Saturday, 17 September 2011

Windows 8 Preview First Impressions

I recently decided to trial the Windows 8 Developer Preview on my PC, the main reason for me wanting to do this was to see how the touch interface was going to work on tablets. I have an HP TouchSmart laptop which should have been perfect for experimenting with this. Unfortunately my efforts to install it to a Virtual Machine on my laptop didn't go too well.

Firstly I couldn't install the 64-bit version because my laptops CPU doesn't support hardware virtualisation, so I had to download the 32-bit version. This wouldn't install either for reasons I still don't understand, the Windows 8 installer just kept throwing error messages. My only option remaining is to set up a partition on my HDD and install it properly, but I'm not ready to do that just yet. Instead I decided to install it to my main desktop PC.

This was remarkably simple compared to the trials I'd been through on my laptop. The Virtual Machine was set-up in just a few seconds, I enabled the Hardware Virtualisation in my PCs BIOS and mounted the Windows 8 .iso into the virtual DVD drive. Booted it up, and the installer ran without a hitch, although it did take a while to complete.

So then, what are my thoughts? Well before going in I had reservations about the new Metro UI they have been showing off. My gut feeling was that it wasn't going to work on a desktop PC, having now used it, I can confirm my worst fears are well founded. The Metro UI feels like a badly tacked on interface that is restrictive, basic and unwieldly. It simply doesn't work well with a mouse and keyboard, the gestures are impossible to use and the UI feels very poorly thought out. There is no easy way to exit Metro apps and nothing about it seems at all intuitive. When I first picked up an iPhone, I pretty much knew exactly how to use it, the same was true for Android. However, I felt totally lost and confused inside the Metro apps, it's hard to explain it, but it all felt wrong.

One of the main problems I experienced with the Metro UI was the inability to perform touch gestures using the mouse and keyboard. I can see how in theory the Metro UI would be quite slick on a touchscreen, it just doesn't translate at all well to more traditional PC control methods. The problem with this is exacerbated by the forced use of the Metro UI as the Start menu.

Let's focus on that for just a moment, the Start menu is gone in Windows 8, you click on the Windows icon in the taskbar, it takes you into the Metro UI. From there you get the tile interface seen above, this is where you launch all your apps from. The problem with this is it's a mess, you can't get much on a screen because the tiles take up so much space and it's hard to find anything. Getting fast access to your programs is going to be a thing of the past!

The other problem is going to be with developer uptake, in order for a program to run in the new Metro UI it needs a totally new interface designed, but not just one! Traditionally a developer designs one interface for Windows and the OS deals with resizing the window to whatever the user desires. It can be any size too, unlike in Metro when you can only have two apps open side by side!

Now they need to design the traditional desktop UI, as well as a full screen Metro UI, a split screen Metro UI and the tile UI. It puts much more of an onus on the developer not only to design their applications, but also to test them too!

My prediction will be that classic Windows desktop applications, like Photoshop and office will continue to have only the desktop interface. The extra effort involved in creating all the interfaces will outweigh the benefits.

It seems that the plan is to get tablets running the same software as desktop PCs. The big problem with this is that tablets are not designed for productivity, they are designed for consumption and they are great at doing that. However, a tablet that can edit pictures in Photoshop or edit videos in Premiere is unlikely to be a realistic proposition. The CPU and graphic requirements these programs will demand is going to far outstrip tablet technology.

Microsoft have taken the wrong road, Apple and Google have both developed an OS that runs on phones and tablets. It's a tactic that works well and keeps the desktop OS separate in the case of MacOS and to a lesser extent ChromeOS.

This is what MS should have done, developed an improved Windows 7 for the desktop as Windows 8 and then developed Windows Phone 7 further to accommodate tablets.

I fear for the future of Windows now, unless MS decide to make the Metro UI totally optional so it can be disabled on a desktop, mouse & keyboard PC, I don't see any way that Windows 8 can be a success. Hopefully they'll come to this conclusion as well, and the sooner the better!