Windows 8 – First Impressions

Windows 8 is something new.  Microsoft have been billing the Build Conference as something as important as Windows 95 was to the PC industry.  And from their point of view, I can absolutely see their point.  With Windows 8, we have a step change similar to that of Windows 95 – in that We have a similar operating system, with a new shell, and a new way to interact with the shell.  Sure, the shell allows you to wrap up and use your old applications, but they are a second class citizen in the new world.

Its a brave move.  Its also a different move from the rest of the industry.  The rest of the industry are saying

“Sure, you can keep your desktop PC or your laptop for doing heavy duty stuff – but when you’re wandering around, you don’t need all of that – you want something cheap, light and simple”

Microsoft are saying

“Once you’ve used touch, you won’t really want to go back.  So the PC industry is going to have to move towards touch everywhere.  What we want to do is be ready.  So you’ll have touch on your desktop PC, and you’ll have touch on your laptop (which now might be a tablet…).  We’ve developed a new way of writing lighter weight apps that work well with touch and will run on minimal hardware – which is probably all you’ll want when you’re out and about, so you can use a low cost sub-laptop tablet.  When you’re back on your main machine, everything from your tablet will sync to it, and you’ll be able to use your desktop apps too”

Microsoft are also reminding us that some things – such as Photoshop or Integrated Development Environments – work better as keyboard and mouse driven applications.  And that you’ll always need a desktop type system for that sort of job.

So:  What do I think of the test machine I’ve been handed to play with:

Well, the first two things to say are that it works, and also that its buggy.  Neither are surprising – you wouldn’t be able to get developers to be even slightly productive on something that didn’t work – and if it wasn’t buggy, surely MS would be shipping it now.  It certainly isn’t unstable enough for me not to consider using it though.

The UI is different from the rest of the tablet crowd, and seems to have been well thought out.  There is a clean and simple design language, and a simple but powerful mouse gesture language (which rely heavily on the side of screens – Microsoft have recognized a replacement to Fitts law for then 2010s).  I’m not going to say its entirely clear how to navigate everything though, it certainly isn’t entirely intuitive to me yet.  I’m sure before long everything will become second nature, but right now you have to know how it works before you can find out what is possible.

MS have made a lot of integrating with web services they don’t control.  This is an interesting move – I may be wrong, but it seems to me that we are seeing Apple restricting access to the non-apple world, while Microsoft are increasingly embracing it.  I may be a mad optimist, but Apple and Microsoft today remind me of Microsoft and IBM at the turn of the century.

But the main thing to point out is that what I’ve been given isn’t a tablet in the way the iPad is a tablet – what I’ve been given is a machine comparable in power and capability with any laptop – but with an additional UI which hides the power away and makes it usable in exactly the same way and iPad is.

Right now, playing with the tablet, I would say it was on a par with Android tablets I have seen – the released version is very likely to outshine the android tablets of today.  Will it blow away the iPad?  Probably not.  But it will set the iPad new challenges – challenges the iPad might find hard to meet.  It does have the potential to relegate the iPad to a niche – or even to inspire Apple to produce a pad+mac device (which is really what this would be the PC equivalent of). Weirdly they’ve done it by fixing what was wrong with previous generations of tablet PCs rather than copying the market trend.  As I said, brave.

In the past I’ve suggested that Microsoft know nothing about design, and are hamstrung by backwards compatibility.  I think Windows 8 provides a little evidence to allow me to refine this argument:

Microsoft are hamstrung by backwards compatibility.  And this leads them to making decisions because it satisfies the most people, not because they are the right decision.  I don’t see anything new here.

But Microsoft are also able to come up with quite attractive, well thought out systems when given a blank sheet of paper.  Which is what Metro is right now.

I still think there are aspects of metro which are not well thought through, and the integration between metro and the desktop seems less well done than it could have been.  It isn’t the product of one man’s eye, but rather a set of well engineered design decisions.  And it shows that Microsoft engineers are more than capable of thinking differently when they are given a chance.

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