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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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You need touchscreens with a touch OS
By Da W on 3/27/2013 10:15:18 AM , Rating: 2
I have the same Logitech keyboard for my HTPC and i used to agree with you until i got my surface, and Windows 8 is just so much better with a touch screen. It's touchscreen that need to become ubiquitous. Fortunately most consumer (non-power user) desktop seem to move toward all-in-one with touchscreen. A standard 23'' 1080P touchscreen monitor is slowly getting to 300$, and people will gradually drop their laptop for a tablet or a convertible, so its gonna happen.

You need a background wallpaper in Metro (yes i still call it metro). The thing i hate the most about the new start screen is the unicolor background, after all these years of effort to make nice looking desktop themes.

More customisable tiles. Not just change the size, i want to fill my screen from top to bottom, leave gaps without tiles auto-ajusting, like i do with icons on the desktop.

Ribbon. It's the corner stone of office. If you want to get rid of the desktop you need to port the ribbon to metro. It doable (swipe down from top) but so far the top of the screen has not been used by Microsoft for apps menus.

The other features i needed, they appear to be in the winodws blue leak.

By johnsmith9875 on 3/27/2013 11:14:48 AM , Rating: 1
I pesonally fine the live tiles to be obscenely uninformative as to what they are. The whole idea of live anything is to communicate information, but a tile with a picture of a pickle or a laughing baby in it doesn't convey to me what the heck it will do when I click on it.

By Chadder007 on 3/27/2013 11:34:01 AM , Rating: 4
If you have ever had to sit at a desk job, you will NOT be wanting to reach up and swiping the screen all day. The premise of Windows 8 alienates the desktop worker.

By 91TTZ on 3/27/2013 12:25:03 PM , Rating: 3
A standard 23'' 1080P touchscreen monitor is slowly getting to 300$, and people will gradually drop their laptop for a tablet or a convertible, so its gonna happen.

Most workers are at their computers 8 hours a day doing work. Nobody is going to want to hold their arms up in the air for 8 hours a day when they can simply rest their arms on their desk and use a mouse and keyboard. Ergonomically it's a much more logical choice.

By hubb1e on 3/27/2013 1:46:47 PM , Rating: 2
Touchscreen on a desktop? Surely you're joking right? Somebody should take away your mouse and force you to hold your arm up in the air for a hard 10 hour workday. The only solution for a desktop is a touchpad and I won't give up the precision of a mouse for a crappy touchpad. Maybe if every touchpad was amazing, but the current crop of touchpads just doesn't cut it.

I use windows 8 and came to almost exactly the opposite conclusion as Jarred. Windows 8 is ugly, not productive, and difficult to use. Most specifically I hate the non persistent menus that take up the entire right side of my screen exactly where the scroll bars for every application is. Go too far to the right and that ridiculous menu appears. The only thing I like about it is the performance and the task manager. The only thing saving windows 8 is Start8 and other Apps like it. I didn't install a start button for 4 months thinking I would stick with what Microsoft thought was best. I tried to like windows 8 but once that start button was installed I NEVER want to go back.

RE: You need touchscreens with a touch OS
By Da W on 3/27/13, Rating: 0
By superflex on 3/29/2013 9:50:16 AM , Rating: 2
Dragon Naturally Speaking.
Did Granny buy that for you because you had trouble putting words to paper?
Keyboards are hard.

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