Readers Speak Out on Windows 8

Last week’s editorial, "For Better Or Worse, Windows 8 To Be Industry Inflection Point," garnered hundreds of responses from readers, and they’re still coming in. Many of you are passionate about technology in general, or about Windows 8, or your careers specifically, and it shows. I apologize for not responding to every mail I received about this topic, but I did read them all, and there are a few key themes that I think are worth repeating.

The first involves Steve Jobs’ assertions about cars and trucks. When the first iPad shipped two years ago, he said that PCs were like trucks, and that iPads were like cars, and that the market would naturally ship the simpler device. Jobs was right. But in this imaginary market in which trucks were on the road for decades before the first car appeared, the transition will be difficult. Some will move quickly to the new devices -- tablets, mostly -- because their simple computing needs were previously shoehorned into a PC that was too complex, too unreliable, and too insecure. But others will move more slowly, and some will need to continue using PCs, of course. Some will continue using PCs regardless of need -- they just prefer this type of computer for some reason -- just as many actual truck owners simply use the vehicle to commute to a white-collar job that never involves hauling anything.

In this scenario, Microsoft is seeking to serve two markets with one product, Windows 8, which runs on multiple device types. And in typical Microsoft fashion, there will be hybrid devices that bridge the two worlds. Adding a keyboard to an iPad will only get you so much. It will never turn into a Mac or PC. That won’t be a limitation with Windows 8 devices and PCs.

We can debate Microsoft’s strategy here -- and you continue to do so, based on my email -- but I’ve tried to be pragmatic. That is, given that Windows 8 is what it is, let’s move forward and deal with reality, and not get bogged down in flights of fantasy.

That said, there were a lot of what-if’s. For example, many would be more open to accepting the Metro user experience if they could somehow overlay it on, or place side by side with, the desktop, configurations Microsoft told me were impossible because of security concerns. And many wish, as I do, that Microsoft had engineered Windows 8 and “Metro” as two separate platforms, with the former focusing on PCs and the latter aimed at iPad-like tablets. We’re going to be second-guessing that decision for years, I bet.

But back to the matter at hand. Given the Windows 8 hand we’ve been dealt, how will you proceed?

It is perhaps telling that almost no readers reported any plans to roll out Windows 8 in corporate environments for the foreseeable future. Windows 8 is decidedly consumer-oriented in my opinion, a fact that Microsoft should simply come clean on. Here’s why: It's Microsoft’s business customers that have required the software giant to support its major platforms for ever longer time periods. (Windows XP, released in 2001, won’t be unsupported until April 2014.) Simply telling enterprises that they can and should skip Windows 8 -- or at most roll out Windows 8 in a Windows 7-like configuration alongside Windows 7 -- would be cheered by Microsoft’s biggest customers.

“Windows 7 was Microsoft’s gift to the enterprise, a very solid and functional OS,” Tim B. noted via email. “Windows 8 is Microsoft’s gift to consumers, a very simple and intuitive touch interface for a new breed of devices.” Exactly so.

Many environments are, of course, currently in the midst of a Windows 7 (and, often, Office 2010) rollout. So even if Windows 8 did offer some compelling advantages of its predecessor -- and to be fair, there are some decent business-oriented improvements -- the timeframe for rolling out Windows 8 is too far out to even consider. (Some mentioned Windows Server 8, which I didn’t explicitly discuss. I do feel that Windows Server 8 will see more significant uptick, as a percentage of the user base, than will Windows 8 in the first couple of years ahead.)

“I can say without a doubt there's no way we'll roll out Windows 8 as it exists right now,” Dwight L. told me, summing up the opinion of many emailers nicely. “The fact that managing Win8 is essentially the same as managing Win7 doesn't matter ... The Windows 8 Metro UI is completely unfamiliar, and for us would be a support nightmare.”

Some individuals are less than sanguine about Windows 8 even on their personal machines. They’ve tested, poked, and prodded the Consumer Preview and don’t see what all the fuss is about. I suspect that a timely preview of the hardware that’s coming down the pike would change some minds here. But as always, Microsoft does things on its own schedule.

A small minority of readers disagreed with my assessment that the desktop/Metro shift was “jarring” or that users would find it confusing. But my issues here are with discoverability: Once you know that the Metro environment supports edge UIs, hot corners for mouse use, and a bewildering array of keyboard shortcuts, you can start becoming quite efficient indeed. But I’m not sure how users will figure that all out. I do know, however, that years from now I’ll still be getting tips from users who stumble on features that had been there all along, hidden from all but the most dedicated spelunkers.

One area I didn’t really touch on last week that was Windows 8, with its new platform and Windows Runtime (WinRT), is also coming with a new set of APIs, also called WinRT, which developers will use to create Metro-style apps and services. WinRT bears some resemblance to the Windows Phone APIs, in that they are logical, clean .NET-type frameworks. But instead of simply porting the Silverlight-based Windows Phone APIs to Windows 8, Microsoft has again done its own thing. And while WinRT gets high marks, there’s no escaping the fact that this is 1.0 technology. So there are going to be functional holes for some period of time until updates occur. On what schedule? We can only guess.

Finally, I would like to offer up one glimmer of hope. After decades of reviewing and writing about tech-related products, I can tell you that the true measure of any product upgrade is whether you could go back and use the previous version and not miss any of the new features. Once you’ve gotten used to features such as Start Search, which debuted in Windows Vista, for example, going back to XP is painful. (And not just for that reason.)

So what’s the Windows 8 to Windows 7 experience like? In a test that was notably short for all the right reasons, I found myself missing Windows 8 quite a bit. Once you’ve become used to the system-level services in particular -- the new Start Search experience that can be redirected to settings, files, or any supported Metro-style app, the consistent way of accessing settings across Metro and Metro-style apps, and so on -- suddenly, Windows 7 doesn’t seem so hot anymore.

But here’s the most surprising bit. Apps that simply shouldn’t work at all for a heavy multitasker like myself -- the full-screen, Metro-style Mail, Calendar, and Internet Explorer apps, for example -- are actually pretty nice. And I find myself sticking to these apps more and more, even on my desktop.

So there may be hope for Windows 8 yet. Or as my favorite email, from one who shall remain unnamed, simply stated: “Calm down.” Fair enough.

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