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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).

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Agreed (mostly)
By datdamonfoo on 3/27/2013 9:27:49 AM , Rating: 2
I love Windows 8. It's better than Windows 7, but honestly, not THAT much different. What I do agree with is that it needs tutorials for those who can't be bothered to take ten minutes to learn what IS different. The "tutorial" when installing is paltry, and tells you nothing. There should be an in depth, interactive tutorial to show people how easy it is to get around the OS.

What I don't agree with is getting rid of the desktop. At least not for another decade or so. That's something that needs to be eased into.

RE: Agreed (mostly)
By Flunk on 3/27/2013 9:30:28 AM , Rating: 2
Yes, I agree. A slow phasing out (like what Apple did with Mac OS apps when they went to OS X) is the best plan.

RE: Agreed (mostly)
By othercents on 3/27/2013 10:28:09 AM , Rating: 2
A slow phasing out is the best plan.

Microsoft did this with Windows XP and allowed you to revert to the older Windows 98 start menu. I don't see why they couldn't have both UIs and allow you to choose which to run. At least at that point each UI by themselves would be more efficient than running two partial UIs at one time.

I do like the new UI and try to use it, but I can't do everything in it. However the biggest problem I have at this point is USB security that is causing my updates to android devices to fail. Works fine with my Windows 7 desktop, but fails every time with my Windows 8 laptop.

RE: Agreed (mostly)
By Flunk on 3/27/13, Rating: 0
RE: Agreed (mostly)
By sluze on 3/27/2013 1:37:47 PM , Rating: 4
Microsoft did this with Windows XP and allowed you to revert to the older Windows 98 start menu. I don't see why they couldn't have both UIs and allow you to choose which to run. At least at that point each UI by themselves would be more efficient than running two partial UIs at one time.

b/c microsoft is just smart enough to realize NO ONE would choose the new ui if they had the choice. if you want to phase in a new ui it has to actually have advantages over the old one, win8's ui doesn't have that and they know it.

RE: Agreed (mostly)
By Wolfpup on 4/1/2013 11:56:55 AM , Rating: 2
Try to use it for WHAT?

How is it useful for a desktop OS, and why would you use it? It's effectively more vista widgets, only harder to ignore, and less useful.

RE: Agreed (mostly)
By vortmax2 on 3/27/2013 10:46:42 AM , Rating: 2
I'd have to agree as well. Getting rid of the desktop completely would be a mistake. Very few business customers will migrate to W8 in fear of productivity loss...rightly so as the learning curve would take a significant amount of time for the employees. I think they should bring back the W7 desktop in its entirety so that user can choose. With the Metro UI being the 'default' still, they will slowly sway people towards it. I think most people (and companies) will just skip upgrading to W8 altogether because of the 'forced' use of Metro.

RE: Agreed (mostly)
By 91TTZ on 3/27/2013 12:15:53 PM , Rating: 2
What I do agree with is that it needs tutorials for those who can't be bothered to take ten minutes to learn what IS different.

I've been playing around with Windows 8 for almost a year now. I know how to use it, and I just don't like the changes. It's stuck in a no-man's land between a PC and a mobile operating operating system. I ended up installing Start8 on my Windows 8 PC at home and it greatly increased usability. I never use the full-screen apps that are built in. They're an illogical design decision that are discontinuous with the GUI style of the rest of the operating system. I know how to use them but it's a cognitive burden. From a UI perspective, there's a big price to pay when you context switch.

I think Microsoft didn't know how to reconcile their existing PC business with the growing mobile business. They tried combining both products and it isn't a good fit at all. They would have been better served making 2 completely different products like Apple did. In fact, Windows RT is a completely different product but they made it look like the same product. This is confusing for customers because they're left wondering how they can get their software on it when they were able to on their PC or Surface Pro which looks almost the same. Sadly, this isn't even a problem because not enough people are buying the Surface to have it become an issue.

Microsoft has 3 products used on 2 architectures which overlap and are incompatible- Windows 8 on Intel PCs and Surface Pro tablets, Windows RT on ARM tablets, and Windows Phone on ARM phones. People have trouble drawing the line between what's a mobile device and what's a PC.

Apple has 2 products used on 2 architectures- OSX on Apple's Intel PCs and iOS on ARM phones and tablets. People know they use PC stuff for PCs and mobile stuff for mobiles.

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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