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Windows 8 has the potential to be the best OS on the market, but is held back by learning curve, legacy UIs

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has earned some fans with the ambitious operating system overhaul that is Windows 8.  But the touch-centric operating system has also earned condemnation from some critics -- even some of Microsoft's own fans.

The more I use Windows 8 the more I feel that my opinion lies somewhere in the middle.  It's full of good ideas, but I don't love it.  It has its shortcomings, but I don't hate it for them.  Ultimately, I feel that Windows 8 is a release similar to Windows Vista  (albeit for different reasons) -- an overstretch on Microsoft's part that's partially successful, but that will be forever loathed by some for its flaws.

With that in mind I wanted to offer up some insight into what Microsoft needs to fix (and how to fix it), while countering what I feel is some of the false criticism about Windows 8.  Here we go.

What to change:

1. Eliminate the Desktop Mode

The Desktop and Windows 8 GUIs feel like oil and vinegar -- they don't want to mix.  With Windows Blue we see Microsoft moving to fully port the control panel to a Windows 8 GUI style format.  It's my opinion that Microsoft should continue this process for all other desktop vestiges (administrative panels, file browsers).

With snap you can have an easy file browser than sits beside your running app(s).   A cloneable file browser Windows 8-style app with up to 4 "panes" each representing a different navigator, should be more than sufficient to replace the legacy file browser.  Few users are going to have more than 8 separate folders actively operated on at once.

Desktop Mode
[Image Source: TechNet]

A robust terminal app for Windows 8 should do the trick for power users, who are unlikely to rely on the noisy traditional file browser GUI, anyhow.

2. Tutorials

Windows 8 has some basic tutorial features, but what struck me was that when I installed the OS during my test of iBuyPower's Revolt system, that the new OS went live with nary a peep on how to use it.

Let's face it -- Windows 8 is a big box of unknown.  Gestures implement new and old functionality.  Items have been relocated into new metro menus.  There's new concepts like Live Tiles.

Revolt -- Windows 8
Windows 8 comes up for the first time with nary a tutorial.
Consumers know Windows, but most consumers don't know Windows 8.  Windows 8 is pretty intuitive once learned, but I think a major problem is that there's no built-in guidance forcing users to seek out on their own how to use the operating system or try to figure out is functionality via experimentation.  Either way a certain number of users will quit out of frustration.

Video game makers have long figured out that the key to getting a novice to learn a new GUI is a good tutorial.  Microsoft should borrow a page from the gaming world and teach users how to use its radically reinvented operating system, so that they can appreciate it better.

3. Multi-touch Pads

Touch is critical to Windows 8.  Thus every Windows 8-compatible keyboard or laptop should have to ship with a multi-touch pad.  

For desktops, that means a keyboard plus multi-touch pad combo device, such as this one from Logitech Int'l SA (LOGI).  For laptops, it means a multi-touch compatible trackpad.  
Logitech K400
Logitech K400 Multi-touch external keyboard

The Logitech K400 keyboard costs about $11 USD more than the similar model without touch (the K360).  If $11 USD represents, to some extent, the difference between Windows 8 being crippled versus fully usable, that's a pretty small price to pay.

System builder discs should be shipped bundled with a compatible external keyboard, such as the K400.

What to keep:

1. Touch

Touch is crucial in Android and iOS -- the world's two most used mobile operating systems.  Anyone who says touch has no place in a desktop is wrong and clearly has never used a multi-touch trackpad.  While it's true touch can be overdone on the desktop or put in the wrong place (e.g. a large screen that taxes arms during long periods of use), a small multi-touch pad is absolutely a very useful tool for the desktop user.
Windows gestures
[Image Source: Microsoft]

As Microsoft's OS evolves it will surely find ways -- just as Google Inc. (GOOG) and Apple, Inc. (AAPL) have -- to add new touch-based functions.

2. Metro UI

If you ever watch Chopped on the Food Network you'll recall that there's a presentation scoring criteria, where chefs are rated based on how their food looks. Sometimes a dish will look good, but one particular judge (or multiple judges) will cite a personal distaste for its style.  But at the end of the day it's clear the chef put effort into the presentation.

That's how I view Windows 8.  The criticism surrounding Metro/Windows 8 UI is mostly, I would argue, due to the usability issues (lack of touch in some systems, legacy desktop functions, etc.).  I think the graphical style itself is clean and good-looking.

Metro UI Windows 8
Metro UI is not the main problem with Windows 8. [Image Source: Microsoft]

It could certainly improve -- by the inclusion of smaller Live Tiles, for example (which is coming with Windows Blue -- but the problem is less with the general look and more with the aforementioned fixable usability issues.  If you hate the style, that's your own problem.  Microsoft can't please everyone -- maybe it can't please you.

Apple demonstrated that customers prepare a well marketed, clean/minimalist design.  I think Windows 8 meets that criteria (except maybe the well-marketed part).  Microsoft can't please everyone, but if it just made Windows 8 more usable, I think it would please most users.

3. Performance

Ironically Windows 8 excels in the area where the analogous Windows Vista release goes most awry -- performance.

Windows 8 keeps the process list, memory footprint, and CPU usage lean.  It's better than Windows 7, generally, in fact.  Critics can cherry-pick a handful of cases where it backslides, but in general Microsoft has delivered progress on the performance front.
Windows 7 memory usage Windows 8 memory usage
Windows 7 SP1 (left), Windows 8 test build (right). [Source: Microsoft]
Again, some critics get carried away and extend their usability criticism into a more general (and fallacious) attack on the operating system's general performance.  Windows 8 is not slow -- it is fast. 

What do YOU Think?

I think if Microsoft adopts those three former changes, while sticking with the latter three strengths, it will have the best desktop operating system on the market.  Don't agree?  Tell me what you think I missed -- what do you think Windows 8's strengths and weakness are, and how do you suggest fixing them?

I'll update this later to discuss the problems/strengths of Window RT, but for now let's keep the discussion to Windows 8 x86 (Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro).

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By michal1980 on 3/27/2013 8:51:34 AM , Rating: 2
Just wanted to say. Very well thought out editorial.

I have no problems with win8. But it could be better.

especially the tutorial part, it would solve so many initial headaches.

RE: Agreed
By Flunk on 3/27/2013 9:28:08 AM , Rating: 2
Agreed, I was expecting another "I hate all change ever" article.

My personal problem with Windows 8 new interface is being unable to split the screen between enough applications and poor multi-monitor support. If they get that fixed up (And it looks like it's going to happen) I'd be quite happy to trade the desktop for the new interface full time. I've experimented with using the full screen apps for messaging and email and I no longer find myself reaching for the desktop equivalents.

The other big issue is lack of 3rd party support and easy app sideloading. They really need to enable the ability to load "Windows Store" apps from anywhere like Android allows. Without that Windows is significantly less useful than Android or the old Windows interface.

There is also a lot of room for improvements under the hood, getting rid of left over parts of Win32 that underpin the WinRT framework and replacing them with better designed alternatives. But there is plenty of time for that in the future (maybe).

RE: Agreed
By The0ne on 3/27/2013 12:00:33 PM , Rating: 2
I wouldn't say a well thought out article myself but more of a hey lets get a topic going.

1. Need desktop until something worthwhile can replace it without losing too much productivity. Your mouse can do what gestures can at. The real problem is both the desktop and Metro environments are not cohesive enough. They feel like different entities.

2. Granted tutorials are fine but we're not talking about something that isn't drastically changing here. You have desktop which remains mostly the same but without a start menu. A Metro UI which is touch based. This is really no different than using your phone for the millions out there. What irks people is having to learn the little nuances that Windows 8 brought, and I mean little. The intro tutorial is like the tutorial of previous Windows versions telling you that this (start menu) is where you need to start. Here you have the corners.

3. I like the idea of having a touchpad on the keyboard but as someone already stated I am also that someone that hates the touchpad with a passion. I type, a lot, and it only hinders my productivity. Plus, a single/double touch might not be enough once apps starting using multi touches. I believe Paint does it now although I haven't used it with a touchscreen. Love the app though :)

Metro needs more customization, if not only on the PC side. These tiles are not easily re-sizable and running on much larger screens can prove annoying sometimes.

I wouldn't ever want to do away with Metro though. I love it on my second monitor. It displays info that I need and apps are quickly accessible as well as any other apps you pinned to it. Games are a joy because of my 30"s. Bing map is awesome because of it's fluidity :) and so on.

And finally as more users read and believe more reviewers that have now just coming around to see that Windows 8 does have some nice changes under the hood, it may gain more ground. Fluidity, security, performance, management...check them out!! Most of them are invisible to users that's why.

There are issues with Windows 8, no doubt. The admin right thing, compatible apps, the childish BSOD hehe, no gadgets! (can be fix btw) but overall I enjoy using it with dual screen setup.

"If they're going to pirate somebody, we want it to be us rather than somebody else." -- Microsoft Business Group President Jeff Raikes

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