With the recent release of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, a familiar debate has raged: Will this next Windows, with its dual user experiences that seek to satisfy all customer types in a single product, be Microsoft's next big success, or its next big disaster?
It's a valid question and, no, I don't believe there's any middle ground to this one. With Windows 8, Microsoft is offering an explosion of new that excites people like me but leaves many users confused. I've staked my career on explaining Microsoft's products, so Windows 8 has me rubbing my hands together with glee. For Microsoft's users, and for those who support Microsoft technologies at work, it's a bit less exciting. OK, maybe a lot less.
Windows 8 is a rejection of everything Microsoft has ever done with Windows in the past. In the old days, the software giant would try to downsize Windows by putting its well-understood user interface in other, more mobile, systems, such as Windows CE, Pocket PC, and Windows Mobile. These efforts were disastrous, as was the assumption that a familiar UI would cause users to adopt a new platform en masse and without question.
With Windows 8, the roles are reversed. Here, Microsoft is taking a user interface designed for mobile devices and shoehorning it into its traditional Windows products. But either because it's pressed for time or simply lacks conviction in this new UI, Microsoft is also hedging its bets. So Windows 8 includes both this new UI and the old Windows desktop, side-by-side. It's not one OS, it's two.
The interaction between these two environments is troubled, and it reminds me of the awkward relationship between MS-DOS and Windows 95. Back then, Microsoft insisted that it had done away with MS-DOS for good, but those claims were shown to be incorrect by Andrew Schulman and others. Today, we're told that the Windows desktop is essentially an app that runs under a new Windows runtime and OS that I call Metro, since Microsoft doesn't seem to care to name it properly. But things aren't that cleanly delineated. They never are.
After testing the Windows 8 Consumer Preview for several weeks on a variety of PC and device types, my conclusion is unavoidable: Most users will simply pick one environment and stick with that. Or more fairly, the decision will be made for them based on the type of machine they use.
Those of us who use traditional PCs - -which today is roughly described as "everybody" -- will stick primarily to the desktop environment, with its amazing application availability, advanced multitasking, support for large displays, and the like. Because of the way Windows 8 is designed, these users will, however, need to deal with the Metro environment whether they want to or not: Key system-level features such as the new Start experience, the new Back experience, the new Switcher task-switching interface, the Charms bar, notifications (which arrive as both full-screen experiences and flyover toasts), Snap (the side-by-side app screen sharing functionality), Search, Settings, and probably more, are all served up by Metro, and often in a very jarring fashion.
Meanwhile, those who utilize a coming generation of iPad-like tablets, hybrid devices, and other touch-screen-based systems will likely stick mostly to Metro. And they'll discover an environment that's beautiful to look at with a more efficient design than the iPad and a wider variety of hardware choices and price points. (Assuming the market plays out as expected.) But Metro is fundamentally incomplete, and it can remain so because there's always the desktop fall-back plan. Need to format a disk or access the contents of a USB device? Explorer is right there. Want to apply BitLocker, or configure new features such as Storage Spaces or File History? You'll need the desktop.
Of course, the desktop isn't a particularly hospitable place for touch-screen-based users either. Although I’m not sure which is more awkward -- using Metro on a desktop PC or using the desktop from a tablet -- both are pretty tedious and rarely the experience you're looking for.
To play devil's advocate, I'll at least point out that the Apple approach -- two different systems, Windows for PCs and Metro for devices -- would have failed mightily had the software giant gone that route. Microsoft is not Apple, and it never will be. And if you accept that a coming generation of iPads and iPad-like devices is reforming the market for general-purpose computing devices, then this Apple-like plan would have pitted this new Metro business against Windows internally at Microsoft. And the only thing worse than watching Microsoft get out-maneuvered by Apple would be watching it commit ritual suicide by pitting a fictional Metro team against Windows.
Windows 8, like it or not, is thus Microsoft's best chance. It gives the company a platform that's at least unique -- I mean, seriously, could you imagine Apple foisting this two-headed hydra on customers? -- and retains all of the compatibility of the past while aiming Windows squarely at the future. But as is so often the case with Windows, its biggest strength is also its greatest weakness, and by trying to please all possible customer types, Microsoft might have just created a system that is perfect for none.
Those who believe that tablets are the future will find a simpler and purer system in the iPad. And those who believe that the PC is where it's at and always will be might be turned off by what they see as the unnecessary tabletization of Windows. Fortunately, it's not like Microsoft has much competition in that particular market. But that's the issue: Traditional PCs might soon be in the minority compared with other computing devices.
The worry, simply, is that Microsoft's quest to create a no-compromises version of Windows that answers all needs might have resulted in something that is very much a compromise. Turning Microsoft's own marketing lingo against it is cheap, I know. But that's the fear. And it sits at the heart of a debate that won't quiet down anytime soon.
As always, I'm curious to know what you think. Will you be rolling out Windows 8 and, if so, will you do so alongside Windows 7 on traditional PCs, or are you looking to a new generation of simpler, more efficient tablets and other devices? It's early days, I get that. But let me know what you think, and calm my worries . . . or maybe just make them all the worse.