While some still deride cloud computing as a passing fad, I see it as a technology change agent. In the Microsoft sphere, our first hint of this change came with Windows Phone in 2010, where the software giant discarded old and well-understood account and data models and removed the PC sync requirement. But Windows Phone was only a half measure, as it turns out, and the digital media content you accessed from the device—music, video and photos for the most part—still required a PC sync connection.
In Windows 8, the revolution continues, and digital media will be centralized in the cloud much as our accounts and data were beginning with Windows Phone. Windows 8 will be, in other words, a more complete vision of how Microsoft sees the future of computing, and something akin to what Apple is offering with iCloud.
For this reason, the new digital media apps in Windows 8—Photos, Music, and Video—are hard to understand today. They are simplistic, even ridiculous. They offer nothing beyond the most basic consumption interfaces, so you can view photos, play music, and watch movies, but not edit pictures, manage your music collection, or edit and share home movies.
That this is by design is, perhaps, confusing. And one thing I need to remind myself as I write these overviews of various Windows 8 features, and write the book Windows 8 Secrets, is that what we’re seeing today is as incomplete now as it is deliberate.
Of course, this is just a lengthy way of stating that the Video app, the final part of the triumvirate of pain that is Microsoft’s new selection of Metro-style digital media apps, is, well, horrible. It’s as lackluster as any App Preview I’ve used, and is perhaps even the worst of the bunch. Not that it matters. The back-end features that will make this and other digital media apps in Windows 8 special aren’t available yet. So all we can do now is look at what we’re given, shake our heads, and move on.
Like its stable mates, the Video app is a typical, Metro-style, full-screen experience that extends horizontally and looks and works much like the Music app and like the digital media experiences in the Xbox 360.
And like the Music app, Video pushes Microsoft’s online store experiences over your own local video collection, sandwiching your collection between marketplace-placed groups for Spotlight, Movies, and TV shows. In this case, however, that’s a bit less bothersome. After all, unlike with music, few people have huge collections of movies and TV shows on their hard drives.
Navigation works as it does with the Music app. Those who do have local video collections—as I do—can use the Collection view to access that content, though the Video app almost always misidentifies the videos as “Other” rather than appropriately as a movies or TV shows. (The temporary fix: Use the Zune PC software’s Edit function to correctly tag the content as Movies or TV series, respectively.)
Video playback works largely as expected and resembles the Windows Phone video player with large, touch-friendly controls, including a new unique new timeline scrubber. You can even play most content to your Xbox 360 (using the Xbox Companion app), giving Windows 8 users an Apple AirPlay-like solution.
Of course, the primary reason this app exists is so you can browse and then buy (and/or rent) content from Microsoft’s Marketplace. For some reason, the app gives two entryways into this content—one for movies and one for TV shows—but they work nearly identically, except for some navigational changes related to the format of TV shows, which feature multiple episodes spread across multiple seasons.
Intriguingly, you’re given some choices when you buy or rent videos. That is, you can stream the video directly to the current PC or device, bypassing the need to download it before watching it. But if you do want to watch the video later offline (say, on a plane), you can choose to download if you prefer. But you can also simply just make the purchase and then not watch the rented or purchased video at that time. Later, you can access the video content from a Windows 8 PC or device, or the Xbox 360, and begin watching as you please.
Purchased content is forever associated with your Microsoft account, and anytime you access the marketplace—from Windows 8 or the Xbox 360 only, for now—you can navigate to an item directly in the marketplace, and start streaming it immediately: Instead of a Play/Rent button, you’ll see a Play button. There’s no concept like a “Purchased Items” list as on iTunes, at least not yet.
Movie and TV show listings feature buttons related to buying and renting (movies only), video details, Play on Xbox (which will stream to an Xbox 360 on the local network), and Play Trailer (movies only). TV seasons expand so you can see individual episodes.
The purchase experience differs a bit between movies and TV shows as well. For movies, the assumption is that you wish to rent the SD version of the movie and stream it to the current device immediately. With TV shows, you can choose to purchase shows in SD or HD (when available), and you always get both download and stream availability. A Change viewing options link presents a screen with options that will vary from content to content but can include HD, purchasing and renting, and Play, Download and Done options.
And then there’s the whole Microsoft Points thing. Rather than sell you content in your local currency, Microsoft pushes everything through a points system designed to save it money and complexity, while costing you, the user, both. I cannot believe we’re still dealing with Microsoft Points. But we are.
I don’t know.
Maybe it’s just me, but the Microsoft media marketplace stuff seems half hearted and inconsistently implemented. I just don’t get the feeling that Microsoft is fully behind these services or that the apps that serve them in Windows 8 will ever rise above the minimum, or the mediocre. I want to be proven wrong here, really. But in the face of Apple’s iTunes/iCloud/iDevice juggernaut what I see here is Zune generation 2. And that’s not enough.