Over the past few months we’ve developed a real love/hate relationship with Windows 8. In many ways it seems that Microsoft has been too eager to step away from the desktop and laptop PC focus that Windows traditionally had, and embrace touch despite the fact that it just doesn’t work well with a vertical screen.
For casual PC use Windows 8 is a solid enough solution, but for power users it delivers a level of annoyance proportional to the amount of time they have been using Windows. It just feels like two different OSes gaffa taped together. On one hand there is the slick Metro interface and its inherent touchability, but on the other hand there is 90% of the traditional Windows experience now hiding in the desktop App.
This makes running Windows 8 with a traditional mouse and keyboard/trackpad an exercise in frustration, much like trying to use Windows 7 on a touch device. It also makes trying to use traditional Windows applications without a keyboard and mouse a painful experience. Add to this the fact that most of the native Windows 8 Apps don’t work to their full extent in Australia and running the consumer preview has become an equally frustrating experience.
This was in many ways highlighted at Computex, with the announcement of all sorts of weird and wonderful devices designed to make Windows 8 work. Asus’ Taichi is a perfect example, and Ultrabook with a touchscreen on the lid, designed to work as a tablet when closed and a standard Ultrabook when opened. The problem is that the operating system just isn’t designed this way – the more we think about it the more it feels like it should be a product that uses Metro on the outside and a traditional desktop on the inside.
The Taichi is fascinating but we can't help but wonder if it will be an expensive novelty rather than a Windows 8 showpiece.
While that would work wonderfully, Microsoft’s aggressive killing of the Start button makes it unfeasible, as ‘Ultrabook mode’ will still force you into Metro at any opportunity. It may well improve once native Metro software becomes commonplace, but for now the experience of the OS feels largely disjointed from the actual software usage models that Windows brings with it.
It may sounds like we’ve dismissed Windows 8, but we haven’t completely. While we are reassured that there is no need to spend money upgrading our current laptops or desktops from Windows 7, our love for Windows 8 on tablets is growing.
It is becoming clear that Microsoft is focused on bolstering these non-traditional Windows products with the new OS. The announcement of Surface a few days ago and Windows Phone 8 last night makes this strategy much clearer – Windows 8 is the way in which Microsoft unifies its operating system across all types of computing platforms.
Surface is the real masterstroke here. Not only does it deliver a product that will avoid the major barrier OEMs are facing – namely having to pay Microsoft $100 per product for the OS – but it also sets a standard for what to expect from a Windows tablet. Allowing too much flexibility with tablet design is actually counterproductive to an operating system’s success, you only have to look at the way in which digital media like magazine Apps work on an iPad versus how they work on the myriad Android tablets on the market.
Having a standard screen size makes everyone’s life easier, and that is what Microsoft is doing with Surface. It means developers can target the 10.6in 16:9 form factor rather than having to deal with the variety of 16:9 or 4:3 Android tablets running everything from 7in to 13in screens. It’s a problem that Google is clearly struggling with when it comes to Android tablets and we suspect a large part of the reason behind the rumoured launch of the ASUS-made 7in Nexus tablet next week.
But more than that, Surface raises consumer expectations of what to expect from a Windows 8 tablet, and is a wakeup call that OEMs need to try harder. To date most Windows 8 tablets resemble Android ones, as manufacturers burned by low interest in Windows 7 tablets avoid betting the farm on Windows 8. By making a tablet that combines aesthetic beauty and high quality, highly functional, engineering, Microsoft is showing us just what its OEMs should be capable of producing.
Just when we’d seen the first exciting non-Xbox product announcement from Microsoft in ages, it followed up with another in the form of the Windows Phone 8 announcement. While at a glance this looks like a natural progression from Windows Phone 7, under the hood it is much closer to being a desktop version of Windows than ever before.
Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 is a massive shift from Windows Phone 7
Windows Phone 7 used a modification of the Windows CE kernel – which was designed for low powered devices. Windows Phone 8 on the other hand is based on the Windows NT kernel, the same one that drives desktop Windows. This means that not only will software development be more powerful thanks to support for everything from C++ to DirectX 11, but it means that it will be a lot easier for manufacturers to add new features and break out of the limited hardware configurations that Windows Phone 7 supports. It also means that software will theoretically be easily ported between Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT (the ARM-based version of Windows 8).
The Surface and Windows Phone 8 announcements have in many ways been the triumphant return of Microsoft that we expected from Computex but didn’t see. We still think that Windows 7 is a much better solution than Windows 8 for desktops and laptops, but Surface is an excellent flagship for the kind of niche the new OS should occupy. Not only are the tablets beautiful pieces of hardware, but they use the Metro interface in the way it was meant to, adding keyboard input as a secondary function rather than trying to shoehorn a touch interface into a primarily non-touch form factor.
This alone has been impressive, but add to it the fact that Windows Phone 8 shares so much of its DNA with Windows 8 and it makes a phone OS that we have a soft spot for even better. When you then slap services like Xbox Live, Homegroups, SkyDrive and other such networking focused technologies on top of this and you have an ecosystem that spans Windows Phone 8 handsets, Windows 8 tablets and Windows 7/8 laptops and desktops. And that is what has us so damn excited.