Impressions of Windows 8 Part 1 of 2

I have been using the Windows 8 Preview For six months now – the Developer Preview since its public release in September and more recently, the Consumer Preview that was made available in February.

I have used Windows 8 on a tablet, a touch screen laptop and an old desktop and the experience has been good on all of these platforms. I have used it for anything from developing Windows 8 Metro style apps, through typical Office applications scenarios, browsing the internet, playing games, listening to Spotify, instant messaging etc. What I have not used it much for actually is to run Metro style apps, except for the ones I was developing myself, since there are not so many available yet (around 100) and the ones available do not fit into my daily use of a tablet or computer.

I have been using most versions of Windows available in the past 20 years or so. I have also been using an iPad for a few months now. I think Windows 8 is going to be huge…

The Impressions

  1. The Desktop
  2. The (Missing) Start Button
  3. The Start Screen
  4. Metro Style Apps
  5. Windows Marketplace
  6. Next Up

Continue reading on http://labs.vectorform.com

I have been using the Windows 8 Preview For six months now – the Developer Preview since its public release in September and more recently, the Consumer Preview that was made available in February.

I have used Windows 8 on a tablet, a touch screen laptop and an old desktop and the experience has been good on all of these platforms. I have used it for anything from developing Windows 8 Metro style apps, through typical Office applications scenarios, browsing the internet, playing games, listening to Spotify, instant messaging etc. What I have not used it much for actually is to run Metro style apps, except for the ones I was developing myself, since there are not so many available yet (around 100) and the ones available do not fit into my daily use of a tablet or computer.

I have been using most versions of Windows available in the past 20 years or so. I have also been using an iPad for a few months now. I think Windows 8 is going to be huge…

The Impressions

  1. The Desktop
  2. The (Missing) Start Button
  3. The Start Screen
  4. Metro Style Apps
  5. Windows Marketplace
  6. Next Up

The Desktop

Desktop
© Screenshot by Filip Skakun 2012

I am a developer and I spend most of my time using keyboard Visual Studio, Chrome & Internet Explorer, Paint, Total Commander, Notepad, Windows Explorer, etc. Desktop is my world. It has not changed…

Well, it has changed in some ways — now Windows boots up in eight seconds instead of 8 minutes, the Start button is a lot smaller and completely transparent and all the corners of the desktop are now buttons of sort even though they are invisible. The Windows Explorer uses a Ribbon interface now, if you use two or more monitors — you now get the taskbar on all of them without the need for third party add-ons, the file copy menu looks nicer now and so does the task manager. There are some more advanced features I have not used yet, and I am sure thousands of imperceptible minor changes but overall, nothing has changed in the way I use Windows since I switched from Windows 7 to Windows 8. I only get a feeling like here and there, this thing or the other works better — IE 10 is a bit better than IE 9, Windows installs in like 10 minutes. Opening an ISO file in Windows Explorer displays its contents as if it was a folder while also mounting it as a virtual drive — possibly opening us up to the future with no CDs or DVDs required to install any (even legacy) desktop applications or games with no need for third-party tools. There is a built-in viewer for PDF files, so you don’t need to install the 50MB beast from Adobe that requires a new update every day. There are things like these scattered all over the place.

One very minor issue that sometimes hits me in the desktop is that Chrome displays tabs starting from the top left corner of the screen, so sometimes instead of switching to the first tab, I switch to another app. Maybe one more reason to switch back to IE?

The (Missing) Start Button

Windows 8 Start Button
© Screenshot by Filip Skakun 2012

There is no visible start button now. There is a popular video that is making rounds on the internet that is trying to prove that this is a big usability problem, but is it a problem really? When I first saw the desktop without the button I felt like there was a disconcerting void where something familiar used to exist for almost 20 years now. Personally, I see no benefit in getting rid of the button — the space savings are really minor compared to potential problems with usability, but once you start using it — you get used to it missing really quickly. You can still click the bottom left corner to bring up the Start Menu — the difference being you now have to move your mouse cursor to the very corner of the screen. In terms of everyday usability, it is just as easy if not marginally easier than what you might have been doing before — if you were like me, trying to point at somewhere near the center of the old start button before clicking. The problem might be if you are one of the few people who move their taskbar somewhere else than the bottom of the screen, which in previous versions of Windows also moved the start button. (I would argue though that in these cases you moved the taskbar to rearrange your space and having the start button move with it was not as crucial for you.)

Coming back to casual Windows users confused about the lack of the button — I am sure Microsoft will at least introduce some cues to indicate where to move the mouse when you first switch to desktop, the same way they have done before to educate users on the Start button in Windows or the glowing Microsoft Office Button that was introduced with the Ribbon in Office 2007 to open the Backstage. I am sure people will first be surprised when they do not see the button there, but many will be happy to get rid of an unnecessary ornament on the screen, especially if they are like me and already use the start button on their keyboards instead of fiddling with the mouse.

I would speculate that Microsoft might give in and bring back the start button to address the critical comments. Perhaps the only reason it is gone now is as an experiment and due to lack of time to switch to a design with a new logo. It is also possible that they will get rid of Aero Glass and make the desktop chrome more flat and Metro when they finally release Windows 8. Also — since they make corners and borders of the screen such important UI elements — they could also make the taskbar auto-hide by default to reduce unnecessary chrome.

The Start Screen

Windows 8 Start Screen Tiles and Windows Phone 8 Start Screen Tiles
© Filip Skakun 2012

There is no Start Menu as we know it in Windows 8. It was replaced with the Start Screen, which is the most visible change in Windows 8. It takes design ideas from Windows Phone, introducing large active tiles instead of a grid of dead small icons with tiny labels seen on other phones or desktop UIs. Instead of a small menu in the corner of the screen that you had to squint at, you have the whole screen to fill with easily readable tiles that serve the same purpose — to launch applications, but also display additional information that allows you to get information you might be looking for without even starting an app. I think this is a good idea. Gone is a multi-level-nested hierarchy of app folders that made things discoverable if you went on exploring the menu, but not really useful for starting applications. You can still access all installed applications in the Start Screen by searching or clicking on the “All apps” menu.

Since Windows 7 I would usually only start applications I pinned to the taskbar or less frequently used ones that I had pinned inside of the Start Menu. This still works, but now instead of having them pinned in the Start Menu, I have them pinned on the Start Screen with some more options to rearrange them. If I had to launch an application only once — I used to just type its name in the Start Menu and a link would show up. It still works on the Start Screen, only it is easier to read. There is no important scenario where having a Start Menu showing up in a corner of the screen would work better than having the big Start Screen that grabs your entire attention on the task of finding an application to run.

Will the old Start Menu be available as an option? I think it is possible but not likely. It seems like the Start Screen has already made it to Windows Server 8 too now, so although its design was possibly driven by the consumer version of Windows, it works just as well on the server. The often repeated comment that this could be an option for enterprise deployments to save on the costs of user education does have some sense, but I do not think it is correct. Changing an OS is always a change and users will always need to learn something new. If you let enterprises upgrade to Windows 8 while keeping the old Start Menu — how about users who get into Windows 8 at home, use the Start Screen and then go to work and see the Start Menu? That would also require education I am sure. Also — live tiles would not work inside of the start menu, so how about disabling Metro style apps altogether? Well, but about the case when some applications start becoming available only in Metro Style? Also — I am sure it is Microsoft’s goal to have as many people using Metro style apps as possible, since it brings Microsoft money, so they would not pass on that. Then there is also the problem of maintaining two parallel versions of an interface serving the same purpose. It has been historically possible to switch some things in Windows to how they were — e.g. in Windows 7 you can disable combining the tab buttons in the taskbar and switch to small buttons & labels — the same way it had worked since Windows 95. I do not really recommend doing that though since the new Windows 7 version is better. I am sure few people know about it being possible and I believe it has happened under different management. Now with Windows being ruled by Steven Sinofsky and his team who forced the world to use Office with the Ribbon and did away with the old toolbars — I don’t think it is likely to leave two competing versions of quite complicated UI — that would be just too difficult to maintain.

There is one valid criticism I have heard about the Start Screen — if you press spacebar once — you select a tile, if you press it again — you unpin it. This seems like a dangerously simple way to accidentally get rid of your pinned tiles and for millions of support calls to Microsoft if this does not change before release.

Metro Style Apps

Windows 8 Metro Style App sample - Flixster showing the Expendables 2 page
© Screenshot by Filip Skakun 2012

With Windows 8 Microsoft is adding a completely new technology for developing software. The new framework is called Windows Runtime and while the old WinAPI and related technologies layered on top of it are still available for developing desktop applications, Windows Runtime (or WinRT in short) is required for developing the new Metro style apps. The new framework and applications are sandboxed which means they have limited access to system resources and other applications installed on the computer which is a requirement to allow for a trustworthy app store where developers can easily publish apps and users can easily buy them at very reasonable prices.

The new technology limits applications developed for Windows from causing harm, but it does not really limit them from using the full processing power of the machine and Microsoft has learned their lesson from Windows Phone where — especially initially — developers had very limited access to the features of the devices making a lot of the more interesting applications that were available for iOS or Android devices impossible to implement on Windows Phone. Developers can create these new applications using lowest level, close-to-the-metal native technologies like DirectX while also having access to very popular and productive languages like C#, Visual Basic and JavaScript. The more liberal access to the features of the device compared to Windows Phone allows for a wide range of new classes of applications to be developed. Based on the rumors of the next Windows Phone sharing the core components with Windows 8, I am also expecting the next crop of Windows Phone applications to have access to many of these features and languages giving Windows Phone a bigger chance at growth and competitiveness against iOS and Android ecosystems.

Metro style apps on Windows 8 can be developed using C# and XAML, the same technologies used in most Windows Phone applications — the difference being that they use WinRT instead of Silverlight. Although from a developer’s view there is very little difference between these two platforms and WinRT being a lower level platform than Silverlight has potential for better performance as was shown in an article by Jose Fajardo (who is one of the more known experts writing about WinRT).

Metro style apps have features that are already familiar to Windows Phone users — such as live tiles and Metro design language. These things are evolving though, and becoming more powerful in Windows 8. Live tiles can be made even richer than in Windows Phone 7 and controls in the Metro user interface are evolving to be more usable in both mouse & keyboard and touch scenarios. Implementation of fluid transitions is now easier than ever before with built-in animation and transition libraries making it a lot easier to create a Metro style app that shines.

The XAML Disciples – a group of expert XAML developers that is made up of the early adopters and experts of WPF and Silverlight — seem to have mostly negative thoughts or no interest ([1], [2]) in the new technology. It seems like this comes mostly from lack of trust in the future of Windows or lack of applicability for the typical types of enterprise projects they are used to working on, or weariness after having experienced small changes between a series of similar frameworks coupled with limited interest expressed from Microsoft’s side in further development of WPF and Silverlight. Microsoft instead seems to focus on developing a new development framework for every new scenario that comes up, i.e. WPF – being the first framework for developing rich applications for Windows, Silverlight being its version with a promise of being cross platform compatible or a Flash killer, Silverlight for Windows Phone being its yet another flavor and WinRT’s XAML framework being yet another take on it that is being rewritten for Windows 8.

While I understand these pains, I disagree with the criticism. Each new platform is a bit different and requires a different approach, i.e. sandboxed environment required for running apps on the web or hosting in app stores is not really available in WPF. WPF is also too heavy to run on the web. The interoperability of WinRT and improvements in implementation in Silverlight and then WinRT are also important reasons for rewriting the framework. Also you have to appreciate how little you need to learn to switch to a new XAML-based technology after you have already mastered one. WPF and Silverlight are also in most ways feature complete and Microsoft has likely reached diminished returns on investments in these technologies, while a new one will benefit its customers more. The fact that WinRT might not be applicable for many enterprise applications might hold true for a while, but as with Windows Phone — the main target of Windows 8 is not enterprise customers. Microsoft is trying to fight a battle for minds of consumers already learning to live with Apple’s and Google’s competing technologies — the fact that could cost Microsoft its dominance in OS in the future if not addressed with something exciting and superior. I believe Windows 8 is such thing. Enterprises are now used to switching the OS every two years and have mostly last done so with Windows 7, so it won’t harm Microsoft much if they wait till Windows 9 before getting ready and realizing WinRT is already a very valid platform for many scenarios and will surely improve to become a great one for developing business software too.

The Store

Windows Store
© Screenshot by Filip Skakun 2012

A billion Windows users, even if only slowly upgrading to Windows 8, make Windows Store a very attractive platform for growing an app development business. Most of the excitement and business opportunities for developers in recent years have been in web development with a switch to mobile development in recent years. Microsoft is far behind in this game, but I would not ignore the sleeping dragon. Windows will continue to be the most popular platform for desktops and laptops and Windows Store will fill a void finally enabling Windows developers to easily access the wallets of its gigantic user base. It will compete in the mobile space with established platforms from Apple and Google, but PC users have not had access to such a store until Windows 8. This is bound to breed a lot of innovation and rejuvenate the Windows ecosystem. Big development houses and brands like Adobe or Electronic Arts have achieved a level of familiarity and trustworthiness to be able to sell their software through their own online storefronts or could sell games through Steam, but Windows Store will allow millions of individual developers and small companies to share their ideas with hundreds of millions of users willing to pay for them or sell their attention to ad networks. I can easily see all future Windows games becoming available through the Windows Store. Is it the end of software on DVDs and GameStop? Not in the immediate future, since desktop applications will not be sold in the store except for perhaps one coming from the big software houses and it will take some years for most users to upgrade to Windows 8 and later versions of Windows, but especially for games — it is bound to happen soon. PC games are already increasingly being sold online through existing channels and another major one will surely accelerate this process.

Next Up

This was the first part of my impressions of Windows 8. The second part comes tomorrow and I will talk about the following:

  1. Windows 8 and the Cloud
  2. Using Windows 8 on a Slate
  3. Using Windows 8 on a Laptop
  4. Using Windows 8 on a Desktop
  5. Desktop IE vs. Metro IE
  6. Frustrations of Being an Early Adopter
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