Windows 8: Initial Thoughts

After watching a very nice (and quite exciting) presentation of Windows 8 at Microsoft’s BUILD conference yesterday, I anxiously awaited the Developer Preview releases on the main Windows Developer site. After going live on Tuesday evening, I downloaded a 64-bit version of the OS and installed it on my ThinkPad circa-2007.

All in all, it’s a pretty smooth experience. The install took about 10 minutes from boot to desktop, and after fixing a few minor driver issues (video, touchpad/pointer, and chipset), the UI was running quite smoothly. Metro-style apps loaded quickly, I could switch between various perspectives quite quickly, and things worked as described.

The new Explorer features are nice and easier to find via the new Ribbon interface, but I don’t think I’ll find myself using it that much. I’m a keyboard-shortcut guy, so most of the time the ribbon will remain hidden away until I need something obscure from it.

When you take into account all of the stuff that Microsoft has packed into Windows 8, it all works with few immediately noticeable bugs. However, I’m hoping that Microsoft is still planning on doing a lot of work on this thing before it hits RTM next year.

Issues

First off, I don’t like that the Windows 7 style start menu is gone. Not just hidden–it’s gone, unless you edit a Registry key that basically turns off all of the new features: ribbon, metro, lock screens, and more. In essence, it would revert you to the mainstream Windows 7 experience. Assuming that such a sacrifice still includes the performance gains that Windows 8 promises (reduced memory and resource usage footprint), then maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But I believe that there will be some new Win 8 features that even the power users will want and turning it all off is not a good option.

I find the new interaction model a bit unwieldy. Getting to common areas like the global control panel, device manager, computer management, and even shutdown/restart requires a jump back into the Metro Start UI replete with all of its tiles. For mobile devices, the tiles make sense–I want to see a lot of information at a glance, and the tiles fulfill that task well. But when I’m sitting at my computer all day with email, Twitter, and Google+ at my fingertips, the live updates provided by Start make less sense.

Additionally, having to return to this full-screen launch interface to do nearly *anything* just rubs me wrong. I feel like I’m interrupting all of my current tasks on the standard desktop in order to grab another tool or start a new browser. Sure, common items can be pinned to the taskbar a la Windows 7, but having a bunch of quick access items in a popup Start menu just seems like a more fluid way to work (i.e. every version of Windows since ’95).

What worries me after seeing this new interaction model is that as time goes on, the tech industry is focusing more and more on doing or showing one thing at a time. Sure, metro apps can be collapsed into a sidebar-esque view, but every last one of them feels like it was meant to be run fullscreen or not at all (perhaps the exception being social media apps).

Yes, these apps are more powerful than ever before, but isn’t this interaction model what we all got away from starting with Windows 2 and even more in 3? The ability to open multiple apps in multiple windows, each with their own space was a huge leap from the DOS and 1st-gen GUI days when running one application at a time was considered cutting-edge. Why are we pushing things back in that direction? Every mobile OS does this–run multiple apps simultaneously, yes, but use only one at a time. Tablets are largely the same way, but now we’re trying to do that with our desktops??

First, Apple brings “full-screen” to the forefront with OS X Lion, and additionally pulls some iOS features in alongside the core OS. That makes things weird. Theoretically, Microsoft has a better and more robust strategy here by actually integrating such an experience into the core of their OS and making this functionality a required new interaction pattern, but it still feels like a huge step backward.

Hopefully this majorly-highlighted Metro UI is so prevalent only because of the Developer Preview, so I’ve got my fingers crossed for a much more balanced approach come final release. However, I’m a little scared that we won’t be so lucky.

I don’t mind change, and I’d like to believe I’m fairly “forward thinking.” I’ve been excited about every major Windows release since Windows 95, including non-starter features like WinFS (still a great idea, btw) that didn’t make it into Longhorn. But my initial excitement about Windows 8 is now reduced to cautious optimism. Yes, there are some majorly awesome features coming (like syncing your user account across multiple machines via Windows Live), but there are possibly some major caveats in store as well. Only time will tell.

Well, if things don’t work out quite like I want them to, I guess there’s always Linux 😉

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