I’ve been to a few demos recently of the full Windows 8 experience so thought I’d put a few thoughts down about it.
For those who have not seen it, Windows 8 really is “revolution not evolution”. It throws away many of the concepts we have been familiar with since Windows 95 (start menu, task bar…) and even some of the core concepts of Windows such as … well… Windows. It is the first OS designed to work across desktops and tablets.
The core of the new system is the Metro interface which genuinely doesn’t have windows. All applications are run full screen for what (I have heard called many times during these demos) is a “fully immersive experience”.
The standard means of navigating around and between programs have been largely removed. There are no more close and minify buttons or menu bars. Instead addition options for programs are found by swiping the appropriate part of the screen. The right hand side is for the “charm” screen which is a set of common options that apply to all programs (notably search and share), while top and bottom can be used for application options. Programs are closed by dragging them off the bottom, and minimised by dragging across and bringing another program on.
This leads onto another key change: when a program is inactive its processing is suspended. To a certain extent this can be developed around but by default Metro apps do not allow multi-tasking.
The Metro screen displays all apps as tiles; tiles and other notifications can be fed information from within your application or pushed from remote services via a cloud based distribution service. This leads to a dynamic desktop and gives developers the ability to entice users back into their application.
There are probably a lot of people thinking that this will mean the end of traditional windows based applications but worry not, there is also desktop mode. In desktop mode traditional Windows programs will run in the same format as they always did. Desktop apps can be launched via shortcuts from the Metro tile screen or from a separate menu within desktop mode.
As always with Microsoft products the support and facilities given to developers for the new platform is extensive and supports all the systems needed for creating innovative apps but that is a subject for a blog post of its own.
So, what do I think of all this? Metro is clearly designed to be a tablet interface; indeed Microsoft have said that it is designed for touch first and everything else follows out of it. As a tablet interface it is very innovative. The sharing ability between programs is excellent and a big step forward over anything that has been seen before. The built in cloud support for multiple devices is also a great feature, allowing synchronisation across multiple devices straight out of the box.
I think it works less well in a desktop environment; I have been trying to think about what applications I would use in Metro mode. Twitter, email, IM, and web browser immediately spring to mind. However I spend most of my time in Visual Studio, SQL Server, Office or other such tools and usually have the other tools mentioned above open at the same time, usually on a separate monitor so I can watch over them while carrying on working. Ultimately, I have paid for a large screen and I don’t want a fully immersive experience; I want to control my level of immersion by setting windows to the size I want.
The other issue I have is that, despite how many times I hear or read about Microsoft people saying how beautiful the Metro interface is, I am not wowed by it. I have never loved the look and feel of Windows phone and Metro is essentially and evolution of that theme. The tiles are great in their ability to stream real-time information outside of the application, but I find the look too busy and I’m really not keen on the way things flip in and out. Basically, I look at the Metro interface, I look at my iPad, and I’m not wanting to throw out the iPad.
Building a standard system across all platforms is a bold move and only time will tell how well it will work out. It is fair to say that Windows 8 is a pretty good stab at it.
What I find interesting is that to me this is much more of a consumer than a business solution. I feel that many of the business users who, like me, spend all day in tools like Visual Studio or Office may share my concerns specified above. Consumer users though will probably love the concepts behind the Metro interface. In this market a tablet is a serious alternative to a laptop to achieve their aims (web, email, twitter, IM, Skype etc).
This raises an interesting question about whether the historical vision of Windows as a shared system between business and consumers is actually flawed and Microsoft should be looking at selling Metro only (with no desktop) as a consumer option and a full Windows 8 system with desktop support for business users. The consumer version could even be a free offering (like iOS) that is funded by the profits on app sales.
I started by saying that Windows 8 was “revolution not evolution” and am going to end by saying that it may be revolution beyond just UX, and go to the heart of Windows as a product.