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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.
I had a hard drive fail in a couple-year-old ThinkPad this week, so I decided to use the opportunity to install Windows 8 on a completely clean system. The installation was painless except for a bit of difficulty in getting Wi-Fi working. But there was one problem. The system was annoyingly going to sleep after too short an interval.
I’ve changed this setting dozens of times on previous versions of Windows. In Windows 7, you select Control Panel on the start menu, choose Power Options, and click on “Change when the computer sleeps.” This works, albeit in a clunky way, in Windows 8. You open Desktop, bring up the Charms bar, select the Settings charm, and click Control Panel. It takes a few extra clicks and is not at all intuitive, but it’s not too bad once you have figured it out.
But it seems to me that if Metro–or whatever Microsoft wants us to call it–is the user interface of the future, there ought to be some way to perform a basic function like this without falling back on the desktop. This is especially true on a Windows 8 tablet, where the touch-unfriendliness of the Desktop becomes a real issue.
The best I could do to stay in Metro was: From the Start screen, bring up the Charms bar and select the Search charm. Pick Settings as the search domain and start typing “sleep.” “Change when the computer sleeps” pops up; click it and the control panel opens. Of course, at this point, you are back in Desktop. Again, this method to perform a simple task seems totally unintuitive, especially since if you type “screen” or “display” in the search box you are not offered the sleep option.
This is just one more example of how Windows 8 often feels like two operating systems roughly bolted together. If you could work consistent in one of the UIs, say Desktop on a conventional laptop and Metro on a tablet, Windows 8 wouldn’t be bad. But if there’s a way to avoid jumping back and forth (without resorting to third-party UI modifications), I haven’t found it. And it makes Windows 8 a trying experience.
I attended Microsoft’s launch last week for Windows 8, Windows RT, and Surface. While launch day is only one milestone in a string of milestones, launch day is the one day that everything must come together, the day where some make their final judgment. So how did Microsoft do?
Importance of Launch Day
Launch days is one day in many important days that a product or service goes through in its lifecycle. I believe it is one of the most important days, though, as it pulls together all the hard work of the previous years into just a few hours. The value of launches differ between consumer and commercial products, too. In the commercial world, buyers like IT managers don’t expect and quite frankly don’t believe that everything would be together on day one. They’re a skeptical bunch, due in part to just how many times they have seen products and services not live up to their promises in the past. Maybe they even lost their job or got reprimanded for making what ended up being a tech mistake that cost their company time or money.
Consumer product launches are different, in that those product and services get measured by press and reviewers based upon what it can do on launch day, not at some point in the future. There are some exceptions that consumers make, where if they trust a brand and they make a future promises the company is believed, but for the most part, what is launched on that one day sticks for a very long time.
One final important piece about launch day is “permanence”. What gets written by press and analysts on launch day is rarely updated if something changes. With most consumers checking out the internet before they buy, this is vitally important. So how did Microsoft do?
Windows 8 Launch Day Plusses
Looking holistically at the day, I have to give credit where it is due. Microsoft did a very good job pulling everything together on game day. Microsoft made a good case that Windows 8 was the best Windows yet, good for older and the newest systems. On almost every metric, Microsoft showed that Windows 8 is better than Windows 7. They didn’t address the lack of a Start button or the potential confusion, but I don’t think this was the right place to do that. That is best demonstrated in the marketplace.
The demos were some of the best I’ve ever seen from Microsoft as Mike Angiulo and Julie Larson-Green did their magic. They made a pretty good case for why consumers would want Windows 8, particularly on touch-based devices. I particularly thought they did a good job showing and talking about how Windows 8 works with other Microsoft-based properties. Angiulo and Larsen-Green also did a very good job in showing the absolute breadth of designs supporting Windows 8 and Windows RT. The device onslaught was impressive, from notebooks, to hybrids, tablets, convertible flippers, convertible swivelers, to all in ones. They showed devices from all the big brands at prices ranging from $499 to $2,499.
Steve Ballmer was in rare form too, with a good balance of his famous passion and facts. He was there to put the final stamp on the event by showing just how committed Microsoft is to the Windows 8 ecosystem and experience by outlining just how many Microsoft apps and services have been developed to support a seamless Windows experience.
The launch wasn’t perfect, though.
What I Wanted to Hear More About
Microsoft demonstrated their best launch I have ever seen, but it could have been better, had they made a stronger case on a few items.
I have been a bit critical previously on how Microsoft has handled the rollout of Metro-based apps in the store. Without having enough high-quality apps, Windows 8 could have been compared to the webOS Touchpad or 10” Android tablet ecosystem, which would have been disastrous. Microsoft definitely came through on video streaming services by adding Netflix and Hulu within weeks of launch. They also showed up with many key new site apps, even though CNN is still MIA. What Microsoft missed at launch were key social media apps. While I understand that the People app has some good connections to services, it does not replace a native social media app for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Google+. One example is Twitter. I, like many, have Twitter lists they want on their primary start screen. Not a single Metro Twitter app supports this. I would have at least liked for Microsoft to address this head-on and give a date when some of these apps are committed. In Surface reviews, the number of high quality apps was on key criticism in every single one of them. It didn’t have to be like that and was avoidable.
I would have also liked for Microsoft to address any hardware incompatibilities with Windows RT as opposed for users to find out on their own. Microsoft stated that Windows RT “works with 420,000,000 devices” but how do I know if that one Neat scanner or HP scanner that is so important to me works well? Microsoft has done a ton of work testing, but I would have at least liked to see accessible resources for consumers to check if their special peripheral works well. By not disclosing this, it made them appear to be hiding something.
Finally, there is the commercial PC and tablet market. Enterprises are currently shifting from Windows XP to Windows 7 on standard form factors like notebooks and desktops and therefore Windows 8 for the most part is irrelevant to them. Tablets are another matter altogether. Tim Cook routinely announces the extremely high per cent of enterprises rolling out or evaluating iPads, the latest figure pegged at 92%. Given Microsoft makes 75% of their profit from the commercial market, this seemed like an oversight. Given the competitiveness of the Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro tablets, many enterprise IT people would be hard pressed to justify an iPad purchase, Microsoft should have at least given a tip of the hat to Windows 8’s applicability to the commercial market.
Where We Go From Here
Many consumer reviews have been written and there will be many, many more in the future for Windows 8 and Windows RT. For the most part, the die has been cast and the Microsoft marketing and ad machine are in full swing, all which will make a difference on perception. The Windows 8 launch was the best Microsoft launch I have ever seen or attended, and I have personally attended many. While Microsoft didn’t address everything they needed to in order to seal the deal, they absolutely got Windows 8 and RT off to a solid start. Now it’s time to see if that translates to sales.
Over at ZDNet, Mary Jo Foley, master of all things Microsoft, reports sources tell her that having lost the name Metro in an apparent trademark dispute, Microsoft will call the new tile-based user interface for Windows 8 the Windows 8 UI. Beyond a stunning lack of creativity, this is going to cause some real trouble for the already difficult task of educating consumers about what Windows 8 is.
Windows 8 will existing in two versions on two different types of devices, which would be no problem if the general device type corresponded to the OS version–but it doesn’t. The Windows 8 we can think of as the successor to Windows 7 will run both on traditional PCs and on tablets based on Intel (or more properly, x86/x64) processors. The second version, known officially (so far, at least) as Windows RT, will run on tablets using ARM processors.
Now the version I am going to call traditional Windows, because Microsoft hasn’t really given it a name, offers two distinct user interfaces. There is a desktop interface that resembles Windows 7, but differs from it in some critical elements. And there is what used to be called the Metro UI, which is radically different, using no menus or icons in its full-screen apps.
Traditional Windows runs both types of apps, including applications written for older versions of Windows (though all of these will need considerable work–the sort Office applications have gotten–to look and feel right on Windows 8 and to provide better support for touch.) Windows RT supports only new (Metro) style apps. Microsoft made an important exception for itself: The traditional-styled Office 2013 applications, as well as the Windows Explorer file manager, will be on RT, but third-party software vendors are not allowed to do this.
If you are not thoroughly confused by now, you probably haven’t been paying close enough attention. This was going to be a huge customer education problem for Microsoft under the best of circumstances. But Microsoft now appears to have denied itself even an easy linguistic way to differentiate between these two user interfaces and the capabilities of traditional Windows and Windows RT systems.
I can’t quite fathom how Microsoft stumbled into this mess. But it’s going to be a tough hole to get out of.
The Wall Street Journal‘s Don Clark is reporting that Microsoft is considering calling the version of Windows that will run on ARM chips something other than Windows 8, the name expected to be used for the Intel/AMD version. But I can only hope that his belief that the Windows-on-ARM operating system may be called Windows RT is wrong.
First, it’s a lousy name. It does not fall trippingly off the tongue. The best you can say is that it is better than WOA, hard-core tech-speak for Windows-on-ARM. Windows Tablets are going to need all the marketing help they can get and something with a little more pizzazz would be helpful.
Second and more important, Windows RT would be a really confusing name, because of its extreme similarity to WinRT, which is how developers usually refer to the programming model for Windows 8 Metro apps. Among developers, programs written for Metro as usually referred to as WinRT apps. In theory, at least, all WinRT apps should run on both Windows 8 and Windows RT, if those are the names Microsoft chooses. But the whole thing seems unnecessarily confusing.
Last week in my Friday column I outlined a few of the challenges that I think Microsoft has in front of them with Windows 8. I cited lack of Windows momentum in the market along with changing software and app economics that are going to challenge Microsoft in ways they have never had to deal with. That being said I am rooting for Microsoft on this one as I have followed every major release since Windows 95. Although, I am not sure I have ever analyzed a release where I personally have had so much uncertainty about its chance of success.
Why I am Excited About Windows 8
Before I hit the larger direction behind this column, I want to make a few points about why I am excited and optimistic. What has me excited about Windows 8 is the kind of hardware innovation we are going to see because of it. Intel is helping this hardware innovation around Windows 8 with their UltraBook initiative and many of the products that will hit the market later this year and next are very interesting. Tim wrote earlier in the week about a category we are looking at heavily called “hybrids” which are tablet first hardware designs paired with a keyboard for when a consumer may need or want it. This is just one of many hardware designs that I think are very interesting and I am anxious to see how the market responds to them.
We write frequently about how the technology industry moves in cycles where a clear and obvious value shift moves from hardware, software and then to services. This example is clear in Apple’s ecosystem where hardware remains relatively constant and the major value has moved to software and now creeping into services.
Windows 8 because it is new and blends two unique experiences together will ignite a short term value trend where we will see new and innovative hardware built around the operating system. Inevitably, however, many of the designs we will see in hardware may not stick and the market will dictate which Windows 8 form factors are the winner. Because of the speed of this market and how mature the Apple and to a degree Android ecosystems are Microsoft–and partners– can not simply rely on the hardware and Windows brand alone to give them momentum in this market. Rather, for Microsoft to have a shot when they launch they need to get their apps together.
More than Hardware
To my point above of how the value chain evolves, it is as if, for Microsoft with this release, they need to come to market with as mature an ecosystem as Apple and Google in terms of apps and a software developer community. This, in my mind, is one of the most important factors necessary to truly evaluate and form an opinion of how successful the Windows 8 launch may be.
Microsoft needs to learn from Google on this one as the utter failure of Android tablets to gain any real traction is due to the lackluster apps built for tablets. Microsoft is in a similar position with Windows 8 Metro Apps. Of course Microsoft has legacy apps to fall back on but I still question how valid that really is in pure consumer markets.
My Techpinions colleagues Steve Wildstrom and Patrick Moorhead have already covered some of the potential legacy hardware issues with Windows 8 and perhaps some of the challenges Windows 8 faces on non-touch notebooks or desktops–which will still be a healthy portion of the market. I agree with and share their concerns in those areas but I am mostly concerned about what new and exciting software that will be waiting for consumers when they purchase these new Windows 8 devices.
To use a video gaming industry analogy, Microsoft needs a title franchise to drive the hardware. They had this with XBOX and Halo where many consumers bought the XBOX simply for this title– it was that valuable. There has to be something that grabs consumers attention and appeals to them in a way that no other platform can.
This is clearly one of the strengths of Apple as they continually put products on the market both in hardware and software that drive demand. Microsoft and others lag in this category and it needs to change fast or they will face and even tougher uphill challenge than they already do.
As I stated earlier, we are rooting for Microsoft. We need healthy competition in this industry. However, our expertise in being industry and market analysts gives us insights into the challenging road ahead. To be fair, this is one of the riskiest things Microsoft has done in a while. Taking risks can bring great reward or fail miserably. Let’s just hope Windows 8 is more like the Windows 95 launch in terms of success and less like Vista, or even worse, Bob.
There has been a lot written about the possibility of Microsoft not supporting the Windows 8 Desktop environment on the ARM architecture. If true, this could impact Microsoft, ARM and ARM’s licensees and Texas Instruments, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm are in the best position to challenge the high end of the ARM stack and are publicly supported by Microsoft. One question that hasn’t been explored is, why would Microsoft even consider something like this? It’s actually quite simple and makes a lot of sense the position they’re in; it’s all about risk-return and the future of phones and living room consoles.
The Threat to Microsoft
The real short and mid term threat isn’t from Macs stealing significant Windows share from Microsoft, it’s all about the Apple iPad and iOS. It could also be a little about Android, but so far, Android has only seen tablet success in platforms that are little risk to a PC, like the Amazon Kindle Fire. Market-wise, the short term threat is about consumer, too, not business. Businesses work in terms of years, not months. The reality is that while long term, the phone could disrupt the business PC, short term it won’t impact where Microsoft makes their profits today. Businesses, short term, won’t buy three devices for their employees and therefore tablets will most likely get squeezed there. Business employees first need a PC, then a smart phone, and maybe a few a tablet. There could be exceptions, of course, primarily in verticals like healthcare, retail and transportation.
What About Convertibles?
One wild-card are business convertibles. Windows 8 has the best chance here given Microsoft’s ownership on business and if you assume Intel or AMD can deliver custom SOCs with low enough power envelopes, thermal solutions and proper packaging for thin designs. Thinking here is that if business wants a convertible, they’ll also want Windows 8 Desktop and more than likely backward compatibility, something only X86 can provide. So net-net, Microsoft is covered here if Intel and AMD can deliver.
Focus is Consumer and Metro Apps
So the focus for Microsoft then is clearly consumer tablets, and Microsoft needs a ton of developers writing high quality, Metro apps to compete in the space. Metro is clearly the primary Windows 8 tablet interface and Desktop is secondary, as it’s an app. Developers don’t have money or time to burn so most likely they will have to choose between writing a Metro app or rewriting or recompiling their desktop to work with ARM and X86 (Intel and AMD) desktop. It’s not just about development; it’s as expensive for devs to test and validate, too. Many cases it’s more expensive to test and validate than it is to actually develop the app. Strategically, it then could make sense for Microsoft to push development of the Metro apps and possibly by eliminating the Desktop on ARM option, makes the dev’s decision easier.
Windows 8, Windows Phone 7, and XBOX development environments are currently related but not identical. I would expect down the road we will see an environment that for most apps that don’t need to closely touch the hardware, you write once and deploy onto a Microsoft phone, tablet, PC and XBOX. The unifier here is Metro, so getting developers on Metro is vitally important.
If Microsoft needed to improve the chances developers will swarm to Metro and do it by taking a risk by limiting variables, let’s say by eliminating ARM desktop support, it makes perfect sense.
ZDnet reports that Microsoft has tentatively decided that Windows 8 running on ARM processors will only support new Metro-style applications, not programs written for older versions of Windows and Intel processors.
In one sense, this is not surprising. Existing applications would have to be recompiled to run at all on ARM systems and would probably need substantial tweaking to run well. The ARM systems would probably be mostly tablets, and the existing Windows desktop interface does not work at all well on touch systems. On the whole, users of ARM-based Windows systems will be better off without these old applications.
The problem is that the result of this decision, if Microsoft goes ahead with it, is two operating systems, both called Windows 8, with radically different capabilities. This is a situation that cannot help but create confusion for users, especially if there are both ARM and x86 tablets with very different software abilities.
I have long though that Microsoft would have been much better off following Apple’s iPad approach and use an enhanced version of a phone operating system for tablets rather than a cut-down version of a desktop OS. What looks like it may be a fundamental fork in Windows suggests that Microsoft made the wrong choice.
Last week, I wrote about the many positive experience aspects of the Windows 8 developer tablet. There are, however, experience areas that are difficult to evaluate, either because Windows 8 is only a developer version and not final product, or it would take longer than 10 days to gain that insight.
Two User Interfaces
I found it a challenge to bounce between the Metro and Desktop interfaces. This was true for me whether I was using it as a tablet or docked with a large display, mouse and keyboard. Metro is designed for touch and Desktop is optimized for mouse and keyboard. Even on the 11.6” display, I still managed to botch pull down menus and fine pointing mouse controls.
Another challenge to the two user interfaces was duplication of certain tasks. For example, there are two ways to join a network, Metro and Desktop-style. There are two ways to change volume, change tasks, change controls, etc.
This could very well take some training and everything will be fine, as it was for me when Windows first launched and I was bouncing between DOS and Windows.
Metro UI and “Deep” Applications
Metro is about beauty, space, and the content. Desktop is all about 100 functions on one screen and quickly bouncing between multiple apps. But what about apps like Photoshop, Microsoft Office, and video editors? I cannot yet imagine how this works Metro-fied on a 22” display, but also understand that in the grand scheme of the global population, it’s the exception, not the norm. But what happens to the exceptions? I am leaving that door open for now.
Web Plug-Ins and Metro
Internet Explorer 10 will not work with plug-ins like Adobe Flash. I understand the experiential, security and performance issues with plug-ins, but I also respect that end users expect their systems to work with every site they deem important. I fully expect major web sites to transition to elements like HTML 5 video, but many in the “long-tail” will not. For example, my local Mexican restaurant uses Flash in the UI and I had to use Desktop IE 10 for this to work. I can do this, but then again I have been in high-tech for over 20 years with 1,000s of hours clawing through hardware and software. What about those who don’t have the experience or the desire? I haven’t heard too many people complaining about the iPad browsers inability to do these things, so I am open on this one.
Touch on Desktop Apps
Applications like Microsoft Office 2010 are optimized to work great with keyboard and mouse, maybe even pen, but not a finger. Fact is, I can’t work without Office as it’s the AMD corporate standard. On the beautiful 11.6” Samsung display, I could easily navigate the larger ribbon icons (i.e., “Paste”), had a difficult time with the smaller icons (i.e., “Format Painter”), and found it extremely difficult to work with text navigation (i.e., “File”- “Open”).
This seems like it could be changed to make Desktop apps friendlier without having to crack the code; but then again, I’m not a software developer.
Various other Questions
- Footprint: How much hard drive space will the OS and baseline apps occupy? This will be especially important for tablets, where extra storage space comes at a premium.
- Metro Apps: Obviously at this stage, only the intern-written Metro apps are available. I’m really interested to get my hands on many more Metro apps, particularly those with depth.
- CPU/GPU and Experience: The developer tablet included a very expensive x86 processor. Will the experience be the same on an ARM-based tablet whose processors power smartphones and tablets?
- Windows Store: Microsoft was transparent on their plans but I need to use it before I can intelligently discuss it.
- OS Updates: With Windows 7, it feels like I am receiving weekly updates that are quite large, take a while to install, and sometimes require a reboot. That won’t fly on a tablet that’s targeted for convenience. I don’t need to do that often on my iPad, Xoom, Transformer, Galaxy Tab or PlayBook. When it does, it’s usually some new cool feature, not a “fix”.
- Smaller than 11.6″: My developer tablet was on an 11.6″ tablet. Will it feel different on a smaller tablet like 10″? Desktop was manageable on 11.6″ at 1366×768 but I believe could be very different on a 10″.
There are very many positive aspects of the Windows 8 Developer Preview. Given the state of Windows 8 Developer Preview, many elements of the experience are unknown as I lay out above. As we get closer to launch, these important pieces of the experience puzzle will be filled in and we will be able to better evaluate the future experience. I have used almost every beta version of Windows since Windows was born and this version is the farthest ahead of anything I have seen. The biggest difference now, is that there are alternatives already in-market for the very products that Windows 8 hopes to replace, and they will also be improving up until launch.
It has been ten days since I attended Microsoft’s BUILD developer forum where I listened to many of the public details on Windows 8. The most valuable time I spent was that with customers, developers, press and analysts to share thoughts about what we all just heard about Window’s future. I also picked up a Samsung tablet with Microsoft Windows 8 Developer Preview on it. I have found that after actually using a product, I can learn 10x more than from any slide deck. I’d like to share my first impressions after using Windows 8 Developer Preview for 10 days, and I will start with the positive aspects. In my next blog, I will discuss the less appealing aspects or areas where it’s just too early to call.
State of Windows 8
Windows 8 is currently in the stage called “developer preview”. How does this relate to alpha or beta stage? Consider it pre-beta, in that it is almost feature-complete. So my thoughts will be in the context that this is a developer preview, not beta, and certainly not a shipping product.
Starting the Windows 8 tablet was nothing short of amazing. Press the power button, and in 3-5 seconds you are at the start menu. Nothing short of incredible and I hope this will be consistent between platforms and when lots of software is installed. I remember Windows Vista seeming good at beta stage, but then I started installing programs…
Metro Touch UI for Tablets is “Thumbtastic”
I was stunned at how well Metro works and how good it looks on the developer tablet. It is fast and fluid, minimal, graphical and optimized for a user holding the tablet with two hands in 16×9 landscape orientation.
In fact, most of the important things I wanted to do I could accomplish with my two thumbs.
- Multitask by scrolling through open programs
- Go “home” or to the Start screen
- Initiate a search
- Share content to a service or to another device
- Change key settings connecting to a network, volume, brightness, notifications, and power
No other tablet I have used comes close to that at 10” and above. Android Honeycomb forces me to reach in to the center to change programs and the thumb action is too far down the tablet in the lower right and left corners. Thumb actions need to be where the thumbs naturally rest.
Live Tiles to Launch Apps and Provide Info
Instead of icons and widgets, Metro uses live tiles. This combines simple navigation with instant access to relevant information. I have always loved Android’s widgets and screens. The issue with Android widgets is complexity and uniformity. Windows 8 goes a step further to provide uniform sizes and a simple update methodology.
Dock as PC
I am an unrepentant fan of “smart” modularity, or making a device serve completely different functions when connected to another device. This must be done intelligently; otherwise users just won’t do it because it’s either not obvious, or too difficult.
I was very impressed with my tablet’s ability to dock with off the shelf peripherals. Samsung’s tablet dock had ports for USB, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet, and audio. When I returned from meetings, I connected the tablet to a 22” display, a full size keyboard and mouse. In desktop mode, it was like I was at a desktop PC, where I could do heavy-duty work and content creation. When I was done or if I went to meetings or home, I would undock and it was good on the couch.
“Play To” Amped Up
What’s different in Windows 8? First, it’s not buried five layers deep. It’s one thumb swipe away. Secondly, it supports content from the Internet Explorer 10 browser. For instance, even though it’s a preview version, I streamed HTML 5 YouTube videos from my tablet to my HDTV via my WD TV Live Hub.
Finally, at BUILD, Microsoft outlined a new program to certify that the experience would be really good for “certified” Play To devices. For Windows 7, peripherals weren’t certified for experience, but were tested for compatibility. This meant that it would work, but may not work well. With Windows 8, I am hopeful we will see many Play To devices that are certified for compatibility and experience.
Runs Windows 7 Apps
I ran every app I use on my Windows 7 machine in “desktop mode” without any compatibility issues. I used apps like MS Office 2010, Adobe Reader X, Evernote, SugarSync, XMarks for IE, Google Chrome browser, Amazon Kindle for Windows, Hulu Desktop, and Tweetdeck.
Full Screen Internet Explorer 10 Browser
Admittedly, I have been skeptical on full screen browsing. I’ve tried to like it since full screen browsing options started, but it always felt out of place and awkward because no other apps were full screen. Also, without “chrome” or borders, it was difficult to change programs. Windows 8 and Metro changed all of this.
Compatibility was good, too, as long as I didn’t go to sites where plug-ins like Flash or Silverlight were required. I didn’t encounter many compatibility issues at all, surprising given how early this version is. Heck, even LogMeIn worked.
While it’s only been 10 days, it’s easy to get the feel of Microsoft’s Windows 8 Developer Preview operating system. This is particularly true after using so many different tablets over the last few years. There’s a lot to like about Windows 8 so far, particularly the Metro UI on a tablet and its chameleon-like capabilities to transform into a PC. As in life, there are always down sides to decisions or it’s just too early to tell how something will end. That’s the case for Windows 8, and I’ll be exploring this in my next analysis.
Last week, I attended Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, where, among other things, Windows 8 details were rolled out to the Microsoft ecosystem. One of the most talked-about items was the Metro User Interface (UI), the end user face for the future of Windows. The last few days, I have been thinking about the implications of Metro on user interfaces beyond the obvious physical touch and gestures. I believe Metro UI has as much to do with voice control and air gestures as it does with physical touch.
Voice command and control has been a part of Windows for many generations. So why do I think Metro has anything to do with enabling widespread voice use in the future, and why do I think people would actually use this version? It’s actually quite simple. First, only a few voice command and control implementations and usage scenarios have been successful, and they all adopt a similar methodology and all come from the same company. Microsoft Auto voice solutions have found their way into Ford and Lincoln automobiles, branded SYNC, and drivers actually are using it. Fiat uses MS Auto technology as well. Microsoft Kinect implements a very accurate implementation for the living room using some amazing audio beamforming algorithms and a hardware four microphone array.
None of these implementations would be successful without establishing an in-context and limited dictionary. Let’s use Kinect as an example. Kinect allows you to “say what you see” on the TV screen, limiting the dictionary of words required to recognize. That is key. Pattern matching is a lot easier when you are matching 100s of objects versus 100K. Windows 8 Metro UI limits what users see on the screen, compared with previous versions of Windows, making that voice pattern matching all the easier. One final, interesting clue comes with the developer tablets distributed at BUILD. The tablets had dual microphones, which greatly assists with audio beam forming.
Air gestures are essentially what Kinect users do with their hands and arms instead of using the XBOX controller. When players want to click on a “tile” in the XBOX environment, they place your hand in the air, hover over the tile for a few seconds, and it selects it. Kinect uses a camera array and an IR sensor to detect what your “limbs” are doing and associates it with a tile location on the screen. Note that no more than 8 tiles are shown on the screen at one time, increasing user accuracy.
Hypothetically, air gestures on Metro could take a few forms, and they could be guided by form factor. In “stand-up” environments with large displays, they would take a similar approach as Kinect does. In the future, displays will be everywhere in the house and air gestures would be used when touching the display just isn’t convenient or desired. I would like this functionality today in my kitchen as I am cooking. I have food all over my hands and I want to turn the cookbook page or even start up Pandora. I can’t touch the display, so I’d much rather do a very accurate air gesture.
In desk environments, I’d like to ditch the trackpad and mouse and just use my physical hand as a gesture methodology. It’s a virtual trackpad or gesture mouse. I use all the standard Metro gestures on a flat surface, a camera tracks exactly what my hand is doing and translates that into a physical touch gesture.
Microsoft introduced Metro as the next generation user interface primarily for physical touch gestures and secondarily for keyboard and mouse. Metro changes the interface from a navigation-centric environment with hundreds of elements on the screen to content-first with a very clean interface. Large tiles replace multitudes of icons and applets and the amount of words, or dictionary is drastically reduced. Sure this is great for physical touch, but also significantly improves the capability to enhance voice control and even air gestures. Microsoft is a leader in voice and air gesture with MS Auto and Kinect, and certainly could enable this in Windows 8 for the right user environments.