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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 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.


"I want people to see my movies in the best formats possible. For [Paramount] to deny people who have Blu-ray sucks!" -- Movie Director Michael Bay














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