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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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My thoughts on this (long)
By 91TTZ on 3/27/2013 11:52:51 AM , Rating: 5
I'm a realist and a practical person who likes efficiency and usability. The user interface of a device depends on what you're trying to control. The PC, controlled by a keyboard and mouse is efficient at its intended task and has its place at your home or your office while mobile devices, controlled by touch, have a place in your pocket.

Form should follow function. Windowed operating systems have been around for more than 30 years because their form follows the function of the work being done on the computer. The reason the Windows 95 style GUI lasted as long as it did is because it works for the purpose it's expected to perform. I remember human interface/usability experts saying how much sense the desktop model worked for PCs since it was so practical. Any change requires users to relearn how to do things which is an expense of time and effort. To justify change I need to see an actual improvement to the way I work. Change for the sake of change is irrational; it's is a lateral move and isn't true progress.

I think that Microsoft has veered off course and tried making computing more emotional than logical. They chose pretty over practical. The organization style seems to be a loose gathering of ideas rather than a structured order. This doesn't scale well (since disorganization leads to confusion) and they had to rely on search to allow users to find what they want. Part of this problem is due to the influence of mobile devices. The screens on mobile devices are usually too small to allow for a windowed operating system so the preferred GUI uses full-screen pages instead of windows. Microsoft tried pushing this in Windows 8 with their full screen apps and it's really a wasteful design decision on a desktop or laptop.

They also keep on miscalculating the direction of mobile. When it was coming Microsoft denied it was coming. When it was here Microsoft said that it wouldn't catch on. When it became popular and other manufacturers were already capitalizing on it, Microsoft invested a lot of money in horrible products (Kin) that were completely abandoned in less than a year. And when it became completely obvious what direction the mobile market was going, Microsoft enters the party too late with overpriced products that would have been also-rans 2 years in the past.

Part of the problem is due to human nature. When confronted with the choice between 2 good ideas it's natural to want them both. But trying to actually obtain them both is harder than you think. If you execute on this desire poorly you can put yourself in a situation where you actually get neither. Even worse, you might get the drawbacks of both but the benefits of neither. You can find yourself in no-man's land. If you can't decide between the city life of New York or San Francisco you don't split the decision and move to Kansas. Microsoft is finding itself in a similar situation with Windows 8 and its mobile initiative. Their intention was to draw upon its massive desktop userbase to make inroads into the growing mobile market. But they're alienating their desktop users and their mobile products aren't catching on. Instead of getting both they're getting neither. Windows 8 is a flop, people aren't buying their phones, and the new Surface is gunning for a market that existed 3 years ago. This was an immense misstep on Microsoft's part, not just because of the lost marketshare and R&D money they spent to earn this flop, but because this was sign of things to come regarding their entire mobile-centric initiative.

Here is what the future holds: The days of exciting new mobile devices which commanded a huge profit margin and quickly became obsolete are over. The mobile market grew very quickly and it's beginning to show signs of maturity. They're not becoming obsolete nearly as fast. While the original iPhone was quickly rendered obsolete by the 3G which had a much faster cellular connection and the 3G was rendered obsolete by the faster iPhone 4 with high-res screen, the iPhone 4 is still a usable phone 3 years on. I have the iPhone 4S and it's still perfectly usable- the data connection is fast, the camera works well, the screen is high-res, it has all the features most people commonly use... there's just not much to improve on. 3D phones didn't catch on, screen resolution is about as high as people can resolve with their eyes, cameras take pictures as good as point and shoot cameras, screen size is limited by the physical size of device people want, there isn't really anywhere new to go. Even dirt-cheap devices have many of the features and specs that expensive devices had just a year or two ago. Without the pressure of obsolescence to boost sales and profit margins we have a condition where price will become the primary factor and devices will remain usable until they break, just like the PCs manufacturers want us to move away from.

RE: My thoughts on this (long)
By DeanSch on 3/27/2013 12:03:21 PM , Rating: 2
Well said!!

RE: My thoughts on this (long)
By bond007taz on 3/27/2013 1:11:57 PM , Rating: 2
they just need to give users the ability to change the UI to classic mode like they have done in previous versions - this way it solves the problem for those that dont use touch on their desktop and those that want to use touch on the workstation...

"Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?... So why the f*** doesn't it do that?" -- Steve Jobs

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