Windows 8: New UI, but old-school Microsoft


So I grabbed the Windows 8 Consumer Preview last night and installed it on an old laptop to test out. After a surprisingly quick and painless install process, I played around with it for a while trying all the various apps and features. I wasn't on a tablet, so it was just using a normal mouse and keyboard, but I could see how everything worked and/or didn't work. There are definitely some really neat bits to it. But I have to say my impression was decidedly mixed, with the UI best summed up as 'mostly, but not quite, completely bewildering'.

Here's the thing - I actually like the new tablet functionality quite a bit. The Metro interface is slick, fun and functional. I wrote not too long ago about how the work Microsoft has put into its tools and runtime are finally coming to pay off a decade or so later, and you can see it in all the tablet-oriented features and apps. They're just nicely done, work well, look great and judging from the apps already in the marketplace, easy to develop. Anyone who's played with an XBox 360 over the past few years, or used Windows Phone 7 shouldn't be surprised, right? The company obviously has it in themselves to create really well-done, developer-friendly, consumer-focused platforms when given the opportunity to break away from the chains of backwards compatibility. The Metro side of Windows 8 shows this in bright clear lines.

The integration with the classic desktop though? Wow. It's. Completely. Fucking. Insane.

The combination is jarring, confusing and ultimately unusable. I can't even respect it as an interesting attempt, as it just simply doesn't work. There's no doubt in my mind that the Metro UI and apps should have been set off in a "mode" - similar to how the Windows Media Center works. The fact that the Metro UI has been integrated in wholesale with the old-school WIMP interface is ridiculous, and more to the point, represents incredible cynicism on Microsoft's part.

Make no mistake, this is Microsoft falling back on old-school monopolistic tactics to take on an upcoming challenger to their OS dominance. It's like 1997 all over again, when Microsoft jammed Internet Explorer into Windows in places it didn't really need to be in order to compete with Netscape. Remember when the entire *desktop* used to be an IE Window? Remember all the security and performance problems that came as a result? Remember U.S. vs. Microsoft? Why in the world do they think this tactic which failed so spectacularly before will work now? Are they psychotic?

Apple's iPhone business alone now makes more money than ALL of Microsoft combined. I'm sure this causes Microsoft's leadership great consternation, but one would think they would get the hint that simple, user-friendly interfaces and user-focused technology is what people want. But instead, the folks in Redmond have decided to go the other way, force-fitting what is essentially a completely new touch interface into legacy Windows in order to take advantage of their desktop monopoly and hopefully stem the tide of iPad (mostly) and Android tablets which are taking huge chunks out of the consumer PC market. Microsoft is desperate to make everyone believe that the Metro UI is the default face of Windows. And it will indeed seem this way, and look good in ads on TV and while browsing at Best Buy during back-to-school shopping. But you know what? It won't be looking so good for millions of companies having to deal with the productivity losses caused by the insane UI mismatches, and it won't look so good for anyone having to try to hand-hold relatives through the normal Windows tech support sessions either:

"Now, put the mouse pointer in the left corner of the computer screen. Now click. No, don't click on the icon. Wait you launched what? What's on your screen? Ok, wait, try again, go all the way to the left. Now down. Now click. No, don't move the mouse. AAARGGH..."

But what's even more frustrating? There's simply no reason for this stupidity.

Metro is *good*. Having old-school Windows around is *good*. Being able to have a full-on PC when you need it, and a tablet during other times is a useful, admirable goal. I don't think Microsoft needs to separate out the Metro functionality completely from Windows into its own OS or anything (though for the ARM-based devices, that's pretty much what's going to happen) it just should never have been integrated like it is now. Ripping out core parts of the standard Windows user interface, replacing them with ill-fitting tablet equivalents? There's simply no need for it. There's actually nothing wrong with Windows 7's UI - in fact it's pretty good. I don't use it much, but when I do I'm usually pleasantly surprised. After almost a decade of Windows XP and the disaster that was Vista (remember the various 'shut down' menu options?), it was actually nice to know that Microsoft had made usable system. Yes, it's technically been two years since it was launched, but I bet there are millions of people who still consider it a shiny new OS, are still getting used to it and are mostly pretty happy with it.

Microsoft could have integrated Metro in a way that made sure it represented the new UI of Windows, without making the changes to the classic desktop so drastic. Instead it seems they chose to make sure there was no caveats about Windows being a tablet OS, just to be sure. The end result is a disaster, that we'll all have to deal with eventually. That's the thing about Windows - it's everywhere. Despite using Linux at home and Mac OS X for work, I still end up dealing with it all the time. If you work anywhere in technology for a living, it's just a part of the background. This is why a fuck-up like this, driven by such contemptuous motives, is so annoying. Even if Windows 8 is essentially a failure like Vista was, it'll still be part of all our lives for years to come.

Well, I guess in a way it's nice. I'm still not used to Apple not being some underdog, scrappy little company, so having Microsoft still up in Redmond implementing evil monopolistic schemes and causing general headaches for us all, is sort of a comfort that some things do in fact stay the same.


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