Thursday, May 30, 2024

Hey, Microsoft: Don’t Forget The Desktop in Windows 8

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With all the noise and excitement about Windows 8 being the next big tablet OS, I hope Microsoft isn’t going to give all their desktop users short shrift.

Windows 8: what a paradox. On the one hand, it’s a new version of Windows with some genuinely useful under-the-hood functionality: a built-in VM layer; more efficient memory usage; fast-restore technology. All this stuff is great.

On the other hand: Metro, the Windows user interface designed for tablets.

It really does come down to that for me. Windows 8’s biggest problem is that it’s being poised more and more as a tablet OS, with desktop users getting thrown a couple of bones here and there. If the PC and tablet sides of the equation aren’t made a little more, well, equal before release, 8 might well become another Vista: a skip-a-generation non-upgrade.

Metro’s not for desktops

The problems with Metro can all be boiled down to two things: it’s not a desktop interface, and it coexists poorly with the conventional Windows desktop.

Metro was designed for phones and tablets, and for devices with touch displays and not conventional mice. Metro’s tiles look elegant on those tiny screens, but become sparse and chintzy when blown up to the size of a 22″ widescreen display–especially one you sit with a couple of feet of, not one that’s mounted on the wall on the other side of your den.

Flinging back and forth is a pain. Type-to-search has become a chore. (I’m amazed they kept it at all.) Right-click functionality is all but nonexistent.

Worst of all is the integration, or lack of same, with the conventional desktop. The way the system context-switches back and forth between the classic Windows interface and the Metro interface is like trying to keep track of the queen in a street game of three-card monte.

All that flinging back and forth is tolerable on a little screen in the palm of your hand, but not when it’s eating up most of your vision.

Some of this, I admit, is the fact that I’m not a tablet guy. In my mind it makes little sense to pay more for less: why replace a keyboard with a touchscreen? It’s not as if you end up with all that less to lug around for the most part.

The fact that I give up a whole culture of apps I know and love, and replace them with what feel like dialed-down, crippled substitutes doesn’t help either (at least if you’re going from Windows to iOS or Android).

Call it the residue of accrued habits from being a longtime “conventional” PC user. But let’s face it: “conventional” PC users are still a silent majority of all users.

There are tons of people out there, me included, who use full-blown PCs and cannot, or will not, trade them up for what amounts to the new craze in thin clients. Web apps are useful complements to their desktop counterparts, but the former can’t replace the latter in the ways that matter most to me. And, darn it, a full keyboard is really handy.

It’s broke – fix it

If it was only about Metro, then Windows 8 would be eminently skippable. But there’s more to Windows 8 than the new Metro interface.

It’s not just the ribbons added to Explorer, either (not that most people seem to be fond of the latter anyway). It’s all the kernel-level and OS-level changes have been made that make it a better system from the inside out.

The fast boot is remarkable, even in this early stage of the game. The native VM system, based on Hyper-V, is immensely useful. The system uses less memory and works that much more efficiently.

I want all those things. But I don’t want the distracting, productivity-sapping baggage of the Metro interface on top of them.

I know I can turn off Metro with a single Registry edit. I’d rather not have to do that, because it doesn’t fix the underlying problem: that Metro wasn’t designed to work well on desktops, period.

Instead I’d like to see that many more concessions for desktop users in Metro, and less distracting ways for Metro and old-school Windows to coexist. How about, for instance, the option to run Metro apps in a window–where their size on a big screen will be a) adjustable and b) that much closer to what we get on a phone or even a tablet anyway? Or how about the ability to “pin” the Metro desktop to a second monitor, where I don’t have to pay as much attention to it?

… or skip it

If Windows 8 is mainly meant to be a tablet OS, maybe I should just leave it there and skip a generation. It’s not like Windows 7 is going to expire the second Windows 8 comes out. If anything, it’s fast looking like this generation’s Windows XP in terms of longevity, which is reassuring.

A sure sign that Windows 7 was on to something good was how it didn’t need major tweaking to be phenomenally useful. I’ve had to tweak each successive generation of Windows less and less to get it to perform well, improvements in hardware along the way notwithstanding. I don’t want Windows 8 to be a regression in that respect.

IDC is claiming most Windows users will find Windows 8 irrelevant, with almost nobody bothering to upgrade from 7 to 8. In their purview, most of the people who bother with Windows 8 will be tablet users getting it as a preload. Business users are warned to stay away because of the problems the Metro desktop is going to cause with conventional enterprise apps–and because many of them are only just now getting up to speed with Windows 7 anyway. (I see that last reason as being the single biggest obstacle.)

Yes, I’m quite conscious of how the Windows 8 we’re getting peeks of now is far from being anything like a finished product, or even a beta. I hope the rumored January beta gives us more hints where things are going. But from all I’ve seen, Microsoft is in danger of alienating the part of their user base that still matters the most.

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