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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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RE: Can I say that the suggestions are reversed?
By Nutzo on 3/27/2013 11:02:21 AM , Rating: 5
quote:
The desktop, for example, not only needs to stay, it needs to be improved. The Start Screen needs to be dumped, or else Microsoft needs to create a version of Windows 8 that is STRICTLY for tablet and touchscreen devices. I will never use a touchpad/touchscreen on my desktop, and there's no rational reason why anyone would want to except in certain niche products.


Exactly. This is why Windows 7 will be the new XP, and most companies will still be running Windows 7 10 years from now.

Microsoft needs to go back to the drawing board and give people a choice instead of forcing thier touch UI on everything.


RE: Can I say that the suggestions are reversed?
By odiHnaD on 3/27/2013 11:30:58 AM , Rating: 2
It's been 11 years and will be over 12 when it goes end of life.

It's time, just let XP pass in peace...


RE: Can I say that the suggestions are reversed?
By Souka on 3/27/2013 3:14:11 PM , Rating: 3
I work at a large hospital facility... we run XP... we have to.

So many of our heathcare apps are quite old.. one requires MS Word 2.0 and some registry hacks to work in XP. Others refuse to run if .NET 4.0 is loaded or require IE7

We've virtulized what we can, but many are tied to hardware attached to the PC... so we're stuck. XP Mode in Win7 was a bust also.

*sigh*

XP is going to be here at least another 2-4 years, and I'm sure we'll end up with a bunch of legacy-XP systems scattered around to support these old apps/hardware.


By Trisped on 3/27/2013 8:32:05 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
XP Mode in Win7 was a bust also.
How so? The only issues I have found are programs which implicitly prevent running on a VM (part of their DRM) and those with hardware requirements like a serial port.

While you can't do anything about the DRM (at least not that I know of) most hardware issues can be solved by buying a USB adapter and using the USB pass through to let the XP machine load the hardware.


RE: Can I say that the suggestions are reversed?
By MScrip on 3/28/2013 12:07:03 AM , Rating: 4
quote:

I work at a large hospital facility... we run XP... we have to.

So many of our heathcare apps are quite old...

Whoever created the software you use... did they expect XP to run forever?

I mean... it can run forever... but eventually it would lose support from Microsoft. Those software engineers should have expected that.

It's just weird that they had the idea to create the software in the first place... but never thought to make an updated version for a future OS.

Seems kinda short-sighted.


RE: Can I say that the suggestions are reversed?
By stevend on 3/28/2013 2:25:10 AM , Rating: 4
quote:
Seems kinda short-sighted.

XP is pushing on 14 right now, just because it's a teenager doesn't mean it's not older than most software out there.

And taking into consideration the comment about registry hacks i'm gonna go out on a limb and assume the software wan't made for XP originally anyway.

If there's someone at fault here it's the hospital for keeping the same old ass software just for the sake of saving a few bucks.


By Pavelyoung on 3/29/2013 11:48:57 PM , Rating: 2
I couldn't agree more. Sounds to me like whoever was in charge of the hospital paid someone they know or a member of their family to come up with some half assed software solution back in the windows 95 days.

They way overpaid whoever the brilliant idiot was for his 45 minutes worth of work and he/she walked away with their 10s-100s of thousands never even thinking about a possible upgrade path and probably not caring.


By ShieTar on 3/28/2013 4:27:41 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Whoever created the software you use... did they expect XP to run forever?


No, they expected to be able to sell the hospital an updated version of their own software a few years later.

Still, a lot of scientific experiments still run with DOS-Software. Not a problem either, a good Control-PC does nothing but control, and does not even need to be connected to the network. So you can continue using DOS at least until Motherboards with a legacy-BIOS go away, and the same is true for Windows XP.


By tng on 3/28/2013 10:54:26 AM , Rating: 3
quote:
Seems kinda short-sighted.
No it may not be short sighted at all.

When you deal with healthcare, remember that there are extensive amounts of regulation and paperwork required by the FDA. It may be that they have to keep some equipment on XP simply because they can't change it.

In some cases if you changed software on a tool or device without proper paperwork and clearance, then that device malfunctions and causes injury or death, people will go to jail.


By Pavelyoung on 3/29/2013 11:43:42 PM , Rating: 3
Sounds to me like the software is all lowest bidder junk.


RE: Can I say that the suggestions are reversed?
By Nortel on 3/27/2013 3:33:04 PM , Rating: 2
Lets say you are a government/bank/finance/etc... organization with 5000+ desktop/laptops running XP. You expect every one of these to be refreshed and every person to have to reinstall their software? Licencing alone of installed software would be a huge issue. Many companies cannot use software once it has gone past its support period. If MS had any sense at all they would charge $10/year for every licence to have continued support for the next 20 years.


By Tal Greywolf on 3/28/2013 8:34:25 AM , Rating: 3
Let me state that at the company I work for, we have over 140,000 devices that are supposed to be upgraded to Windows 7. It has taken nearly 3 years just to get 2/3rds of them upgraded, and it'll be 1Q2014 before the remainder are migrated.

Now, add into that the cost of upgrading licenses, getting locally written applications working under Windows 7, unexpected expenses in upgrading networking and servers... and you can see why companies who are investing in Windows 7 have NO INTENTION of migrating to Windows 8. They want a platform that will be viable for a number of years that also doesn't require massive amounts of training (or retraining, as the case may be.)

Understand, I don't dislike Windows 8, I just prefer to be able to have it in a workable form that I find the most comfort in. Using the Modern UI is extremely painful, and with the rumblings coming from the next iteration of Windows, it's going to be even more painful than before.


By Flunk on 3/27/2013 12:04:06 PM , Rating: 2
I agree, they should have dumped XP support the day they released Windows 7.


RE: Can I say that the suggestions are reversed?
By Dorkyman on 3/27/2013 11:19:26 AM , Rating: 2
I agree, but want to add that many companies will still be running XP ten years from now. XP is STILL the dominant OS in large organizations, by an overwhelming margin*.

You don't have to spend money to fix what ain't broken.

* http://www.troyhunt.com/2013/01/the-impending-cris...


By quiksilvr on 3/27/2013 12:27:04 PM , Rating: 4
Except the problem IS that it is broken in this day and age. It's power inefficient, insecure and forces software developers to waste time supporting it.


By Guspaz on 3/27/2013 12:52:53 PM , Rating: 4
Based on the trend shown in that graph, XP usage should be far lower by the time it EOL's in 2014; it dropped by about 10% overall in the one year shown in that chart, the rate of decrease is linear (not slowing), and by the time it EOLs in April 2014, we should expect it to be at roughly 12%.

In fact, I think it will be even lower, because the migration away from XP will accelerate as it gets closer and closer to EOL. By the time it does EOL, the usage statistic will be low enough to be justified.


RE: Can I say that the suggestions are reversed?
By Jammrock on 3/27/2013 1:21:53 PM , Rating: 5
No business will be running XP 10 years from now. Not in any significant numbers, at least. XP won't support the hardware, hardware makers won't be making drivers, and in ten years XP will have gone 9-years without a security update. It would be security suicide to be running XP three years from now, let alone ten.


By Tal Greywolf on 3/28/2013 8:40:24 AM , Rating: 2
Let me state an observation here:

Businesses will be running XP 10 years from now. I know personally of businesses still running Windows 98 today, as the applications that they rely on cannot be migrated to another OS. Even the computers on the International Space Station runs WindowsXP, and there are no plans to upgrade them to Windows 7 that I know of (we had a request from one of our groups for a specific version of the laptops that are used up there that hasn't been sold in the last 5 years, with XP for development and debugging requirements.)

There are companies still running Windows NT, mostly on automated manufacturing systems, but it's still NT.


By dgingerich on 3/27/2013 2:36:01 PM , Rating: 2
This just goes to show the immense stupidity and incompetence of corporate executives these days.

I had a friend who went to a company on a project for them to migrate from Windows 2000 (they had never gone to Windows XP) to Windows Vista, shortly after Windows 7 came out. Also, back just before Windows XP came out, I was contracted to fix some desktop systems at a marketing company, where the 12 people had nine 486DX2-66 machines, two Pentium 60 machines, and a Pentium 90 machine, all running Windows 95. They hadn't invested in computer upgrades in over 5 years. They wanted me to fix the fans on several of the DX2-66 machines and the power supply on one Pentium 60. I told them they were better off buying new systems. The owner was so offended that I offered such advice, she sent me back to my office and told them never to have me return again, and even advised they fire me for such "impudence and lack of respect for a business owner."

Corporate executives need to recognize that the workplace includes the computers the workers use and the software they run, and that the condition of the workplace directly influences the productivity. Just like you can't give people state of the art computers and software, with a single 2'X4' workspace and expect them to do well, they can't work their best at a state of the art campus with tons of perks with ancient, outdated systems and software. There are too many executives that are just too hardheaded and incompetent to understand this, and they need to be removed from those positions.


By Motoman on 3/27/2013 11:31:43 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
Microsoft needs to go back to the drawing board and give people a choice instead of forcing thier touch UI on everything.


Screw the "choice" - they need to realize that the traditional desktop and start menu is the optimal form, and stop f*cking with it.

If there's morons who think the Fisher-Price design of the Metrosexual UI is a good idea, let them create an app for that that they can try to sell for $5 a pop.

...how do you think those sales would compare to Start8?

[hint: badly]


By timothyd97402 on 3/28/2013 6:34:46 PM , Rating: 2
EXACTLY!! FREAKING EXACTLY!!

MS needs to stop trying to shove Metro down our throats with no option to boot straight to desktop, no option to have Classic and Aero desktop themes if we like, no option to use a traditional Start Menu if we prefer. MS needs to not to hijack us back to Metro when ever we click on an icon or link if we are currently in the desktop and there is a desktop program to handle the request.


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