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Start: The Windows 8 Era Begins

The first sign of craziness: The Windows 8 Start screen

Windows 8 is a mess, but it’s a glorious, wonderful mess. It’s the technology equivalent of a gooey ice cream cone on a humid summer day, where half of it just drips down over your hand, and you couldn’t care less because the whole experience is so wonderful. For all the whining, hand-wringing, and ivory tower opining over Microsoft’s decision to wed an awesome new mobile platform with its superior desktop OS, few of these critics ever paused for a moment to consider an awesome possibility: This time, more really is more.

Seriously, let’s think about this for a second. We have a weird new class of desktop defenders, the technology enthusiasts and IT pros who can’t stand to see Microsoft trod all over their suddenly beloved desktop interfaces with this new Metro foolishness. (And yes, I’m going to call it Metro. Sue me.) What these people seem to be forgetting, however, is that if you look just at the improvements Microsoft has added to the desktop side of Windows 8, you’ll discover that Windows 8 is a bigger improvement over Windows 7 than was that OS over Vista. Mull that one over for a second, then drop your preconceptions and misguided biases. It’s true.

The desktop doesn’t just live in Windows 8, it’s the best version yet

But Windows 8, of course, is about much, much more than yet another evolution of the desktop interface. It is nothing less than an entirely new mobile platform, with a new runtime engine, new developer APIs, new user experiences, and a slew of new apps, all of which are designed with an eye to what is suddenly an inevitable future of multi-touch devices, most of which will be tablets. Windows 8 isn’t just designed to continue Windows’ dominance of the desktop. It’s designed to put Windows in the race for this simpler, more elegant and increasingly popular new form of general purpose computing that, to date, has been the province solely of Apple and Google.

Of course, the utter insanity of Windows 8—the genius, really, and yes it’s a fine line—is that Microsoft actually combined its legacy desktop platform and its new Metro mobile platform into a single product. For all the emotion and angst this decision has generated, it’s a bit odd to realize it was done for very pragmatic reasons. Yes, Microsoft could have built a new mobile platform based on Windows Phone, emulating the Apple playbook. But this strategy would have failed, just as Zune failed in the MP3 market despite its many advantages over the iPod and iTunes. By melding Metro to the desktop, Microsoft ensured that hundreds of millions of people—not thousands, not millions, but several hundreds of millions of people—would be using this system within the year.

Control Panel moves into the Metro world via PC Settings

You can view that decision negatively—look, Microsoft is jamming something we don’t want down our throats—or positively: Hey, look at this awesome new stuff we get for absolutely free as part of Windows 8. And if you don’t want to use Metro style apps for some reason, just don’t. The desktop works just as well as before. Better, actually.

The profound bit here, I think, is that Windows 8 isn’t Windows 7 plus Metro. No, Windows 8 is a new mobile platform, Metro, that also happens to run the old Windows desktop and all its legacy applications. That is, Windows 8 isn’t Metro and the desktop running side by side, it’s Metro with the desktop as a potentially temporary add-on, something that’s there for all the obvious compatibility reasons, kind of the way that Apple used to let OS X users run “classic” Mac OS applications side by side with the newer stuff. Microsoft’s approach is technically more sophisticated—legacy desktop applications are not virtualized or sandboxed in any way—but conceptually it’s the same: You can mix and match between new and old.

You want games? Windows 8 has games. Xbox LIVE games!!

Should the new stuff—Metro—take off, you can expect Microsoft to drop the desktop like it's suffering from leprosy. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only reason Windows RT—the ARM-based Windows 8 version that will only be preinstalled on a handful of machines from a tiny number of hardware makers—exists is to make this future vision a reality. Like AMD’s x64 before it, the ARM technologies Microsoft is embracing will drive Intel to create better, more efficient x86/x64-based “system on a chip” designs that will either defeat ARM or at least put the aging PC infrastructure on par with ARM. Either way, Windows—and Windows users—win, because whatever system they use will be better as a result.

Metro has you covered for productivity too, with full-screen email, calendar, contacts, and messaging apps

And if Metro does take off, Windows will surely be better for it. This is a hard pill for some people to swallow, and I know that what you’re about to read will not be popular in certain circles, but please take this with the understanding that I’ve written it as a diehard, confirmed desktop PC user. The desktop must die. And it must take all of the bad stuff that comes along with the good—the malware and viruses, sure, but also the complexities, reliability issues, and so on—with it. These types of technology changes are difficult, and often time consuming. But with each new generation change, some old, out of date technology is lopped off too. And the move to Metro/Windows RT will be the biggest exorcism of technological deadwood yet.

New Metro-style apps can be acquired through the Windows Store … And most run on both Windows 8 and Windows RT

I can’t wait. But in the meantime, I need to run Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and other desktop applications. I need to run them side by side, and to multitask more efficiently than is currently possible in Metro. These and other shortcomings will be addressed, and more quickly than in Windows 9 three years from now, according to my sources. So Windows 8, this glorious mess, is also—more than any previous Windows version—a slice in time, a temporary thing that will only get better as time marches on.

It will do so in part because much of what makes up Windows 8—the many, many Metro-style apps that Microsoft bundles in the product—are themselves being constantly updated. We saw this during the pre-release period, and we’ve even seen it already since Windows 8 was finalized. We’ll see more of that in the weeks and months ahead.

Xbox media apps such as Xbox Music and Xbox Video provide gorgeous front-ends to content on your PC and online

But there’s also the core of the OS, the platform itself. And this new platform, Metro, this incomplete ... thing ... isn’t going to sit still either. If you’re familiar with previous Microsoft initiatives like .NET or Zune, where the company threw away the past and started over from scratch, you know that these changes, while cathartic, also result in version 1.0 solutions that are missing key functionality. So it is with Metro. And that’s gonna change. Quickly, I believe.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the meantime, we have Windows 8, as it is right now. It’s a brand new mobile OS from Microsoft that also happens to run your existing Windows desktop applications (you know, as long as you’re not using an ARM-based Windows RT variant). Yes, it’s going to have a learning curve, because there’s a lot of new stuff in there. But so what? Moving to an iPad or a Mac from Windows would have an even worse learning curve. With Windows 8, you get all the good stuff from the past, served with a heaping helping of both new and better. And I think you’re going to love it. Assuming of course, you can ignore the klaxon calls of the Internet buffoonery out there. Don’t let other people decide for you. Windows 8 is so inexpensive, so wonderful on new tablet hardware, so freaking bizarre and weird and fun, that if you love technology at all, you’re going to want to try it. Do so and then make your own decision.

In the weeks and months ahead—between now and the general availability of Windows 8 in late October—I’ll be doing what I do, supporting new and potential Windows 8 users with all of the information they need to get up and running on Microsoft’s new OS. This will take the form of a multi-part review, feature focus articles that, literally, focus on individual features, tips, hardware reviews, and other articles. It’s time to move on to the more important work of actually figuring this sucker out. And that’s going to take some time.

I can’t wait to get started. So I won’t.

Next up: My Windows 8 review begins.

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