Windows 8 Worries

Has something gone terribly wrong with Microsoft's upcoming OS?

Every month, I think I’m going to be able to move past Windows 8, and every month it just sucks me back in. The reason is simple: As a major upgrade to Microsoft’s core product line, Windows 8 is a big deal. It’s revolutionary and thus frightening to many users. But it’s also taking a lot longer to complete than was originally expected.

We figured that Windows 8 would come to market in less than a year, like its predecessor, but now that’s not so certain. I had expected a public beta release to happen before you read this. But now it seems that the beta won’t ship until as late as the end of February. Trouble in paradise?

Windows 8 Worries Continue

When I speak to those running the Windows Division (which I refuse to call by its real name, Windows and Windows Live Division) at Microsoft and to those directly responsible for the momentous and revolutionary change to the Metro-style user experience, as most obviously embodied by the new Start Screen, I’m struck by an amazing semblance of calm. Here they are, uprooting Windows more violently than ever before in the past, and yet they seem so darned sure of themselves. It’s fairly astonishing.

As a thinking man, however, I have my worries. Although I’ve bought into the notion of Metro-style apps, the new Windows Runtime (WinRT), and the Start Screen, at least on paper, there’s this measure of doubt that something has gone terribly wrong. And because Microsoft has spaced the public milestones of this product so widely, I look for evidence to support both the accepting and doubting parts of my brain.

That this spacing of milestones is a such a concern speaks, I think, to the enormity of the change, and also to the times in which it’s happening. Microsoft’s core business is under assault as never before, both by simpler computing devices—smartphones and tablets—and by cloud computing services, all of which are working in concert to make obsolete the Windows/Office/PC computing norm of the past and present.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort—here in Windows IT Pro and at various websites, blogs, and podcasts—trying to remind people that the experience we have today with the pre–beta Windows 8 Developer Preview doesn’t mirror how things will work after a collection of non–preview Metro-style apps become available. Today, we must run “legacy” Windows applications on the Windows 8 Developer Preview, causing a jarring, back-and-forth experience as we move between the Metro-style Start Screen and these old-school desktop applications.

In the future, this won’t be an issue, or at least it won’t be as much of an issue, but that’s hard for many to imagine. They simply see the problem as it stands today.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, it’s the company’s responsibility to communicate this change, and there’s only so much an individual outside the company can do. (And sometimes I do feel like that lone person standing up to an onslaught of negativity, though I know that others associated with Windows IT Pro, such as Mark Minasi, are in fact also quite excited by the changes coming in Windows 8.)

In the court of public opinion, as I write this, Microsoft is failing.

Even a cursory examination of the software giant’s Community Support websites for the Windows 8 Developer Preview reveals mounting discord. Some complaint posts are so long and so frequently commented on that they’re actually locked because they’ve become too unmanageable.

Finding a positive note here is next to impossible. And some of the criticisms are certainly valid.

Multitasking. Because Windows 8 apps aren’t typically closed but rather run in the background until automatically suspended, as with phone apps, this makes multitasking difficult. Anyone using Windows Flip (ALT + TAB) to tab through the list of available apps will run into unwanted apps they might have otherwise closed, making it hard to find the app required.

Furthermore, Metro-style multitasking is functionally stunted compared to what’s available today in Windows, with only two apps being allowed onscreen, side by side. Windows hasn’t required window tiling like this since Windows 2.0 in the late 1980s.

Touch first. “Touch first” means mouse and keyboard second. Microsoft argues that the Metro-style UI is “touch first” not “touchcentric,” a bit of word play that’s designed to undercut criticisms that the company is designing Windows 8 purely for a market that doesn’t even exist yet: that of touch-based devices and PCs.

But as critics have noted, the very notion of “touch first” means that other interface types—including mouse and keyboard—are by definition secondary. And anyone who has used the Developer Preview on a traditional PC will tell you that mouse and keyboard interactions are lackluster. I’m sure this will improve, as Microsoft claims, but the fact remains that designing one UI for such a diverse array of input types is difficult.

Full screen apps. Metro-style apps run as a full screen or, when supported, they can be tiled next to each other. This makes sense for devices such as the iPad, which has limited resources, but it’s hard to justify on the PC, where 27-inch screens, multi-core processing, and copious amounts of RAM and storage are increasingly common.

To understand why running apps only as a full screen display might be a problem, try to spend a day in a web browser that’s in full-screen mode (tap F11 to toggle this). It’s almost impossible.

ARM. Trying to get a straight answer out of Microsoft about its plans for ARM-based Windows 8 versions is a little like pulling teeth. We know that ARM versions of Windows 8 won’t be compatible with the thousands of x86/x64–compatible Windows applications that are currently available. And we know that ARM-based versions of Windows 8 will run all of the future, Metro-style apps.

But will these versions supply the legacy desktop, or be pure, iPad-style devices with just the Start screen? Will developers be able to write new, Win32-style desktop apps that run on both ARM and x86 systems?

Microsoft isn’t saying. And I have to be honest here, the silence serves no purpose I can understand, beyond helping Apple solidify this market around its already-shipping, well-understood iPad.

I’ve seen many more complaints, but you get the idea. And for each of these listed complaints, it’s worth noting that none of them are colored by a misunderstanding of the future. That is, each assumes that we will in fact be running full-screen, Metro-style apps in the future, not legacy desktop applications. And still this vision of the future is seen as flawed.

There might be deeper problems, however. One of the issues that Microsoft has never adequately addressed with Windows is that its OS is a servant with many masters. The needs of individual users vary, of course, but the needs of individual users also vary within businesses, which are themselves diverse and different.

In the past, Microsoft could build into the OS multiple avenues for completing tasks, with both friendly, wizard-based interfaces for new users and non-discoverable but more efficient interfaces for power users. In Windows 8, this capability is gone, and Microsoft is left to position the Metro-style UI as its simple, friendly UI and the legacy desktop interface as its power user/business interface.

How could Microsoft possibly imply that its brand new UI is simple and less efficient? And how can it support two distinctly different user experiences in the same product? Why not just make them completely different products, with different names and missions?

These are the questions I see out there. These are the concerns that readers have.

And while we wait, and wait, and wait for Microsoft to divulge what’s changing in the beta, and what it plans to do going forward, the questioning turns to dissatisfaction, even among some of the company’s strongest enthusiasts. This is a problem the software giant needs to address sooner rather than later.

Changes in the Windows 8 Schedule

Not helping matters is that Microsoft hasn’t been able to keep Windows 8 to the same manageable schedule that it provided for its predecessor, Windows 7. In retrospect, this makes sense. Windows 7 was a minor update with extremely clear goals: Keep everything that was right about Windows Vista but make it faster, smaller, lighter, and more manageable.

Windows 8, meanwhile, is a revolution. And these things take time.

How much time? Well, my sources at the software giant told me originally that the schedule for Windows 8 would closely mirror that for Windows 7. We would receive a feature-complete prerelease version in Fall 2011, followed by a beta version in January, a release candidate (RC) in April, and the final release to manufacturing (RTM) in July. Windows 8 would then ship just in time for the back-to-school season next year.

Since then, of course, Microsoft shipped a Developer Preview in September that quite obviously isn’t feature complete. The beta, originally scheduled for January, could slip to late February, according to sources, though there’s still some hope this will be a feature-complete release. It’s certain that not providing such a thing at such a momentous milestone would throw the schedule further behind.

But assuming Microsoft is able to deliver a beta by February, how will that affect the schedule? Assuming the company can then return to a more typical schedule of three months between milestones, it’s possible we could see an RC release in May, followed by RTM in August. That’s too late for back to school.

But what if the September-to-February time period is more typical for the remainder of the schedule? That would place the final release of Windows 8 as far out as December 2012, with general availability happening in early 2013.

This is exactly the schedule envisioned by trusted Microsoft watcher Michael Cherry, not coincidentally. The Directions on Microsoft analyst stated that he didn’t expect to see Windows 8 PCs hit the market before early 2013, because of mounting delays.

However, just in case this is actually starting to make sense to you, a source I do trust at Microsoft told me recently that the plan was still for Windows 8 to hit general availability by late August 2012. Could such a thing be possible?

It’s possible, according to my “Windows Weekly” podcast cohost Mary Jo Foley, who isn’t buying all the doom and gloom for Windows 8. If the Windows 8 Beta really is feature complete, she says, getting from the beta to the final release won’t take all that long.

In fact, it will simply be a matter of fixing bugs, addressing some obvious user feedback, and shipping. And she believes that Microsoft will be able to deliver a real RC version well before mid-year and ship the final version of Windows 8 to manufacturing shortly thereafter. That puts the product in market just in time for the crucial back-to-school season.

What does all this mean to you? Frankly, Windows 8 is a non-starter in businesses for all of 2012, no matter how it turns out and how fast Microsoft is able to get the product to market.

I would spend much of the year investigating this release, because it’s going to evolve over time and will be a major change. But I don’t see any businesses rolling out Windows 8 in volume before 2013 at the earliest. So continue with your Windows 7 plans, folks, there’s nothing to see here.

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