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Windows 8 Consumer Preview: Does This Even Make Sense?

Yesterday, I posted a sort of impromptu discussion of what I see as the downfall of the Internet, the ability of people with way too much time on their hands to dominate the discussion by endlessly debating pointless, picayune issues with Windows 8, rather than focusing on the Big Picture items. The resulting article, A Call for Common Sense, was as controversial as expected, I guess. But I'm amazed that so many people--whether they agreed or disagreed with what I wrote--still managed to miss the central point.


And that point is this: There are in fact, very serious issues to discuss around Windows 8. Very, very serious issues. And I have yet to really raise these issues in a meaningful way.


So I'll do so now.


The central issue with Windows 8, of course, is whether the dual--or, as I've said before, dueling--and mostly separate user experiences in Windows 8 make any sense at all. That is, Windows 8 offers both the classic desktop interface we've been using since Windows 95, as well as a new Metro-style runtime environment called WinRT that consists of the Start screen, Metro-style apps, and the various edge UI bits that transcend both environments (Back, Start, Switcher, Charms, and notifications).


Microsoft's contention is simple: By not eliminating the backwards compatibility of the past and including the desktop in addition to the new Metro environment, it has created a "no compromises" OS, something that offers the best of both worlds, if you will.


Microsoft's critics offer up an equally compelling story: This two-headed hydra is a mess, and is in fact the opposite of "no compromises." It is, they say, the very definition of compromise.


So which is it?


Having used Windows 8 for some number of months now, but the more full-featured Consumer Preview for quite a bit less time, I'm of mixed opinion on this one. The enthusiast side of me is ecstatic that Microsoft is at least going for it--really, really going for the gold--with this one, and doing something truly different, something that retains the past advantages of Windows while potentially positioning it to thwart the tablet threat and do to that market what the company previously did to Linux in the netbook market.


The realist, or pragmatist, in me worries that Windows 8 is disjointed, that these two separate environments will never be crossed, and that Microsoft is essentially creating two different products that will coexist, weirdly, together. And that which you use more will depend on which type of product you buy: Tablet users will exist primarily in touch-friendly Metro, while traditional PC users will exist primarily in the desktop.


(I wrote more about that latter topic in Understanding WOA. Please do go back and [re]-read that now.)


As a power user, I will clearly be spending most of my time in the desktop, though I've strived to spend as much time in Metro as possible, simply because I'm writing a book about Windows 8 and need to understand it well, and regardless so that I can write about it for this site. But I spend most of my time in the desktop.


The Metro "fingers" that extend into the desktop are not an issue for me at all. The Start screen replacing the Start menu, Shutdown being in the Charms on the right and not on the left, the notifications, and so on, none of that has been problematic. Anyone can get used to it and all the whining about this stuff will be temporary. So I can at least say that, even for those who just use the desktop stuff primarily, the design changes in Windows 8 are not a net negative. They just aren't.


But this two-headed, Frankenstein-like welding of two completely different user experiences?


I don't know.


I will tell you that the battle over Windows 8 internally at Microsoft was furious, that people there very early on had ideas for a Silverlight-based system that would have brought Windows into the 21st century. Those people were defeated, though their ideas were later implemented, sort of, as Windows Phone. And those that weren't interested in using technologies that they didn't invent--.NET and Silverlight as key examples--well, they won the war. And Windows 8 is the result. It's all theirs, for better or worse.


Inside Microsoft, there is a related fixation on whether Windows 8 will succeed and, yes, there is a contingent of people stuck in a paradoxical position: They understand that the success of Microsoft is inexorably linked to Windows, and thus that Windows 8 must succeed. But they desperately want Steven Sinofsky, and thus Windows 8, to fail. That both can't happen is of course the unresolvable issue.


I won't get into my thoughts on internal Microsoft politics, but let's very briefly consider the alternative. Microsoft could simply have made a Windows 8 that was to Windows 7 as Windows 7 was to Windows Vista; that is, an evolution. And Microsoft could have adapted Windows Phone to work on tablets, following the strategies of both Apple and Google. Certainly, many within Microsoft wanted the company to do just that.


In such a scenario, I personally see Windows on a slow, gradual decline. And I see the very real possibility--almost a certainty, really--that this Windows Phone tablet system follows in the footsteps of Zune and makes absolutely no dent at all. It is like Windows Phone: Technically excellent, highly usable, and utterly ignored. And when you combine that failure with the slow decline of Windows, you get a steep, steep decline for Windows in the overall market for general purpose computing. In other words, a disaster. A disaster that would make people pine for the comparatively stable days of Windows Vista.


Of course, Microsoft is not doing that. They are not going towards certain failure but are instead making a big bet--A. Big. Bet.--on something that is unknown and unproven and not necessarily destined for success. But in making this big bet, Microsoft is, I think, doing the right thing. Not in the details, necessarily, but in the broad strokes.


And secondary to the central issue here of the two user experiences--which, yes, I will get back to--is the next major issue. WinRT and the Metro-style user experience are very much a 1.0 release. And you don't have to know too much about Microsoft or its history to realize that this company's first versions of almost anything are never anywhere near where they need to be in terms of functional completeness.


So it will be with Windows 8. The desktop stuff in Windows 8 is a nice, measured evolution of the past. But Metro? My God, it's so firmly in 1.0 territory that the final release will essentially be the world's biggest beta test.


The true test for the people who make Windows won't happen when Windows 8 ships, it will happen after Windows 8 ships. Microsoft cannot---must not--wait three more years to get to Metro 2.0. It must be prepared to deliver steady updates over the next three years, at least, via whatever means they care to name--Feature Packs, whatever--and improve this core system, free of charge, until they get it right. There's no other way to do this. They just cannot allow such a basic, unfinished system to hang in the wind for three more years.


But back to the two-headed hydra that is the dueling Windows 8 user experiences. Does this thing even make sense?


Part of me wants to punt this question to the future, to say that we need to experience the system on more diverse devices, that people who have used it on hybrid devices like that coming Lenovo Flip move effortlessly and unconsciously between the various input types (touch, keyboard, mouse), and .. Blah, blah, blah. But the honest truth is, I don't think it matters.


I don't think it matters one bit.


See, I really do think that the very simple statement I made back in Understanding WOA is perhaps the most relevant statement one can make about Windows 8. And it goes like this:  WOA (i.e. tablets) are for consumers and x86/x64-based PCs are for business. And what I mean by that is that, for the vast majority of consumers--i.e. not you and I, not the power users--that the tablet-based Metro UI will be the primary user experience and that it has the added benefit of the occasional desktop use. For power users, content creators, developers, IT admins, many office workers and so on, we have the desktop, with occasional forays into Metro.


(Don't overthink this. Yes, you can move back and forth, dock a tablet and turn it into a full PC, etc. Yes. We multitask. I'm saying that the bridge between these two environments simply won't be crossed regularly and that, given the device type/usage scenario/user we will typically stick to one or the other.)


The thing is, this is arguably superior to using an iPad for almost anyone, because such a WOA or Intel tablet device can have all of the benefits of that Apple tablet, plus all the benefits of a real Windows PC. And aside from pure WOA tablets, they can be managed in the workplace to a degree that will never be the case with an iPad. And businesses that might have otherwise succumbed to the iPad will actually love Windows 8 because of that.


Ultimately, I think the thing we all need to realize is that Windows 8 is primarily a consumer play, or at least an attempt to thwart or at least slow iPad adoption across the board. I don't believe there's anything wrong with that focus, in fact. And I argue that Microsoft would be wasting time and effort by focusing in any meaningful way on a desktop environment that, frankly, is already mature and working and compatible with all that's out there. Focusing on something that works on tablets makes sense in 2012. This is the time to do this.


Put another way, the dual/dueling nature of the Windows 8 user experiences is pretty much a non-issue since it won't be something that most people think about. We are moving back and forth now because Metro is new and we want to see what all the fuss is about. But by the time Windows 8 ships, I bet users of all stripes will fall neatly into the usage patterns that make the most sense for them. For most people, consumers, that means Metro on a tablet or hybrid device, as they upgrade. For some--power users and the like, you and I, certainly--that means mostly the desktop. Play time will be over and we'll just get to work. Windows is a tool, after all.

By the way, it's not coincidental that I'm writing this very article from a Microsoft desktop application on the Windows 8 desktop and not in some Fisher Price word processing "app" in Metro. That won't change 6 or 18 months from now, folks, it just won't. Microsoft will ship Office 15 this year or next and it will be a suite of desktop applications. And that is how I and many millions others will continue to get work done.


To recap, there are indeed big issues to debate around Windows 8, and I feel that the dual/dueling nature of the system's two user experiences is one of the core issues that we need to figure out, wrestle with, and come to an understanding of. We need to do that in the context of also understanding that this is indeed how Windows 8 will ship, and that there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop that. And what I've written here is by no means my "final" determination on this topic. I've only been using the Consumer Preview for 10 days, for crying out loud. But the sheer amount of noise out there, most of it about nonsense issues, drove me to at least address this now, earlier than I would have liked. This is where my head is, now. Opinions change with experience. So let's chat about this again soon.

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