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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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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

Not quite good, not quite bad
By darkhawk1980 on 3/27/2013 12:41:52 PM , Rating: 2
Like Jason, I agree on some of the points, but disagree on others.

As an engineer that has 2 screens on every computer I use, and always has many multiple applications open, Windows 8 and the Metro UI can go to hell. It's a terrible way to force desktop users into a tablet interface that just does not work.

As others have said, give users the option of using either a Tablet/touchscreen based UI, and a desktop/start-menu based UI.
Why? Just see above! I have many applications open, most of which won't be updated with true Windows 8 support before the next version is out. Businesses and power users loathe Windows 8 for this entire reason. Consider the simple fact that there are companies that now make modifications to add the start menu back into Windows 8, why would someone want that if the new interface is so great? That's because on anything besides a tablet/phone, it's absolutely terrible. Even more so if the device doesn't have a touchscreen. My laptop runs Windows 8 very well, but I have the Metro UI disabled and a start menu application installed so I actually have decent functionality, because I don't have a touchscreen on it.

Another thing that really bothers me, is why they decided to go back to making everything look like it's from Windows 3.1? The Windows and buttons are so blocky and solid colored that it's actually an eye-sore. I realize that this helps it use less resources, but even a halfway looking UI shouldn't take that much. This is a minor problem, but why go from something that looks rather beautiful, to something that looks 20 years old? It was a huge step backwards.

It's apparent, Microsoft has lost touch with their user base. Yes, PC sales are slowing, and I still believe much of that has to do with the software being less than adequate (Windows 8), and that mobile hardware is reaching a point where most would rather have that (ie Android tablets or IOS tablets) than a full computer. Add a bluetooth keyboard, and you almost have a full featured PC. I know that outside of gaming, my laptop now sees much less use after getting a Nexus 7. And the UI actually is worthwhile using in that!




RE: Not quite good, not quite bad
By hubb1e on 3/27/2013 2:11:26 PM , Rating: 2
PC sales are slowing because the market is mature. A 6 year old computer is perfectly serviceable especially if you just add a bit more RAM.


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