Are we really ready for Windows 8?

Technology Staff Editor
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According to John Biggs @TechCrunch, if Windows Vista was Microsoft’s folly – a mish-mash of ideas not fully baked and aimed at multiple constituencies – Windows 8 is Microsoft’s rebirth. Is it possible that Microsoft may have gotten it right?

Windows 8 will ruffle a lot of feathers. The first and most obvious comparison is with the new Windows Phone interface. The “Start” menu is gone, replaced by what amounts to the multiple, animated squares.  Can you imagine using Windows without the famous Start Menu button?

Then there’s the Explorer. Every so often – and it will happen more in the beginning of Win8′s life cycle, the OS drops into “original” Windows, the Windows of tiny, uselessly-labeled buttons and overlapping windows and notification screens. Gone are the tiles and gently pulsing images, in comes Windows 95.  Why would Microsoft want to maintain ties to the original Windows with this odd accumulation of functionality – they’re going to be ripped apart by the blogging masses. Going from Metro to “Windows” is like going from the Museum of Modern Art to a bodega across the street. You’ll get more done, but you will still miss the cool, calm design and attention to detail.

So what exactly is Metro?  Metro is an internal code name for a typography-based design language created, of course, by Microsoft – originally for use in Windows phone 7 along with Xbox 360.  The language was designed specifically to consolidate groups of common tasks to speed up usage.  This is accomplished by excluding redundant graphics and relying on the actual content to al function as the main UI.

The improvements made in this version include a split keyboard for improved on-screen typing, considerably improved gestures including a cool “left side swipe” that brings up all running applications, and improved PIM apps like Mail and Calendar that are so far from Outlook as to make Outlook look like a steam-powered Rolodex. SkyDrive interactivity allows users to keep their settings, downloaded apps and content, and look and feel from PC to PC, a very interesting concept to be sure.

Windows Live is gone, replaced by Microsoft Account. Microsoft Account allows IT managers to distribute apps, settings, and files to any computer, anywhere, including mobile devices. You could log into a friend’s computer and see all of your SkyDrive files and have access to app downloads. Even your wallpaper will move over. Then, when you log out, all that data is gone. That’s how it works in theory, at least, and it should improve an IT guy’s life immensely.

This goes hand-in-hand with improved battery life and performance. Win8, dependent on fairly efficient on-screen animations, reduces the need for heavy duty graphics activity.  That should mean that the performance will improve – right?

Developers will be pleased with the cool new Metro UI and, more important, the concept of “contracts,” a sort of pipe-slash-API that allows apps to share pieces of data. Search is the most interesting application of these contracts. For example, when a user performs a search, all of the apps on the device offer up their own contracts. Once you start to drill down into a search, these contracted apps expose what they’ve found during their own searches without exposing anything else. Think of it as a roll call for apps where the OS requests some data and the apps reply in turn. The same goes for sharing. Twitter and email sharing become integral parts in the sharing experience when those apps make their contracts visible.

Microsoft is actually playing down the compromises it has made with Windows 8, focusing instead on future features. Win8 is not an accrual of functionality over an old platform. It is, instead, a rethinking of the Windows experience that will leave many queasy. While it’s fun for us to go swiping along through tiles and writing contracts with daemons, it’s going to be a massive change for “regular” users who are used to the old mouse-and-window way of doing things.

The question is whether Microsoft can offer a compelling reason to rewrite apps in Metro and whether users will take to Win8 as quickly as they did Win7 or will they abandon it and go for the Apple.  A fleet IT buyer will look at Windows 8 and wait things out but the move will be inevitable, especially as users begin expecting Metro and keep getting XP.

In the end, Windows 8 is a massive change and an obvious next step. The OS leaves competitors in the relative dust, at least in terms of usability, and paves the way for a world of touchscreens and Kinect-like interaction.  Do you think that user’s are ready for this?  Do you think that they are ready to give up the mouse?



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