever been on a PC to date and I was really looking forward to what improvements they were going to make in Windows 8. So the Developer preview has been something of a let down to say the least….
  2. My biggest gripe is not being able to close Metro applications, this caused massive amounts of comment on Windows 8 blog and in the end the creation of the “Windows Metro Style apps forums”. Because Windows 8 uses the same interface code as the Windows Phone operating system it has brought with it the same way that phone applications work, they are basically suspended rather than closed.  I am not sure why they do this on phones unless it is because the time to open an application is slower than using up all the available RAM and switching back and forth by between all the applications you have open.  This however causes a huge problem in my opinion in Windows 8, as once you have been working for a reasonable amount of time opening various applications you suddenly find that when you want to switch to another application you have to wade through all the suspended applications.  It’s actually worse on a tablet as the method of switching applications is a swipe in from the left of the screen and it’s a sequential process unlike the old ALT-TAB or Windows Key – TAB method, you literally have to switch between each closed application until you get to the one you want.  It gets very old very quickly I can tell you!!
  3. Metro applications are full screen and have no “Chrome” as it’s called. That is they don’t have a menu bar at the top with the usual File >> Edit >> Options >> Help type  menus, or a title bar or Minimize, Maximize and Close buttons. Basically they are either running or suspended, you don’t close them, you don’t minimize them, you don’t restore or maximize them. They are either full screen or running in the background. 
    This is a picture of Internet Explorer running in its Metro IE10 version:
    screenshot_IE10_page
    This is Internet Explorer when you have swiped up from the bottom of the tablet screen or right-clicked if using a mouse. At the top you can see the pages you have open, the equivalent of seeing the tabs in the current version of IE9. Now this is all fine and dandy when you are using a tablet and your finger, but it’s mega frustrating to have to mess about like this when in Aero you just click a tab.  But what happens when you want to display multiple applications side by side? Well you can sort of?
    SplitScreen
    This is the Windows desktop on the left and the IE10 Metro App on the right.  You can only have this one quarter / three quarter split, all you can do is have it with the bigger screen on the other side (i.e. so it becomes a three quarter / one quarter layout going left to right). Which all seems a bit restrictive compared to the Aero desktop in Windows 7.  I suspect the reasoning for this is that when you are using your fingers as your pointing device all the usual Min Max Close and menus are too small to use with your fingers. I have had both Windows 7 and Windows 8 on a tablet and definitely Windows 8 Metro Apps do work much better with your finger.  My BIG problem with that, is that is not how I or other people will want to do their daily work.  Sure at night when they get back from work and want to chill out on the sofa and just read the news off a website or browse their favourite sites using a tablet, this is perfect.
  4. One of the big claims for the new start screen (I thought it was the desktop when I first started Windows 8), is that it is a) easy to start apps with your fingers and b) gives you instant feedback.  If you look at this screen grab below you can see that the tiles are showing status information about the user’s email and weather information etc.:
    screenshot_startScreen_page
    This is great and gives you an instant feedback of what is going on.  You can obviously re-arrange the pinned applications so that the ones that you want are in the first part of the screen but for a desktop PC user the icons for the applications look like this:
    MetroStart
    As you can see this all looks a bit like Windows 3.1, very cluttered looking, for me a bit too gaudy and because it seems to favour the text over the icons for non Metro applications (I suspect soon to be called “Legacy Apps” if the MS marketing drones get their way) they are actually less easy to locate than how they are on Aero and waste a lot of what I would call desktop space. I appreciate that there will probably be Metro versions of Word Excel and PowerPoint etc. but until then and for most users who want to stick with their existing software this will be how it looks for some time to come. To see more applications than shown here you must scroll to the right for what seems like hours on end.  On a tablet like my Zoostorm this is not brilliantly fast and becomes frustrating. Using the mouse and its scroll wheel you can scroll across quite quickly on my laptop but again it’s frustrating compared to having it on my taskbar or in easy to find menus.
  5. The biggest problem of them all however is the idea that a desktop PC user is going to get this “Touch First” user interface at all when they buy Windows 8 on their next Windows PC.  This problem goes to the heart of everything about Windows 8 focusing on a tablet paradigm.  Yes this will work great on tablets and I don’t care who you are, a tablet is NOT a computer you want to do serious work on. The only exception to that rule are people who take inventory or who do surveys and need a quick tick the box type tool with limited amounts of typing required. As soon as you have to type lots of information you need a keyboard and the on screen keyboards in both Windows 7 and Windows 8 (indeed any tablet OS) obliterate so much of the tablet’s screen that using them on something as complex as a spreadsheet or Word document becomes too disruptive as the keyboard gets in the way too much.  I have even tried filling in web forms using my tablet and it’s horrid. I spend more time hiding and showing the on-screen keyboard as I try and get to fields that are hidden behind the keyboard.

    For a desktop user this interface is OK and you can run desktop metro apps with a keyboard and mouse but why would you want to? Especially as it means giving up effectively multi-tasking for this clunky full screen single tasking or bi-tasking sort of idea where you can only have three quarters of a screen for your main app and one quarter for the one other one.  This is going t o be very crap on my dual 24” flat panels and for other people who run 3 or more screens.

    I just hope that Microsoft see sense and allow the user to turn off the Metro UI or allow us to have a proper start menu in the Aero Desktop as well as the start screen (there is a registry hack that works on the developer preview that allows you to turn off the Metro UI and it puts the traditional Start Menu back, note it sometimes causes weird things to happen if you decide you want to go back to Metro again!).

In fact I can’t see why there is this need to make all of Microsoft’s products have this corporate “Metro” look.  They have even put it on my Xbox 360 and it works Ok but it’s not needed for my money. I think they could quite happily have Windows Tablet Edition and Windows Desktop Edition and leave Metro off desktop PCs all together.

My hope is that when the full beta comes out they have answered a lot of the criticisms I have here such as making it possible to close Metro apps and being able to turn the Metro Interface off for desktop users and give us the Start Menu back.

As a person who makes his living writing applications for Windows and supporting business users PCs and Servers I am extremely worried as to how Business will react to this complete sea change in the user interface.  I think if Microsoft are not careful they are going to have another “Millennium” or “Vista” on their hands. Just as they managed to give the vast majority of Windows XP users a viable alternative to their current operating system.

I am very concerned that a lot of businesses who traditionally wait for a couple of generations of Windows operating systems before upgrading and who are now about to shift off Windows XP as it reaches its final support countdown in 2014 will take a look at this and think “I really don’t want the training costs associated with this transition” and will jump ship completely to the likes of Linux Mint. Mint offers them a no cost alternative desktop that has all of the benefits of Windows 7, i.e. it looks like traditional Windows, it doesn’t suffer with Viruses at the moment, it runs Open Office or Libre Office which can open MS format documents and provide enough functionality for most businesses.  The server Linux offerings like Red Hat can provide a similar set of email and collaboration applications that would almost satisfy the current Outlook/Exchange user. Also increasingly the Google Android market will satisfy the tablet and mobile phone areas and these are Linux based technologies so in some ways sit better with Linux than Windows.

MintDesktop

If this starts to happen with a number of very big players, then the majority of business users might decide to follow suit and MS will be dead literally.

Let’s hope they see sense and accommodate the desktop and laptop user who doesn’t want to poke their screen(s) with their finger and do want to do serious work that requires a keyboard and mouse or we will all be honing our Linux skills.

Siv