April 25, 2013


Windows 8 Upgrade. Microsoft. $120. (Pro version with enhanced data protection and Remote Desktop Connection feature, $200.) Various discounts available.

     Microsoft made a number of bold decisions, some better than others, in developing and launching its latest operating system. For the first time since the days of Windows 3.1, it probably had no choice. The world’s biggest software company is the world’s biggest because of two primary product lines: operating systems and its Office productivity suite. Both products are strongly tied to creativity using personal computers, but the move of users away from desktops and laptops has become a major and widely reported trend, with significant implications throughout the industry. Ignoring the trend would imperil Microsoft’s very underpinnings and its preeminence in the software field. But embracing it fully creates a serious problem: portable devices such as smartphones and tablets are very poor for content creation – they are small, clumsy and generally lack the power of desktop and laptop machines. Although this may not always be true – users who grow up with a significantly reduced form factor and a focus on mobility will surely learn, over time, to produce creative material with portable units of various types – for now, Microsoft cannot afford to turn its back on the desktop-and-laptop-based world in which it made its mark and where it still dominates other companies by far.

     And so we have Windows 8, an operating system that tries to straddle the line between traditional and mobile computing. Like most compromises and transitional products, it is not fully satisfying from either perspective; but unlike most, it is more satisfying than not in both uses.  The new operating system is designed for phones, tablets, laptops, desktops and servers, has a strong emphasis on touchscreen capabilities, and is very clearly intended primarily for non-work purposes. It is fun to use and makes consuming information more enjoyable than any previous Windows version, but it makes producing documents and presentations more difficult – relying, implicitly, on the understandable conservatism of corporations that makes them very unlikely to abandon Windows-based computing even when an operating system is not created with their needs in mind.

     Microsoft can get away with this in Windows 8 and maybe Windows 8.5 (if Microsoft creates one), but probably not when Windows 9 or Windows 10 comes along – by that time, a few years down the road, either there will be a much larger move to mobile and touchscreen computing, or Microsoft will have to think more seriously about the implications of its design for the users who form the backbone of its success.

     In any case, what we have now is Microsoft’s determination to maintain a single core operating system for multiple uses, and one that has a single graphical user interface (GUI). This is good for people who regularly switch among various hardware platforms and good for developers, who can create programs – which, yes, Microsoft has now joined the crowd in calling “apps” – for a single operating system and have them function on a multitude of devices. The Windows 8 GUI, called Modern (previously, and less pleasantly, “Metro”), is attractive to look at, a snap to use on mobile devices, and often very frustrating in an office environment. Its non-overlapping Start Screen windows (called tiles), which are customizable in certain ways but not in others, are clearly touch-based, as are its basic controls. The look is so stripped-down as to be sparse – which is not an issue on smartphone or tablet screens, but does make a difference on larger monitors in an office. Use of the Start Screen’s tiles is intelligent and largely intuitive on a touch basis, but clumsy and uncomfortable when using a keyboard and mouse. This is a great operating system for phone and tablet users who want to spend their time visiting social networks, going shopping, and watching YouTube videos – and it is a significantly more-secure Windows than ever, which is a major enhancement that will be particularly important to mobile users, even if they are unaware of it. Windows 8 makes it easy to find, download and install apps (which, as part of the improved security, must be Microsoft-approved), and it simply looks good enough to compete with anything running Apple or Android operating systems.

     The reality is that Windows 8 is deliberately designed for information consumers, not for information creators, and it may be that Microsoft sees “knowledge workers” as a decreasing part of its market – which, statistically, is an accurate perception, since the total worldwide use of mobile devices is growing far faster than the use of any computing devices for creative purposes. Add in the fact that even though Microsoft had $18 billion in revenue from operating systems last year, that is less than one-quarter of its total revenue, and you have a good reason for the company to focus on mobile users interested primarily in entertainment rather than on office workers in creative environments – whose organizations are generally slow to adopt new operating systems anyway.

     So, to be fair to Windows 8, it is necessary to look at what it does rather than what it does not do. And what it does is really very impressive. In addition to its enhanced security, this operating system boots and shuts down considerably more quickly than Windows 7 did. It allows easy connectivity – part of its overall mobile focus – so users can enter a single user name and password on Microsoft’s Live.com and have instant authentication for tablets, desktops and laptops. Windows 8 verifies each time it starts that it has not been tampered with (Microsoft calls this Secure Boot); it updates daily and automatically; and it includes antivirus software that is enabled by default.

     Windows 8 largely turns its back on multitasking – a major strength of prior Microsoft operating systems for knowledge workers, but a potential confusion for people who simply want to obtain and use information simply. The tiles on the Start Screen represent installed apps; click a tile and the application fills the screen; but there is no way to see multiple apps or Web pages at the same time (although it is possible to split the screen between two apps – but only by having one app take up most of the screen and the other take up only a sliver of it). To switch applications, users return to the Start Screen and click on another tile – no big deal for mobile devices, but an irritation in an office environment. Furthermore, the new Charms feature is really oriented 100% toward touchscreens: it is a set of hidden menus accessible by swiping toward the right side of a touchscreen, but reachable with a mouse only by the awkward process of bringing the cursor to a corner of the screen, then moving the mouse downward, then clicking on whatever Charm you may want – such as the on/off/sleep control. This is an underlying characteristic of the new Windows 8 interface: to keep things simple and elegant-looking, Microsoft hides important information under multiple clicks of a mouse or multiple touchscreen layers – a minor inconvenience for smartphone and tablet information consumers but a significant one for knowledge workers.

     The easiest way around the inconveniences for Windows 8 for people seeking to create information rather than consume it is simply to go to the desktop, which is still part of the operating system and easy to place as a tile on the Start Screen – then just click the tile and the desktop appears (as an alternative, you can press the Windows key + D). Yes, this move from Start Screen to desktop is an extra step, but it is a small one, and if it becomes a real irritant, there are numerous free or low-cost third-party apps that eliminate it and let you boot directly to the desktop, as in Windows 7. But unless the extra few seconds seem really crucial, there is little reason to use those apps, because the Modern interface or something very like it is the direction in which all operating systems are going. Becoming accustomed to this is a good idea – and really, an extra click or two will not slow anyone down.

     What does take getting used to is what happens when you are on the desktop in Windows 8: Microsoft has eliminated the Start button, a notorious design decision that the company says is irreversible but that it really ought to rethink. There are other ways to get to all the Start functions in Windows 8; and, again, there are free or low-cost third-party apps to restore the button. But in this case, unlike the Start Screen situation, it is hard to see the benefit of living with Microsoft’s change, especially since Windows 8 no longer has controls in a consistent place. Leaving the Start button as a beacon of consistency would seem to be sensible. For that matter, additional status bars and menus would be very helpful in the knowledge-worker environment – the stripped-down presentation of information in Windows 8, while entirely appropriate for small screens and information consumers, is an ongoing annoyance on the information-creation side of things. It can be fun to discover certain unexpected features of Windows 8 – for example, if you are searching for something specific, you can simply start typing directly on the Start Screen, and the search box will open automatically. But if you just want to get down to creative work, Windows 8 does not make that easy – and is not designed to do so.

     When you think about it, what Microsoft has done with Windows 8 is the opposite of what it has done in the past. Several times in recent history, it has tried to take its big-screen, office-oriented interface and modify it for use on small screens – and the results were very poor, causing many people to write Microsoft off as a major player in an increasingly mobile world. Windows 8 shows that rumors of Microsoft’s collapse were vastly premature. Windows 8 is a small-screen interface from the start, elegantly designed and fully competitive with the offerings from Apple and Google. It will be a real pleasure for phone and tablet users, unlike previous repurposed Microsoft operating systems. But this time, what the company has done is to start with a small-screen orientation and adapt it to larger screens and an office environment. That transfers the awkwardness from mobile users to knowledge workers – and, based strictly on numbers, that is the right thing for Microsoft to do. The explosion of worldwide use of mobile devices and the ongoing move toward touchscreens either in tiny phone size or somewhat larger tablet size mean that first-time users of hardware are far more likely to be information consumers than information producers – and far more likely to value simplicity and attractiveness than adaptability and multifunctional capability.  Microsoft got Windows 8 right for a changing world – and of course there is nothing compelling business users and other content creators from switching to the new operating system (many are only now making the change from XP to Windows 7, having bypassed Vista entirely).

     Windows 8 is not all things to everyone – and is not intended to be. Microsoft has seen the future of computing devices, a future that extends well beyond the customary notion of computers, and has taken the first step toward producing an operating system that will thrive in that future. Windows 8 works perfectly well, if sometimes frustratingly, with legacy hardware, which is what desktop and laptop computers are becoming – and it is worth remembering that all Windows operating systems are themselves built upon Microsoft’s ultimate legacy product, MS-DOS. Windows 8 has flaws and frustrations, but it shows that Microsoft has figured out where the world of information consumption is going – and has staked out a strong position there. This operating system may not be a game changer, but Windows 8 shows that Microsoft remains a game player, and is determined to embrace a future that will look very different to users from the computing past.

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