considering windows 8

I don’t pay serious attention to tech these days, but I am watching the progress of Microsoft’s latest product, Windows 8, which will be out in its final version later this year.

Windows 8 follows the latest editions of OS X and Ubuntu Linux, both of which incorporate the idea of ‘apps’ and both of which try to make the experience of using a desktop more tablet-like. I wasn’t crazy about either: on my Macbook, 10.7 struck me as a step back in usability. It took a wonderful desktop and bolted on a couple of ‘launchers’ for programs. It was clutter, I thought, and got in the way. I mostly ignore the changes.

The 11x version of Ubuntu never got a fair test on my low-spec’ed laptop, but what I saw of it struck me as more of the same – someone trying to clutter a clean, elegant desktop (Gnome 2) with stuff.

Microsoft is late to tablets, is struggling with phones and has a very mixed history with Windows. When Microsoft announced Win 8 would be a unified platform for the desktop and mobile computing, there was ample reason to think whatever the company came up with would be worse, much worse than Linux or OS X.

Surprise. It’s not. In fact, it’s better, though there are qualifications to add.

What makes Win 8 work?

Most importantly, it is not trying to add its new tablet-like interface, ‘Metro,’ to the traditional Windows desktop. It’s the other way around: spend even a little time with the Win 8 consumer preview and it’s pretty clear that the desktop is there for compatibility, for the millions of Windows users who only know XP or Vista or 7. But the ‘desktop’ is treated like one more app, which runs alongside the Metro apps. The desktop isn’t the dog, it’s the tail.

That’s a big, risky thing for Microsoft to do, and the push back is huge. I read the ars technica review last night, and while the reviewer was only mildly negative, the hundred plus comments that followed were almost all opposed to the change, often angrily so.

It’s hard to blame them: Windows 7 is the best version of Windows ever, the ‘This is what Windows should have been all along’ version. I suspect the people complaining about 8 have practical reasons – they don’t like the way it seems to throw roadblocks in their path, makes what was obvious somewhat harder – but also they feel like something that just works is being snatched from their hands.

They’re right. Win 8 is a hybrid, in which you work full screen with Metro apps, and then flip to the desktop to work with more traditional programs. (Apps are programs, by the way. In Windows 8, they differ from traditional Windows (or Mac or Linux) programs in that they take up your entire screen. When you want to use a different program – say, go from your email to your web browser – you have to switch one for the other.)

Because Win 8 is just in the preview stage now, the apps aren’t plentiful or robust, so you end up going back to the desktop a lot to get your work done. Do it often enough and you feel like you’re living with two different computers in the same box. That’s part of what the critics are responding to.

But that’s a problem of transition, not of Win 8 itself, in the same way that when OS X was introduced there was a compatibility program that let you run older ‘classic’ Mac programs in the new environment. It was ugly, but it worked, and Mac users were grateful to have it.

Microsoft, with its huge base of business users, can’t come out and say plainly that the desktop is the compatibility program. But it is, (I think), and the real test for Windows 8 will be how quickly it gets a lot of programs redone as Metro apps.

When a critical mass of Photoshop/Word/Facebook is Metro’ed, then we will have a radically new kind of desktop/laptop computing, one in which there is no ‘desktop’ as such, just a bunch of programs we toggle through. So the real question is: is such a thing a good idea, or is it – as some critics maintain – an error of judgment from a company that so desperately wants to be in the tablet business it will throw out the one true metaphor for how computers with keyboards and mice should work?

Some of those critics grudgingly agree you have to have something app-like for tablets and phones, but they argue the desktop is an entirely different thing,  that a keyboard/mouse driven interface just works better with a desktop and windows you can move around, resize, minimize. I think they’re wrong, and based on my testing of Win 8 so far, here’s my biggest indicator; I begrudge ever having to go to the desktop environment. If I can do something in Metro – which admittedly isn’t much so far – I vastly prefer staying in Metro.

Why? The biggest reason is the way in which the interface lets me focus. Let’s face it: no matter how much you like your desktop, it’s a carnival of distraction  – the pull of the browser, the email program sitting right there, waiting to be checked, the latest tweet coming in. In my early testing,  having one thing, and one thing only, in front of me completely changes  the experience of computing, and changes it for the better. I found myself far less stressed, less depleted after an hour or so. I didn’t feel like I had wandered and wasted time, although the tools would let me wander if I chose to. The whole thing strikes me as deeper, and the only thing I can liken it to is using one of those minimalist full screen word processors like ‘Write Room.’ If the great illness of the age is distraction, Win 8 may be modest help.

By the way, it’s not just the big things that distract you: it’s also the battery indicator in the corner, the dialog boxes popping up in the notification area, the maintenance of computing. It’s like cars used to be: lots to keep an eye on, monitor, check, fix.

That, I think, is the emotional pull of the desktop for some people, the idea that you have to be involved. I remember when Windows started to take over memory management and you no longer had to do a variety of tricks to make sure you had enough. People like me went out of their way to keep doing as much manually as we could, until the inevitable set in – the machine just did it better.

Windows 8 takes ‘the machine does it better’ up another few notches. For instance, you don’t ‘quit’ Metro apps: you can get rid of them so you can’t see them any more, but the app is still – technically – operating.  I don’t pretend to understand how they do it exactly, but Microsoft has come up with a way to reduce the amount of memory these ‘suspended’ apps use to almost nothing. (Basically, most of what’s in memory gets swapped to disc, which is nothing new. But the amount that gets swapped, the elegance with which it happens, apparently is.)

That’s a big deal: if you’re using a Metro app, you start it and forget it. For people who have lived with Windows a long time, this is troubling: it’s not supposed to be that easy.

So what do you give up, when you give up the desktop? It depends on what you want to do, but I suspect the answer is ‘not much.’

Example: here’s a job I do all the time – take copy out of an email, convert it to plain text and post it to a web site. Oh, and sometimes grab a photo with the text, process it and post it.  To people who are wedded to the idea of a desktop, this simple task is exactly why Metro is broken. Where, they would ask, will you conveniently keep the text while you’re working on it? What’s a desktop for, if not to have a place to put things? And what if you need multiple sources open at the same time? Why is Windows doing this to us?

(That line of reasoning can lead to some dark places. You catch little hints in the critical commentary that this is all intentional, that Microsoft and Apple are trying to flip the balance in computers from being machines equally suited to creating and consuming things to machines mostly for consuming things. Of course, to believe that you also have to believe working full screen, backed by a machine that does more of the house keeping for you, limits you in ways you can’t understand. Or as my son put it, “Here’s a slogan: ‘Windows 8. You have less control and you can’t turn it off.'”)

I can’t do my copy/convert/paste in Metro yet – the apps aren’t here – but living with less and less desktop for the last few days, I can’t imagine it being a problem. I can imagine the work flow feeling different, maybe even better.

Of course, most of what I’m doing right now is imagining – there just isn’t enough Metro to run with. But I’m anxious to see the new preview release, which is due in early June.  Anxious, and a little nervous, because Microsoft doesn’t have much time left to make Win 8 good enough to release, and it’s not ready yet.

The paradox of Win 8 is that in trying to make a system that is intuitive, with a very low learning curve, (think smart phone easy) Microsoft has created an OS that probably goes further than any other version of Windows in rewarding geeky knowledge. For instance, there is no obvious way to switch among apps without going back to the start page.

(A digression for those of you who don’t know anything about 8: there is no more start menu on the desktop. It’s been replaced by a start page which displays your programs, favorite web pages, documents, whatever. It’s the start menu with a very broad brush, and you have to go through the start page to get to 8. I love it, but it’s the first thing that drives people crazy, makes them feel like they’ve added a step.

Well…not the first. There’s actually a ‘lock’ page before the start page. It shows the time and day and how the battery on my laptop is doing, along with a pretty picture of a tree. Touch any key and it goes away, replaced by a log-in screen.)

Anyway, there are ways to get from app to app without going back through home, but you have to know they’re there. For one, the old alt + tab works: it brings up a set of thumbnails of open programs that you can move through. If you have only two things open, alt + tab has the effect of flipping you back and forth, quickly. I have my mail client open on the desktop as I type this, and whenever I hear a mail alert come in, I just alt + tab.

The other thing you can do is send your mouse pointer to the upper left corner. What you get is a thumbnail of whatever you were using before your current page. Mouse down a little and the whole left side of the screen goes dark and reveals your other open programs. You can then pick where you want to go.

Problem is, none of this is obvious, or in the lingo of interface designers, discoverable. You want an interface that rewards poking around, where most of what you need is out in the open and most of the rest is available with a mouse click or two. You want people to be able to figure out what to do easily, either because they’ve seen the same general thing before or because knowing what to do flows naturally from what’s in front of them. (If you’ve closed one window or searched for a file from a menu, you pretty much know how to do it in all cases.) That’s discoverable. Win 8 is not, or at least not enough. To get the most bang for your buck, you need to use a series of keyboard shortcuts involving the ‘Windows’ key in combination with another letter. Windows has always had a rich set of keyboard shortcuts. It hasn’t always required you to use them, and Win 8 comes too close to requiring that kind of expertise. That’s what windows and drop down menus were for.

It’s also weirdly arbitrary in places. For instance, the ‘Metro’ version of Internet Explorer 10 has no place to save favorites in a drop down list, because there aren’t any drop down lists. You can go to a page  – a sort of mini start page – to see what you’ve saved as favorites and where you’ve been recently, but to get there you have to go to the address bar, which is at the bottom, instead of the top of the browser. To get to the ‘favorites’ page, you move your mouse pointer into the address bar and click anywhere inside the bar. On the plus side, it’s a big target. On the minus side, who the hell would think to do that? Yes, you might discover it by accident, but how many people would give up in frustration before that point?

There’s also some way to make the windows you’ve had open in IE display as a set of thumbnails. They appear above the browser. I know because I’ve done it several times, but as I type this, I can’t remember how, and I can’t work through how I found it.

So to sum up:

– Windows 8 is a radical departure for desktop computing.

– Folks who don’t like it are blending critiques about specific shortcomings in the user interface with a more general fear of abandoning the desktop model of computing.

– Complaining about the specifics of the interface makes sense. Treating it like an existential threat doesn’t.

– Apps are everything. I like Windows 8 a lot, even in its unfinished condition. If I can’t get VLC, the Gimp, Firefox and Thunderbird as Metro apps, I’ll like it a lot less.

This is a ‘bet the company’ moment for Microsoft, in which they’re gambling they have enough clout left to shape the future of computing. They may fail, but for once I feel like rooting for them. Microsoft, you’ve done this well, so far. Now – don’t blow it.

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