Windows 8: What does Microsoft have in Store?

During Microsoft’s Build conference earlier last month, Microsoft unveiled Windows 8- Metro UI and all. Everyone is now left wondering whether it is enough to take on the juggernaut that Apple has become. What I feel like people are missing, is that Microsoft is still far ahead in market share. That is, at least on the when it comes to the almighty PC.

Most people who have wanted to switch to Apple or buy an iPad probably already have. Microsoft knows there’s lots of people on the fence about which platform to go to. They are also very aware that the iPhone and the iPad are both gateway drugs to what is largely known as ‘The Apple Kool-Aid’. If executed properly Microsoft can, with Windows 8, begin to close the gap between desktop computing and mobile computing, and become a serious competitor in the mobile market while maintaining their market share in the PC environment.

The Metro UI on a Touchscreen

There’s been a lot of buzz about the new Metro UI and whether or not it will even work for the desktop experience. I am of the opinion that I will never want to use a touch screen on my main computer system. What Microsoft is doing here, however, is something that I think I could work with.

The ability to swap between an interface designed specifically for a touch screen and the standard Windows desktop experience has so much potential. If you’ve ever used a tablet PC runngin Windows XP, Vista or 7 in the past you probably found that the experience was clumsy at best. I used a Tablet PC as my main computer for quite some time – and very rarely would I ever convert it into it’s tablet form.

The Metro UI on a touch screen device is an enlightening experience, thanks to the fresh, creative, and innovative approach Microsoft took with their interface instead of just following the typical multi-screen with apps and/or widgets.  The look and feel of the live tiles versus your typical mix of widgets and icons, or in the iPhone’s case just icons, is an extremely intelligent use of screen real estate and resources.

The home screen

If you’ve used Windows Phone 7 (or 7.5) before you’ll be very familiar with the Metro UI of Windows 8. I remember the first time I saw screen shots floating around the internet with what Windows Phone 7 looked like, and the first thought that came to my head was “Microsoft hired Fisher Price to do their UI?”.

To be fair this was before we knew about the dynamically updating live tiles – but it’s really hard to share the experience without the user being able to touch the device and feel what it is like. The overall design is extremely polished and very well laid out and I believe that Microsoft has hit the nail on the head in terms of what the user is looking to get out of a touch screen experience.

The Metro UI on a Desktop

Using the Metro UI on the desktop I would say, at this point, is clumsy at best. Microsoft has a great idea here – but it seems to be relatively confused. I understand Microsoft is trying to bridge the gap between the desktop and mobile experience – but I feel like you’re missing core parts of the operating system regardless of which experience you choose.

When you’re inside of the Metro UI – opening any applications that you install will bring you back to the traditional Windows desktop you know and love. Any Metro-style apps that you use or have running inside of the Metro UI don’t show up on the taskbar and the only way to access them again is by either going back into the Metro UI and selecting it or using Alt-Tab. Even going into the Control Panel inside of the Metro UI you’ll find yourself almost always clicking on the bottom option which is ‘For even more control, go to the Desktop Control Panel.’

A look at the control panel

Even though Metro UI is built into the operating system from the ground up – from a user perspective it feels like a launcher running on top of Windows. I really believe that Microsoft is going to have to get creative in terms of how the merge the two environments, especially from a developer standpoint.

Microsoft has made it extremely easy to build Applications (and beautiful ones, at that) for Windows 8 – but that’s only inside of the Metro UI. What if a user wants to run those beautiful new Metro apps outside of the Metro UI beside Adobe Photoshop and iTunes on their multi-monitor set up? As of right now when you’re running multiple monitors, the Metro takes up one of your monitors and you get the traditional desktop on the remaining.

Your new desktop!

 

I imagine that on a tablet, people will feel like they’re getting the best of both worlds – but I have a feeling users on the Desktop side might feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. Microsoft needs to balance this extremely carefully as their desktop OS is their bread and butter. This is an extremely early preview we’re going off here, and there’s still a lot of things guaranteed to be very different once Windows 8 comes out sometime next year, so I’m not too terribly concerned at this point.

Windows 8 – Key Differences

There’s going to be certain areas of your computer where regardless of the flavour you choose (Metro vs the classic desktop) where you’re going to see some significant changes, that you won’t be able to escape from. Since this isn’t an in-depth review of Windows 8 – I’m not going to delve too deep into the features, but I wanted to share a few of my favourites.

Task Manager

There are so many changes to the every day things you use in Windows that many users are going to welcome. The first one I want to talk about is the Task Manager. The task manager is far more functional than any of its previous versions and also has a welcomed overall facelift.

The spiffy new task manager...

Under processes you’ll find not only CPU and Memory utilization, but Disk and Network as well. It splits the process window into two categories: Applications and Background Processes.

.. provides a lot more details now.

The performance window has an extremely nice interface with a user friendly graph of almost any info the average user might be looking for.

The new 'App History

App history is a completely new feature to the task manager and one thing I can see it being very useful for is monitoring applications historical network usage. This will help track down what might be using your bandwidth whether you’re on a mobile device or your ISP limits your bandwidth usage. Another great use this would have would be to track down battery drain on your mobile devices. Those applications with higher CPU time will also do a great part in draining your battery, so it would help you know what to not leave running while you’re on the go.

The startup tabs gives you more fine grained control

The start up window is really neat – it shows all the programs that are set to open on boot. Not only that, but it let’s you know how much it slows down your computer on boot. This will make it a much easier experience for users trying to reduce their boot time or improve their battery life on their mobile devices.

Take a peek at what specific apps from another user's account is hampering performance

If you use multiple accounts on your computer at home, you’ll find the Users tab to be useful for once. If the computer is feeling slower than normal, you could pop open the task manager and take a look in this tab. It will show you in any other users stayed logged in and if whatever they’re doing is bogging the computer down. It will display their accounts CPU, Memory, Disk, and Network usage. If you’re an administrator you’ll be able to log them out to speed things up.

The details tab would be compared to what the old process tab looked like, and the Services tab has not changed.

Windows Explorer

Besides the obvious addition of the ribbon feature found in the Office 2010 suite – there are lots of under the hood changes to be found here.

The new copy/move interface

One of my favourite minor changes is the improvement to the copy/move interface. There’s so much more detail provided and the ability to pause/resume copying will be welcomed by almost all users with open arms.

A more detailed view

The Start Menu

Out of the box the installation by default axes the classic Start Menu you’ve become accustomed to. Any time you click the Start Menu icon or key on your keyboard, you get pulled into Metro UI. This is where your applications that are installed will display and it will be similar to loading an app on a Windows Phone 7 device.

The improved start menu

Above you’ll notice a few applications that I installed that would not come with Windows and they appear there after install much like you’re used to with the classic start menu. Again it’s an early preview, but it would be nice if Microsoft hid the ‘uninstall’ options by default – as I could see this screen becoming very cluttered in a very small amount of time.

A more detailed look

Grabbing the icons and dragging them around the screen works exactly as you would expect. If you frequent some applications more than others you can drag them around as you see fit and place them in and around live tiles, between them, etc. By default Windows 8 will know what you use more than you don’t and will move the applications around accordingly. If you don’t like this option, that can be disabled.

Searching for apps

One of the first thoughts that popped into my head after realizing the start menu was gone was: “Oh no! I love to be able to hit my Windows key and just search for any application I want.” Sure, there are launchers much more capable than the default Windows type-n-search but sometimes people just want to just press one key instead of two. Well you’re in luck, because it’s still there, and it’s a gigantic improvement. As I mentioned before, pressing the Windows Start key takes you to the Metro UI, but once you’re there you just start typing and you’ll get similar results as the screenshot above shows. An improvement over the Windows Vista or Windows 7 style type-n-search while still leaving the door wide open for 3rd party launchers.

Wrap-Up

So do we have a potential iPad killer here? Absolutely the potential is there. It’s an extremely early developer preview so it’s hard to draw any certain conclusions or even do a thorough review on a not-even-close-to-finished product. As I mentioned above, with Microsoft leveraging it’s market share in the PC world by providing users a product where they can get a glimpse of the touch screen experience on their desktop, but still making sure that their desktop experience isn’t leaving something to be desired – they could have a winner here.

Microsoft is coming out guns blazing with Windows 8. It’s going to support the ARM processor architecture which means they’ll be able to compete in the smaller scale/battery efficient tablet market. The Windows Phone experience is second to none on a touch screen, and I find that most people who disagree just haven’t used it before. If they stick to their guns and somehow bridge that gap between desktop and mobile, they’ll never have to be concerned about a certain fruit company located in California taking any of their precious market share again.