The Emperor's New Clothes
Microsoft has confirmed the direction it is taking with Windows 8 and announced its entry into the handheld hardware market with a device it is dubbing Surface. If Microsoft was a TV series, I'd wonder if this was the moment that it jumped the shark.
According to Wikimedia, about 75% of all computers are running a flavour of Windows, with the rest being powered by Apple's operating systems, Google's Android, or Linux, but only half of that 75% is the Windows 7 variety, and most of the remainder is Windows XP, a perfectly good operating system which Microsoft told us was obsolete when it released Vista in November 2006. Windows 7 is still less than three years old, and that was rushed forward to replace the problematic Windows Vista. So why is Microsoft already pushing ahead with Windows 8, and will it really be that different to Windows 7? Apparently, yes it will.
Microsoft has a problem. Ten or fifteen years ago its message was Windows Everywhere, on the desktop, on the server, on the ATM machines, and there is even a version used on warships. What we didn't have ten years ago was a booming market in devices which just don't have mice, and which are completely changing the computer landscape. Those devices are, of course, mobile phones and tablet computers. Apple showed how to build a great GUI for mobile phones including whole new ideas like sweeping and pinching things between fingers, Google has provided a great alternative in the shape of Android. Both have booming software "app" markets. Meanwhile, Microsoft is left wondering how to make an OS that works on a desktop also work on a handheld with a four inch screen to maintain its world dominance. Its solution is brilliant, or crazy, depending on your perspective. It has decided to make the Windows desktop look like a giant mobile phone and, to quote MS, "Windows 8 has been reimagined from the chipset to the user experience".
The new user interface is called the Metro and the world of Metro is flat. The widely-disliked semi-transparent Aero interface of Windows 7 is gone, but so too is all hint of three-dimensionality and shadows. The Metro surface is just big blocks of flat colour.
No doubt that works well on the small screen of a tablet computer, but on a desktop PC? The start button and taskbar has gone, replaced by the blocky Metro start screen. You can still access the Windows 7 style desktop you are familiar with via Metro, if you can find it, some reviewers have described it as "buried" in there somewhere, and if you run an existing program such as Excel or Photoshop, it will run in a Window much like you are used to. However, there will also be Metro Apps obtainable from the Microsoft App Store. Metro Apps will always run full screen, with no overlapping windows, which is fine on a tablet, but retrograde on today's large screen. Surprisingly, at the time of writing, Microsoft is saying that Windows 8 will no longer include support for DVD or Blu-Ray playback and it will be up to the hardware manufacturers to supply appropriate software.
Reviews so far are mixed. Many people are saying Metro looks great on a tablet and praising it for being true to itself rather than trying to replicate the Apple experience, although the enthusiasm is tempered by questions if Microsoft has left it far too late to enter the mobile market. The iPhone first went on sale five years ago, on 29th June 2007 after being announced by Apple in January of that year. Nexus, Google's sub-£160 tablet, will be in the UK and US shops mid-July. The expensive Microsoft kit will not be available for months.
However, for the desktop, opinions are split. Rather like Marmite, some people love it, and some people hate it and no-one is giving a good reason why a desktop PC is going to be better for looking like an over-sized mobile phone. I think what people will dislike most though, both business users and home users, is yet another radical change, more things to learn, more issues with hardware such as printers and webcams which worked perfectly well with an older version of Windows but lack the drivers for your new machine. Experienced users have expressed surprise at the time its taken them to get to grips with Metro and tech support services will have to learn a whole new set of language to explain procedures to the novice users at the other end of the phone.
Windows 8 is still at the preview stage. Its expected to be released mid to late 2012, so it is only a matter of months away, and no doubt Microsoft would like to see it pre-installed on consumer PCs in time for the Christmas sales.
30th June 2012
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