How To Make Windows 8 Great

by Steve Wildstrom   |   December 12th, 2012

Del XPS Duo 12 Convertible
There has been a lot of discussion here lately, both in posts such as Why IT buyers are Excited About Convertibles and Hybrids and Microsoft Surface: How Relevant Are Legacy Apps and Hardware? about the failings and the potential of Windows 8. So inspired by these posts, and even more so by readers’ comments on them, here is a radical if only partially baked idea: How about a hybrid operating system for hybrid devices?

In Metro (I’m going to go on calling it that until Microsoft comes up with a real alternative), Microsoft has designed a very good user interface for tablets and touch-based apps. The legacy Windows Desktop is still an excellent UI for a traditional mouse-and-keyboard PC. But in bolting the two together in Windows 8 and, to a lesser extent, Windows RT, Microsoft has created a very ugly two-headed calf. The tendency of Metro to pop up while you are working in Desktop, and for Desktop to be necessary for some tasks even while in touch mode, renders both interfaces far from optimal.

Microsoft should do three things. The easiest is to get Metro out of Desktop by allowing booting into Desktop and restoring traditional UI elements, such as a start menu, that were removed from Windows 8.  Fixing Metro is harder. Basically, Microsoft has to finish the job by creating features, utilities, and apps that allow the user to do everything in the touch interface. The toughest challenge is Metrofying Office. It would be extremely difficult to recreate all the functionality of Word, Excel, and the rest in a tablet app and almost certainly unwise to try. Instead, Microsoft has to pick a core feature set that can work in a touch interface on relatively small screens and build the applications around these. (If reports are to be believed, Microsoft is doing this for iOS and Android anyway; why not Windows?)

But the really cool thing would be hybrid Windows for hybrids, a shape-shifting operating system designed for a new generation of devices that can convert from traditional PCs to tablets (the forthcoming Surface Pro probably belongs in this class.) Why not an OS that presents the traditional Desktop UI when the device is being used with a keyboard and touchpad or mouse, then converts instantly and automatically to a touch-first Metro-type UI when the device transforms?

The key to making this work is the use of solid state storage, which allows for very fast saving and restoration of state. I envision a system where you could be editing a Word file in Desktop, then switch to tablet mode, where you make some changes to the file in the touch version of Word. When you switch back to Desktop, Word would still be open with your file, but it would include the edits made in tablet. I suspect that the Desktop and Metro versions of programs would still have to be different applications and this would require closing and reopening of files when switching modes. But SSDs can make this happen so quickly that the user will barely notice.

I’m not suggesting this is at all a trivial job or that in can be done very quickly. The Office project alone is a very large undertaking, one that I can only presume is already underway, although Microsoft has been totally silent about it. There is a great deal of work beyond that, and third-party software vendors would have to get on board with mode-switchable versions of their applications.  But the result would be new and exciting computing experience.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Kurik

    To be honest, that’s how I thought Windows 8 would have worked with the touch and desktop UI so I was sorely disappointed when I got it and kept being thrown the Metro interface when I am trying to do things in the desktop UI. Hopefully with Windows ‘blue’ patch they will address some of this swapping of UIs! I like both UI but would definitely prefer them separated.

    • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

      Ditto.

  • Defendor

    I agree and have said similar in the past.

    The desktop could have (and should have) remained fully intact and built on the goodwill that Windows 7 generated, while deflating most of the Win8 criticism. This would have been easy to do, so why didn’t they?

    IMO this was not a case of mere incompetence, but a more Machiavellian machination. Microsoft plans to count all Desktop/Notebook as Metro touch capable for the installed base (regardless of the fact that only a tiny minority will actually be touch enabled). In essence it is making Windows users pawns in their numbers game. Microsoft knows it has a desktop monopoly and for the most part, those users don’t have real desktop alternatives. They are captive and now those captive users are going to serve Microsoft’s ends. Even if they have to suffer for it, the captives can’t really revolt. As one of those captives, I am quite annoyed.

    On the Metro side, this is a case of not really being ready. They use the desktop to plug the holes in Metro. This one will get fixed over time.

    Making Win8 (or Win9) better.

    1: Microsoft starts treating the user with respect. Bring back the Window7 desktop experience.

    2: Finish Metro so it can stand alone

    3: Allow user to decide when each stand-alone UI is used.

    4: Sensibly partition the x86/ARM ecosystem.

    a) ARM SoC: Metro only aimed at devices in the 6″-9″ space (likely the bulk of the tablet market going forward. Yet Microsoft still doesn’t even have and entry in this space. Decouple Office to make the license more affordable (thus devices more price competitve).

    b)x86 SoC: Windows 8 “Tablet First” convertibles. Essentially iPad size tablets, optionally with some secondary keyboard use.

    c)x86 performance: Windows 8 “Laptop First” convertibles. Essentially ultrabooks, and ultrabook convertibles with some secondary tablet use.

    Naturally some of these decisions will be up to the OEMs, but I think once the dust settles that is the hardware partition that makes sense. Software on the Windows 8/9 machines contains essentially an uncompromised desktop UI (like Win7 UI) and the uncompromised touch UI (Metro). Then the user decides when (if ever) that switch occurs.

    The questions that remain is how long will it take Microsoft to better partition to the Hardware architecture, and if they keep trying to cram Metro down the Desktop users throat no matter how galling it is for them.

    • Rich

      I don’t think Widows 8 originated out of anything sinister. I really believe it’s a result of Microsoft attempting to *get modern* but not having a very good understanding of how to do that.

      However Microsoft isn’t interested in anybody’s idea of being treated with respect. They’re interested in what’s best for Microsoft – but as I mentioned above, I think their new products demonstrate that their concept of what’s best for them misses the mark by quite a bit. If you’re working for a company that forces you to use Windows 8, then you lose out too.

  • Russell Rowe

    I think what you’re describing is essentially what Windows 8 does now, although it may not be as elegant as you describe it.

    I run Windows 8 on my laptop and I have a Surface RT.

    On the Surface I use the Metro iface and touch about 80% of the time, and it never just throws me to the desktop uninvited. The 20% of the time that I use the Desktop is working in Office where I need file management and the ability to copy and paste between different programs … for example to modify a chart in a spreadsheet and put it into a presentation. I’m really pretty happy that I can use Office the way I normally use it for that kind of thing. The working environment is just as important as the individual applications. I really would not want a Metro touch retooling. They would either be too complex or too simplified. Frankly I think working between programs and with interconnected files is one of the weak points of tablet OS’s. I know people do it and I’ve tried. For me there is too much hoop jumping required to be worth the effort.

    I agree that way too much administration on the Surface requires the desktop control panel. MS should fix that.

    Aside from that, the mix is about right. I don’t love running Office on the Surface, but I can do it without dragging out my laptop. I’m glad that it supports my workflow the way I’m used to doing it and have never once thought I’d rather that part of it be different.

    When I use my Windows 8 laptop, I’m in the desktop 90% of the time. I don’t get thrown into Metro, and I do what I’d normally do in the way I’d normally do it under Windows 7. The only exception is that I like the charms and find them useful for communicating between programs and searching.

    The environments are almost identical between Win 8 an Win RT, they stay in sync between each other, and I think that’s a good thing. I go back and forth between them, without ever forgetting or being confused about which is which.

    Whether you like MS or not, they are definitely being as innovative as any company out there, and they have committed themselves to a risky, go-for-broke strategy on a playing field where they lack a clear advantage. At the very least it’s given a lot of people a lot to talk about, and I’m curious myself about how it will all shake out. I do believe that the industry overall will be well served by having another strong competitor with a strong design concept that differs from what’s already there. It really doesn’t matter who ultimately wins.

    I get perplexed when people keep talking about the confusion between Metro and the Desktop, and Win 8 and Win RT. Once it’s explained once, like it or not, it’s explained. There are plenty of more confusing things in the world like learning calculus; or reading the news and trying to determine what are real facts from what has just been repeated so much it’s taken as fact; or going to a friend’s house and trying to decipher the 6 remotes needed to work their TV. People handle confusion pretty well and rarely stay confused all that long.

    The real issue, the only one I think, is whether Win 8 ultimately works out or not. I’m pretty sure that despite the certainty many people have on one side or the other, no one has a clue.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Metro doesn’t throw you into Desktop uninvited. But there are far too many times when you have to invite it in. For example, as you note, Metro’s access to control panels is hopelessly inadequate. (I do find it interesting that Metro’s PC settings gives you “Remove everything and reinstall Windows” as a choice, but you can’t perform the simplest diagnostics on a network connection. One advantage of Windows 8 over other tablet OSes is a real, user-accessible file system, but it needs a Metro file manager. And so on.

      On the Desktop side, Metro is inescapable. Charms are considerably less than charming on a non-touch system because (to me, at least) the gesture needed to summon them is unnatural with a mouse or touchpad. One of the nicer aspect of Metro is the ability to just type on the start screen and the names of apps show up in a drop-down list. But if I’m in Desktop, why should I have to go to Metro to invoke this? I should just be able to type any time I’m outside a text entry field and invoke search.

      • Russell Rowe

        I completely agree with you on the Administrative tools, especially for Win RT, which I think of as tablet first and Office working environment when needed.

        I don’t want to put myself into the heads of the MS Product Managers that decided this was OK, but I assume that when looking at everything that needed to be done for release, they decided to save time and money by leaning on an admin ecosystem that already existed. This does limit the initial release to a group of users that already are used to these tools. I think it was you that wrote about having to use the desktop control panel to turn off having the machine lock after two minutes. I agree that this is something everyone would want to do. I had to poke around to figure it out just like you. Power management? Really?

        Adding a better admin experience for Win RT is functional enhancement not architectural change though, so they can incrementally improve it. But right now it’s at best schizophrenic.

        On the Win 8 side, I have not had any problems working the way I’ve always worked in the Desktop. Windows in general is complex enough to support a lot of different ways of working, and I could just be lucky. My heavy lifting work is Office, Photoshop, Visual Studio, full Acrobat, VMWare, GotToMeeting, Remote Desktop, and access to SharePoint, websites, and SkyDrive. I work both inside and outside firewalls. Doing this I don’t ever flip into Metro or get flipped into it accidently. I will use Metro for some apps like the news reader or music, but I already used my iPad and now the Surface for that kind of thing. So mostly the two don’t meet.

        The tablet for me is a companion device and as a laptop fill in when it’s not available. In that respect, anything my tablet can’t easily do, I just don’t do until I can get to my laptop. I’ve never really loved Windows, but you can do a lot with it. I really like my iPad, but I like the Surface better because it does more of what I do, and it integrates very well with my working environment at every level. Aesthetically I actually like the Metro interface and I think Apps like USA today and OneNote are gorgeous on and much better than the IOS versions.

        I know I’m a special use case, but there are a fair number of people like me… enough to establish a beach head. I’d guess that MS did enough market research to decide that people like me make up the sweet spot for introducing the Surface and the quirks of Win 8. If you read the forums and comments then you find that the community of users is mostly positive.

        I don’t think it’s a bad strategy for Microsoft to choose a sweet spot like that as their starting point into a new and hostile market. I believe they are being both innovative and systematic. Of course that doesn’t mean it will be successful, but it’s bold and definitely not unreasonable.