Windows 8 – Using it for real

I’ve been playing with Windows 8 for a while now, and I recently installed the ‘Consumer Preview’ onto my day-to-day laptop.

A lot of Windows 8 is based on Windows 7.  This is not a bad thing, and Windows 7 is the best Operating System Microsoft have ever produced.  Windows 8 has the SAME hardware demands as Windows 7, along with some enhancements to, for example, make it boot up even faster.  My four-year old laptop starts up in HALF the time it did with Windows 7.

The biggest change, is, of course, the new ‘Start Screen’.   This replaces the old start button & menu that has been sitting at the bottom left of our screens since Windows 95. The Start Screen is a sideways scrolling array of ’tiles’ of assorted colours.  Each tile is pretty much the same as the icons you have on your start menu.  If you click the ‘Microsoft Word’ tile, then Word will launch and appear just as it always has.    Microsoft are also encouraging the development of a new range of touch-compatible programs that will use the same look and feel as the Start Screen.

The Start Screen appears as soon as you log in to your computer, and can be called up in the same way as the old start menu (By clicking your mouse in the bottom-left corner of the screen, or by tapping the ‘Windows key’ on your keyboard).

With some extra development work, software suppliers can customise their program’s tiles to contain information – status updates, summary information, and so on.   The Start Screen then starts to become a constantly changing ‘dashboard’ as well as a menu.   Microsoft have created some simple programs to demonstrate this in action (showing my next Outlook appointment, and listing any unread emails, for example).

You can decide what tiles you want to see on your Start Screen, and how they are laid out.   Anything you don’t use (all those little utilities and configuration tools that clutter up the Windows start menu, for example) can be relegated to a hidden ‘All Apps’ screen that you never have to look at).

You can also organise your Start Screen into groups of tiles with a common theme.  I, for example, have created a ‘Work’ group and a ‘Personal’ group (as well as a third group  for ‘Stuff I don’t use very much’!

So – Instead of having a desktop with ‘shortcuts’ for your regularly used programs, documents, and web-sites – you create tiles instead – organising them into groups as appropriate.  On the ‘Work’ section of my Start Screen,  I have, for example, added a tile for AccountingWeb, and one that takes me to my ‘Clients’ folder.

If I start to type on the keyboard, Windows immediately starts to perform a search of all the items on my Start Screen.   So, if I want to launch Windows Calculator, for example, I only need type ‘cal’ and the screen instantly changes to display only those applications that have ‘cal’ in their name.

The Start Screen, then, is your computer’s Home Page and menu system rolled into one.   It has clearly been designed with touch-screens in mind, but in practice,  I’ve found few problems using mouse and keyboard on my laptop.

Where’s my desktop?

When you click on a tile to launch (for example) Microsoft Word – Windows 8 then reverts to more familiar territory.    Your programs appear much as they do in Windows 7.

You can have shortcuts and icons on your desktop, you can have multiple windows open, and you have the old taskbar at the bottom of the screen.   Using the computer for actual work, then, remains pretty much the same as before.   There is no ‘Start’ button in the bottom-left, however, as the start menu no longer exists.

Conclusion

There has been much discussion about the slightly schizophrenic nature of Windows 8.  On the one hand, you have this new finger-friendly Start Screen with its whizzy tiles, and yet most of the business software you will launch from that screen demands ‘old Windows’  desktop and keybaord and mouse to work properly.    So, what is Windows 8 really about?

Windows 8 is the first step in a move towards a new generation of touch-screen tablets that are also ‘proper’ computers.  It’s also a reaction to the success of the iPad.    A lot of the fancy features of the Start Screen are about competing with Apple for the HOME computing market – where simplicity and visual impact matter and where the idea of seeing your Facebook updates alongside slideshows of your holiday snaps is very powerful.    Imagine a Windows 8 touchscreen on the wall of your kitchen, with touchscreen access to email, family calendar, Facebook, Twitter, weather, photos, recipes, TV shows, etc.

In the business arena, the argument is less clear (for now).   Windows 8 will only really offer benefits with a new generation of computers that can act as both tablet AND desktop PC.   Taking the tablet out of its docking station to go to meetings or client visits (and using the touch screen) and then returning it to its dock when you get back to your desk and switch to a mouse and keyboard.  iPads are starting to make inroads into business life for note taking, email and reference on the move.  Windows 8 is Microsoft’s fightback.

Windows 8 really starts to come alive (and make sense) when used with a touch screen.   In short – If you have existing kit running older versions of Windows, I’m not convinced there is a business case for upgrading.  A few years from now, however,  the idea of being able to operate a single bit of kit as both tablet and desktop will be quite compelling.

Windows 8 – Why should we care?

This week – as the press has been reporting – Microsoft has released an early version of Windows 8.

Samsung Windows 8 Tablet

Much of the focus has been on the new ’tile-based’ interface that appears when you log in, and there is a temptation to see this as irrelevant for ‘proper work’.  But the overall trend (both social and technical) is in Microsoft’s favour – To use the old business/ice-hocky metaphor, they’re ‘skating to where the puck WILL be, not where it is’.

What are those trends?

Technical

1. Processor power is continuing to develop as quickly as ever
2. Battery technology continues to improve
3. Solid state storage (as opposed to hard disks) is getting cheaper, which has its own impact on battery life

Case in point : It’s been calculated that an iPhone 4 is more powerful than the room-filling CRAY-2 supercomputers of the 1980’s.  An iPad 2 would have been the world’s fastest computer right up until the mid 90’s.

Social

1. User expectations have been dramatically raised by the iPhone and iPad – people can see what is possible, and won’t tolerate poorly designed, over complex technology.  Apple has demonstrated that tablets can work.

2. Users are increasingly pressurising employers to allow them to use their own kit (And I see a LOT of partners with iPads now – all asking IT to make it link with the office email system).

With Windows 8, Microsoft are clearly trying to serve two masters – On the one hand: the Consumer, who wants an iPad-style device to read mail, access photos and other media, and as an all-purpose internet-linked organiser/notepad.  On the other hand: Enterprise customers, who need to work with more complex applications and require centralised management, security, and consistency (so they don’t have to spend vast sums on re-training).

There’s a gap there – Tablets are not suitable for running heavy duty content-creation applications, and the traditional PC/Laptop isn’t as convenient and accessible as a tablet.

Apple see that same gap  – Apple’s iOS is a mobile operating system – designed to deliver excellent performance on the mobile hardware of today, but excluding ‘desktop’ features that would compromise the overall product (Case in point – Flash is not supported on iOS because it’s so processor and battery hungry).   iOS exists because it’s not possible to build a full-power Mac into a portable solid-state tablet with fantastic battery life yet.

I suspect that Microsoft are looking towards a time when technology will advance to a point where it CAN deliver desktop performance in tablet-sized packages, and in that situation, why not have a “full-fat” desktop Operating System running an optional ‘mobile’ user-interface with the ability to switch between the two at will?

So…Five years from now (probably sooner)- Imagine a tablet running a touch-friendly iPad-type operating system. You use it to read a book or newspaper on the train, and you use it in meetings for note-taking and looking stuff up.  Back at your desk, you drop the tablet into a dock with a keyboard and mouse, swap to a more ‘traditional’ desktop, and launch Excel (or whatever). All on ONE device.  This machine doesn’t take 10 minutes to boot up, it takes seconds. It lasts two or three days before needing a recharge, it can store vast amounts of data (and integrated internet gives you access to the rest).   The current situation of tablet PLUS laptop is only a stopgap until tablets get faster.

I think THIS is what Microsoft sees – sometimes you’ll be holding Windows 8 in the crook of your arm, using a touch-screen – and sometimes you’ll be sitting at a desk using a mouse and keyboard.  And it’ll be a single device for both.