OK, I’ll admit it. For the past decade, maybe two, I’ve been a Windows fanboy. I’ve always looked forward to each new release of Windows, and I’ll even go so far as to say that I was an early adopter of the much-maligned Windows Vista. With that out of the way, it’s time to say this is the column I didn’t want to write. After my initial experiences running Windows 8 on a desktop and a laptop, I can’t really say I would encourage a typical Windows 7 desktop user to move to Windows 8.
I didn’t always feel this way. I got my first taste of Windows 8 at Build 2011 where I got a chance to run the early Windows 8 developer release on some Samsung tablets. My experiences on the tablet devices were good. I was excited about the possibilities of running Windows on a tablet—I still am. I plan to get one of the Microsoft Surface Pro devices as soon as they’re released.
However, my enthusiasm for the desktop implementation waned as I later installed the Windows 8 RC/RTM releases on a couple of standard mouse and keyboard-based systems in my office. The Start menu, which was present in the early developer release, was gone, forcing me to contend with the new (formerly named Metro) Start screen. I found the new interface unintuitive and awkward. I was able to use it after a brief learning period, but I was never really excited about it because I seemed to lose more than I gained. If I wasn’t stubbornly inclined to make it work, I would have probably gone ahead and installed the SourceForge Classic Shell to get my Start menu back.
Being pretty geeky, I know that my experiences don’t always mirror typical users. To find out if it was just me (and it often is), I decided to “scientifically” test Windows 8 on a couple of friends who were reasonably proficient computer users but not really what you would call computer experts.
I sat them both down in front of a Windows 8 laptop with the standard mouse and keyboard interface. Their similar reactions make me wonder if Microsoft actually does any usability studies with real people anymore—but I digress. At first they were excited by the new Start screen but quickly became frustrated trying to run multiple apps, trying to exit apps, and knowing when and how to switch back and forth to the desktop. Going through the keyboard shortcuts helped. But, for them, using keyboard shortcuts was a new and not altogether happy experience. Admittedly this not-so-scientific study was brief, and I’m sure they would have learned to adapt. But I am also sure this isn’t the experience Microsoft was going for with this obviously consumer-oriented release. Microsoft was obviously focused on the touch experience.
These experiences reminded me of the issues I faced a few years ago initially implementing Windows Vista. The interface was unfamiliar and in many ways not as productive as Windows XP. Changes such as UAC were good ideas in theory but annoying in practice, and they gave the OS a bad reputation. I see similarities with Windows 8, such as the need to switch between two completely dissimilar UI environments to open programs and the need to use more clicks, time, and effort to accomplish tasks than Windows 7. Like in Vista, I’ve also run into device incompatibility issues where Windows 8 doesn’t have drivers for some of the hardware that worked fine with Windows 7. If I ran into this problem in my small sample, larger organizations are sure to be hit with it. Businesses considering adopting Windows 8 are not going to experience a painless rollout by any means. User training will be required, as will hardware and software upgrades.
Are there benefits to running Windows 8? Obviously for a Windows tablet install, Windows 8 is a no-brainier and the only game in town. There are also advantages for the desktop. Windows 8 does seem to boot slightly faster. It is a bit easier to run the most common programs you use because the Start menu buttons are bigger and easier to click. Windows To Go lets you boot from a USB device. Client Hyper-V lets you run VMs on the desktop. It offers better integration with SkyDrive. Windows 8 promises to offer better battery life on a laptop, but I haven’t tested that. Whether these features are compelling enough for a business to undergo the pain of upgrade will depend on specific needs of the organization.
Overall, Microsoft’s UI goal seems to be to give you a similar experience for all types of devices as the company is moving to put the interface formerly named Metro on the Windows phone, the upcoming Windows RT, Windows 8 tablets, and desktop versions of Windows 8 as well. On the surface (no pun intended) that goal seems laudable. But upon reflection and practice, I’m pretty sure that I don’t care for the one-size-fits-all approach. I would prefer that each device deliver the optimum performance and experience for that type of device. Saddling the desktop with tiles and an interface better suited to a touch device doesn’t seem like a move forward.
Windows 8 is clearly Microsoft’s move to the future but like Vista it might take Microsoft a release or so to really get it right. I do think Microsoft needed a better mobile platform. Windows Phone and Windows RT with the interface formerly known as Metro are a great start in that direction. Windows 8 on the desktop could clearly be better. Little things like restoring the Start Menu would go a long way toward making the Windows 8 transition easier for users with standard desktops and laptops that don’t have touch screens. But the right answer might be to have different UIs that are optimized for the different platforms.
The tablet implementation will keep Windows 8 from being another Vista. However, business adoption could be a different story. While it remains to be seen, businesses will probably use Windows 8 on devices such as an iPad. But they might be better off waiting until the next release or the next service pack where Microsoft can tweak the interface to make it better for non–touch-enabled devices before deploying Windows 8 to their desktops.