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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 take
By Jammrock on 3/27/2013 4:42:46 PM , Rating: 1
Under full disclosure I do work at Microsoft, but not in any product development group and I have no special knowledge of anything that isn't already public. They keep the OS updates under lock and key these days. I support the operating systems for enterprises and governments. That said, I have been using Windows 8 for longer than most and have a slightly unique take on it.

I have a Surface RT and run Windows 8 on four different systems, Server 2012 on two and Windows 7 on two laptops. I run dozens of VMs, many of which are Linux-based. I also have an Android phone and a Kindle Fire in the house, so mine is not a MS exclusive household.

That said, let's break Win8 down to two basic components: the operating system (OS) and the UI.

UI:

The modern UI is awesome on the Surface RT where I have touch. I generally ignore it on anything that uses a traditional mouse and keyboard. The tablet experience with Win8 is great. I absolutely love it. I rarely use desktop and I think, once Office get a modern make-over, the desktop may go away on Windows for ARM. Or at least be less prominent/needed.

I missed the start button for the first month or two with Win8 on a PC. Now I don't miss it at all.

I use the Start screen as a giant start button. I organize my apps in groups and when I need to launch one I use the Win key on the keyboard. Which is what I did on Win7. Programs I use often I pin to the taskbar. My kids use Win8 on their desktop and have asked me exactly two questions on how to use Win8. They are all under the age of 10. Ultimately it's not hard to use once you figure out the corners, or remember the Win key.

Not that it's perfect, which it isn't. Dropping the Desktop would be a very bad idea. You can't use multi-monitors with modern. That will probably change, but I don't know when. Regardless, Modern UI is great for simple tasks. The Desktop is great for productivity, which for me means four monitors (which works great on Win8, btw). Win8/2012 over RDP is annoying without the Start button. That's the only time I miss it...I'm getting better at using the RDP carrot.

I do think the settings all need to be consolidated. I think that would help a lot with the bipolar nature of the OS.

I was honestly a little shocked that there were no tutorials out of the box. I agree 100% that those should be added. Not in an annoying XP way, but something more subtle, like slow glow corners with pop-ups that say "move your mouse here to access the start screen," and then go away once you've done the task three times.

OS:

Under the hood Win8/2012 is awesome. Lower memory footprint, less resource intensive, fast, responsive, and feature-rich. Now that driver issues are getting sorted out and the initial kinks have been hammered out, it truly is a great OS (not taking UI into account).

I get 90MB/s file transfers out-of-the-box, and 110MB/s with a couple of tweaks, using my ASUS RT-N56U as a switch. I use Hyper-V to setup test VMs and school VMs to keep all the junk off my host system. Game performance is as good in 8 as it was when I ran 7.

My kids desktop uses an ancient Athlon dual-core proc that is about 8 years old with a 5 year old (?) AMD 4830 GPU, and they can run all their apps and game no issue. Granted, they haven't gotten into any hardcore games ... yet.

All-in all I would rate Win8 between XP/7 and Vista/Me. It's not Vista/Me launch bad, it's not 7/XP good.

But then those of us with a long memory remember that XP and 7 had lot of issues early on. It wasn't until 7 SP1 and XP SP2 that those two OSs, which every Windows user lauds as the best ever made, got super stable and exceptionally well liked. As I recall MS had to push SP1 out in record time to fix a number of performance and stability issues, and XP as we know it was missing a huge chunk of the feature set until SP2 came out.

And no smack talk from you Linux users either. Ubuntu 12 had four build updates before Canonical certified it for 5-year Long Term Support. And let's not forget the stink(s) over Unity, shall we ;)




RE: my take
By Ramstark on 3/27/2013 7:59:46 PM , Rating: 2
I hate that you say you work for MS and the downvote immediately comes in.
You make very good points and one can see that you are not a MS fanboy (like a lot of people here would think). I agree with you in almost every point, except this:
quote:
ll-in all I would rate Win8 between XP/7 and Vista/Me. It's not Vista/Me launch bad, it's not 7/XP good


I think it is a better implementation (NOT LAUNCH) than XP / 7 mainly because it is a LEAP FORWARD, a lot of people here would say that progress for the sake of progress is not good, but I say that in an industry where innovation is dying, some bold moves are welcome, even if they will cost your huge company a few millions. Kinect is the perfect example of this, they launched to the market an EXPERIMENT and it succeed, not all experiments will be like that, but I, for one, welcome the intentions.


“And I don't know why [Apple is] acting like it’s superior. I don't even get it. What are they trying to say?” -- Bill Gates on the Mac ads














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