Now I know what your thinking: why would I care about Windows 8? Well, even though I am a Linux guy and use it almost everywhere, I still have to use Windows on a daily basis for my job as well as supporting my wife and family as no matter what I say, I cannot get them to even try Linux. So, to get an early look at Windows 8, I downloaded the Consumer Preview and installed it both in a virtual machine using Virtual Box and on a Netbook that has a touch screen. I installed a few apps I normally use and tried using it for a while. Here are my thoughts on the new interface and the OS in general.
When your setting up Windows 8, there are at least 2 reboots. Not ideal, but I understand that it’s just the way Windows is. Linux machines usually only have one. It’s better than previous versions of Windows in that regard so I can’t complain about this too much.
After you name your PC, it automatically asks for your Microsoft account. This is usually a Windows Live account. I used my Hotmail account. This will automatically bring in data from your Windows Live account. This is similar to how Android works and is fine for home users. Microsoft also does Android one better in that it does also let you use a local account or join an Active Directory Domain. Active Directory is how most corporate users login to Windows and is used by corporations to manage logins and the Windows desktop in general. Without Active Directory, Windows 8 would not get any corporate adoption so it’s definitely there, but you can see that Windows 8 has a huge focus on consumers versus being focused on business.
The Start Screen is a little interesting, but I personally feel it’s a total waste of screen real estate when compared to the traditional start menu. It DOES have some nice features, namely that the tiles are updated as information changes. E-mail, the weather and the calendar tiles are pretty useful, but they take up an awful lot of space. This might work ok on a phone or on a tablet, but on a desktop with a large screen it just seems out-of-place. Plus when you click on them, the app zooms up full screen. This works on a phone and works on a tablet, but on a desktop it just feels awful. Plus Internet Explorer on the Metro UI will not allow plugins. That includes Microsoft’s own Silverlight plugin. Run into a page that uses Silverlight and you can click the install link, but then it acts like the browser just crashes and throws you back to the start menu. To run web applications that require Flash, Silverlight or other plugins there is another way and that is the desktop.
The classic desktop is still there sans the traditional start button. When you run a traditional application like Chrome, Internet Explorer or Firefox you are thrown into this interface. Getting back to the start screen is not made clear which is a horrible UI issue in my opinion. To get there, you move your mouse into the lower left hand corner and when a small representation of the start screen comes up you click. You can also press the Windows key. Windows 8 is no different from some of the newer Linux-based desktop environments like Gnome 3 in this regard. While you can figure it out, it’s not easy to figure it out on your own as we already saw the problems Chris Pirillo’s Dad had. However once you figure it out, it’s easy to remember. I think Microsoft should put some sort of queue or a walk through to help new users learn this new paradigm.
There’s also the Windows charm menu which let’s you change settings, search for applications, share items from the Metro UI and return to the start menu if you are in a Metro app. To bring it up in Desktop or Metro mode you move your mouse into the lower right hand corner. This menu feels a bit odd. It almost feels like it should be a set of controls on the start screen. I only use this because you can only get to some settings from this menu. Searching also more easily accomplished by just typing the application or file name from the start screen. While this is easier than using the charm, it’s also not obvious.
A New Platform
From the technical side of things, Microsoft is finally adding another platform to Windows with the addition of the ARM architecture that is so common on Android devices. ARM is just another processor that Windows will also be able to run on other than Intel. The good part is the interface will be familiar on Windows 8 ARM tablets to those buying a tablet. The bad part is there is zero guarantee that your favorite Windows program will work on these. Office obviously will probably be ready at launch or soon after but apps like Photoshop would need some work in order to run on Windows 8 ARM tablets. Your best bet, if you want a tablet, is to find one that runs Intel. If you have an old tablet PC from the last few years, you could try it on one of those. I tried it on a netvertible(a Netbook that converts to a tablet) and it worked ok on it with the exception of having to tweak the graphics configuration with a hack to the windows registry to get Metro apps to work. So, if you are shopping for a tablet now to run Windows 8 on, make sure it uses a resolution of 1024×768 or better. Better still, just wait until the fall when there are real Windows 8 tablets out there.
From a Linux User Perspective
Now what do I, a Linux user, think of the new desktop? There is a lot to like about the Metro UI. It’s very tablet friendly and pretty easy to use, but there’s not much room for customization of its look. Also, the feeling I get when switching back and forth between the 2 interfaces is disjointed. While I can get used to it I just think of what users like Chris Pirillo’s Dad would do. His dad said what are you trying to do? Drive me to the Mac? That’s a very valid question. People who have already gotten used to Windows but are not the typical geek or Gear Diary writer probably will not like the new interface. This is the same crowd that are loudly complaining about the changes Facebook makes. Making changes to what they’ve already come to love/hate will only drive them to keep what they have. This is one area that Apple actually got right. It took many iterations of Mac OS X (now OS X) to get to where it is today. Microsoft usually does the same thing with slow interface changes over time. This time, they are making a change that is really different. The only problem is now there’s way more competition for the desktop/laptop and tablet space. Microsoft still is dominant, but the gains that Apple has made with OS X and iOS are significant and ones Microsoft shouldn’t ignore.
Why do I care? Well I want to see Microsoft be successful mostly because it also pushes Linux developers to push the envelope and try new things. Some of these new changes can be seen freely in Fedora and Ubuntu Linux. One big change has happened to the Gnome desktop I use on a daily basis. Above is a screenshot of the main interface on version 3 of the desktop after I pressed the Windows key. You can see that it’s very basic with a non cluttered interface which is a similar route to Windows new spin on the desktop. In many ways, I think it’s much more superior than the Windows 8 desktop but I think it too also suffers from some of the same things that the Windows 8 desktop does. However, Gnome does not have two separate environments fighting to reign supreme. In my opinion, this is where Gnome really shines over the Windows 8 desktop. There is nothing like Metro on the Gnome desktop. There is no “this version of the app can do almost everything but….” stuff in the Gnome desktop. That is where I think Microsoft fails. The Metro apps are nice, but you can’t use them everywhere. If you can manage to stay in the Metro interface it probably doesn’t matter but I can’t see Windows users being happy using up their huge screen with only one application.
What changes do I think need to be made? I’d like to see Metro apps that can ALSO be run in a Window on desktop mode if they insist on having both. I’d also like to see the Metro version of Internet Explorer brought up to support plugins. As much as I want browser plugins like Flash to go away, I don’t think it’s time to not support them in a browser. Maybe in 5 years, but for now they need to be there. Finally, I think they should ship only Metro on tablets and the classic desktop for everything else. It’s much less confusing if you aren’t switching between interfaces all the time.
I think Microsoft has a lot of work before they release Windows 8 and I hope that they listen to what many people have said about it(Windows users as well as other OS users) otherwise it looks like Windows 8 will be another Vista. Which wouldn’t be all bad for Microsoft, but since they are using this to really push tablets it could hurt them on that front. With iOS and Android both encroaching in the PC space with tablets they don’t have a choice. Windows 8 must be a success or Microsoft will be an also ran in the tablet space.