Microsoft Hits One Out of the Park with Windows 8 Start Screen

Last week, Microsoft unleashed a three-prong attack in which it revealed a major overhaul of the Windows UI, coming in next year's Windows 8 release. This includes a live appearance by Windows Head Honcho Steven Sinofsky at an industry conference, a professionally made video starring Microsoft UI Guru Jensen Harris, and a separate appearance at the Computex trade show in Taipei by Microsoft Hardware Lead Michael Angiulo.

Put simply, what Microsoft showed off was a shell, of sorts, which will sit on top of Windows 8, resembling the Windows Phone "Metro" UI, with colorful, dynamic tiles. It's called the Windows Start screen, is targeted at widescreen displays, and works equally well with traditional keyboard and mouse interfaces, kind of like Windows Media Center does today.

Mock-up of my personalized Windows 8 Start screen (enlarge)

The Start screen has touched off a delicious and exciting debate over whether this UI is the single greatest innovation that Microsoft has ever created, or the single worst mistake in the company's history since Bob.

Well, I have a newsflash for you. This UI is genius. And while I understand that, for many of you, the knee-jerk reaction is to disagree, perhaps violently so, all I'm asking for is a little patience. Because I think I can explain why this UI, improbably, is perfect for just about any computing scenario you care to name.

Let's jump in.

First, to frame this discussion, at least admit that computing is suddenly evolving very rapidly. And whether you agree that Apple's iPad is a big deal or not, just know that the Cupertino company has in fact jumpstarted a new computing category, something that can and will exist alongside traditional desktop and notebook computers for the foreseeable future.

I've been saying since last year that these two product lines—iPads/tablets and PCs—will merge over time. That is, the iPad and its copy-cat followers are going to evolve "upmarket" in that they will pick up more and more traditional PC capabilities over time and lean less heavily on the consumption side of the usage fence. Meanwhile, PCs will evolve "downmarket" (not really, but it's unclear how else to say this) and pick up the best iPad functionality: A simpler UI. Instant resume and single-digit second boot times.

Conventional wisdom has it that Windows is too big and bloated to make sense on a highly-simplified, device-like tablet. Without getting into the details of why this is ludicrous, I'll just point you to Ed Bott's argument against this line of thinking, which boils down to reminding people about the deep componentization works that has occurred in Windows over the past few releases.

More important, I think, is the argument that Microsoft would never—will never—give up its greatest strength, a long-running tradition of backwards compatibility. Unlike Apple, which can aggressively junk aging technologies and products as it moves inexorably forward to The Next Big Thing (tm), Microsoft has approximately 1.2 billion users worldwide, and many of them are corporate customers who demand that today's products work with yesterday's. This thinking has guided Microsoft's OS design over the years, of course. And it's happening again in Windows 8.

But here's the thing. I and many others have also argued, endlessly, that it's not possible to have a single OS, let alone a single UI, that works equally well across all hardware types. I mean, how silly is it to think that Microsoft, or any company, could come up with one UI that works on phones, mini-slates, tablets and Tablet PCs, netbooks, notebooks, and Ultrabooks, desktop PCs, media center PCs in the living room, and—gasp!—even servers? It's ludicrous, right?


The Windows 8 Start screen is that UI. Here's why.

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First, we already know that this UI is touch-friendly (i.e., will work on multi-touch slates, tablets, and displays), and will work equally well with traditional mouse and keyboard interfaces, supporting keyboard shortcuts just as Windows does today. But I don't think Microsoft has shown off all the possibilities here. I also think that the Start screen will work just fine with today's Media Center remotes and with the Kinect, offering users new (and in the latter case, "Minority Report"–like) ways to interact with gigantic HDTVs in the living room and in public speaking scenarios. It's brilliant.

Second, let's talk user types. Obviously, individuals are going to be all over this UI. But so will business users, since Microsoft will clearly allow corporations to control how (and whether) this UI looks and works, and while onscreen elements are allowed. Are you looking to limit some users to just a handful of work-related apps? Of course you are. And this will make that resulting environment simpler than ever.

What about IT pros and admins? Are you telling me that this new Start screen isn't a killer dashboard for managing the state of your environment? Can't you imagine the screen background changing color (green, yellow or read) based on the environment health? That those tiles wouldn't be ideal surfaces for instant reporting mechanisms, performance graphs, and the like? This isn't just a decent UI for that stuff, it's ideal.

Third, the underlying APIs that we know about so far are based on simple, common web standards such as HTML 5, JavaScript, and CSS. That opens up this environment to a far larger—and less sophisticated—developer base than would run based on more difficult .NET, Silverlight, and ASP .NET code. (Though I do expect that stuff to happen as well.) Microsoft has been trying to turn IT pros and admins into developers for years. But this is far more accessible than any of their previous efforts.

Fourth, as noted above, Microsoft cares about compatibility. And not only is Windows 8 compatible with exactly the same hardware and software as Windows 7—it will even have exactly the same or lower hardware requirements, Microsoft says—but the familiar Windows desktop is still there, hiding "below" ("alongside"?) the Start screen. (As are all the familiar applications, utilities, and services you know and love today.) The Start screen is additive. It doesn't take anything else away.

And this brings me to what I think is the single biggest point I can make about the Start screen. As its name suggests, the Start screen is not a replacement for the Windows desktop, or the Windows taskbar, but is rather a replacement for ... wait for it ... the Start menu. And it makes sense when you think about it. In Windows 95, Microsoft introduced the Start menu, and the changes we've see in Windows versions since have been largely evolutionary. In fact, the biggest change came in Windows 7, when Microsoft took some of the primary Start menu functionality—shortcuts and program launching—and moved them to the taskbar. With the Start screen, this evolution is complete: Now, instead of doing that stuff from the taskbar, it's done from the full screen.

But it's not just that: Those tiles are far more dynamic and expressive than any taskbar or Start menu icon. So, yes, you could tap the weather tile to launch a weather app, but the tile already displays today's weather plus a three-day forecast, so you probably won't need to. Yes, you could launch email to see whether there are any new mails, but the tile will tell you when one is available. And so on.

With the understanding that there is still so much more to learn about Windows 8—Microsoft promises further revelations all summer and then a BUILD developer show in September—I've already seen enough to be convinced. This new Start screen will work equally well across all the device types on which Windows works, and it will work equally well for all of the company's customer types too. Yes, you can turn it off if you want. But my guess is you won't want to. And if you can just get out of your old way of thinking, and stop being shackled by the way things used to be, I think you'll come around to this notion as well.

Windows 8 has been billed as the biggest change to Windows since Windows 95. And for once, I think, reality matches the hyperbole.

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