Monday, September 16, 2013

Windows 8 impressions from an old old timer.

A side consequence of getting a new computer for my wife is it has given me my first opportunity to look at Windows 8. Of course I have read and heard lots of things about Microsoft's latest operating system.  I have been using MS operating systems since the original IBM PC Dos back in the early 80's so I have seen bad ones and I have seen good ones but Windows 8's attempt to marry desktop and mobile interfaces has spawned more controversy than most so it was good to finally get a chance to make my own mind up.

Having played with it for a week or so I think I can sum up my opinion with a car analogy: Brilliant Engine, Schizophrenic Dashboard. 

Brilliant Engine: This is definitely the slickest, fastest, most stable version of Windows I have ever used and after the brilliance of Windows 7 that is saying a lot. Everything pretty much just works and works well. It also seems to be highly compatible with legacy programmes and I haven't discovered one which doesn't work yet.

Schizophrenic dashboard: The juxtaposition of traditional desktop with touch screen focussed Metro is quite bizarre and at times downright confusing. Although it is very easy to swap from one mode to another it is not always obvious which mode you should be in order to accomplish certain tasks and basic functions like viewing files or even shutting the machine down are very confusing. Microsoft's decision to include two versions of Internet Explorer adds further to the confusion because it never seems obvious which browser you will get.

Let us talk about the elephant in the room: Do I hate the new Metro interface? No I don't, it is sleek and fast and quite pleasant to use. Do I think it is ready to replace the traditional desktop?: No I don't. It has clearly been optimised for small screen mobile devices and is missing a lot of basic functionality that users of large multi screen desktops expect. Multi monitor support is non existent as far as I can tell and the configurability of the metro interface is poor. Do I think that Metro will eventually replace the desktop?: Yes. Yes I do. It is pretty clear that this is what Microsoft intends. You cannot opt out of Metro. Removal of the start button was a clear indication that MS wants to force users to engage with Metro even if they are using legacy windows applications. I think there is a lot of work to be done to make Metro really useful on desktop computers but I am sure that these things are in the works.

I cannot help thinking back to the transition from MS Dos to Windows back in the late 80's / early 90's. There are many similarities. Back then Microsoft wanted to transition folk from a nerdy command line interface loved by techies to a more visual graphical interface that appealed to the general public. This move was also inspired in part by developments from Apple. The early versions of Windows were in fact much worse and much less useful than this early incarnation of Metro but then again you weren't forced to use it. Computers still booted into command line DOS and you actually had to run Windows as a separate overlay. Forcing users to engage with Metro is a much more aggressive approach on Microsoft's part particularly at this early stage when Metro is not yet a complete replacement for the old desktop. It remains to be seen whether this will speed up adoption of the new standard.

Aside: One peculiarity of using a Windows 8 machine is that this all new all singing all dancing touch screen enabled interface has brought a very old concept very much back to the fore. Keyboard shortcuts have become absolutely essential once again. Windows has always had keyboard shortcuts but it is many years since I regularly used anything more than the most basic ones (alt-tab for example). It has quickly become clear that the easiest most straightforward way to cut through the schizophrenia of the Windows 8 interface is to learn and use the many keyboard shortcuts. Simple key combinations will swap from desktop to metro and back again for example and many other handy functions can most easily be found using a keyboard shortcut. Here is Microsoft's own list:

Pro tip: Quickest way to shut your machine down is to press Alt-F4 while on the desktop.

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