Since Microsoft released the developer bits to the world, more than a Million of you have downloaded it. This doesn’t account for downloading once and installing it many times, so the number of installations is likely to be many more. While most people jumped at the chance to share there thoughts immediately after having installed it, I felt spending some real time living with Windows 8 would give a much better appreciation what’s in store for Microsoft’s next OS.
Windows 8 is like an onion, its vast and has many layers, each of which only exposes itself over time and really requires time to understand and make sense of it. Moving from version 7 to 8 on the surface seems simple enough, but the result of Microsoft’s ambitious changes are both complex and confusing.
It is important to recognize the development path from the Windows 8 developer preview, to public release and look at what will remain and what is still left up to the possibility of change based on user-feedback. My impression from conversations last week is that minor refinements, stability and performance is still to go, however Windows 8 as it stands, will largely be what we will see ship in around 12 months time.
Moving between Metro UI and the Desktop
The vision for Windows going forward is unmistakably Metro-style apps. Developers, you should start writing your apps in Metro from now on. Microsoft’s thirst for supporting the old applications, means there will be no hard cut from the old to the new. Instead Win8 begins a long, drawn out process, that’s likely to span the next few versions of Windows, before being ready to leave the desktop as we know it behind.
Start Menu Search
Over the past 3 years since the beta launch of Windows 7, Start menu search has become the way I launch applications. Tapping the Windows Key, then just start typing, its an amazingly powerful application and document finder. In Windows 8, this gets a little more complex.
If your at the Metro home screen, then simply start typing to search for your desired application, setting or file. If you’re in a full-screen Metro app, then your press of the Windows key + A takes you out of the app, back to the home screen, and your subsequent keystrokes again begin the search for Applications. A Windows key + F will find files. If there’s a search shortcut for Settings, I haven’t found it, you need to walk the arrows to get to that.
When in the desktop, the Windows Key your taken back to the desktop and then you search for your app, if that app happens to be a traditional app, you’re taken back to the desktop. This is a pretty jarring and unnecessary experience. Understandably Microsoft want to push the Metro UI whenever possible, but I urge them to return Start Menu search from Windows 7.
This search should also index and launch any Metro apps into the Metro UI, but if someone wants to work exclusively in the Desktop, they should be able to, particularly before most apps are metrofied over the next couple of years.
Windows Explorer with Ribbon
There are few differences between Windows 7 and the Desktop view in Windows 8. One of the few changes that is important is the addition of the Ribbon Toolbar to Windows Explorer. While it worked well in Office and select Windows 7 apps (Paint, WordPad), the implementation of the ribbon on Windows Explorer seems crowded and messy. There are quite a few options and tools that need to be presented at any given time, however the same can be said about Word 2010, but it does it well.
Hopefully this is refined before the final release. On the matter of file storage, documents and images from Metro can be accessed in the Desktop and vise versa. This means that while there is essentially 2 UI’s, there is one central file storage accessible from both.
Demonstrated during the keynote, multi-monitor support is ‘improved’ in Windows8. As a power user, and someone who runs dual-displays at work and home, this announcement certainly made the ears stand up. In reality, it’s a bit of a mess right now.
Sure there’s the addition of a new wallpaper mode to stretch across the two displays without weird stretching or cropping, but the taskbar is another issue entirely. What is clearly meant to be an attempt to mirror UltraMon functionality, taskbar now reaches across multiple display, with a number of new options.
Applications icons in the multi-screen Windows7-style desktop can be either shown only on the taskbar of the display the application is on, or both. After using both modes, I do prefer to have them duplicated, something I wasn’t expecting going in. By placing application icons only on the display the application runs on, leaves you searching for where the application went to if its been minimized. I never want to go searching for an application, I should know how to get to it at all times.
Two versions of IE10 and Control Panel
There’s two version of Internet Explorer 10 included in Windows 8. The first is the metro version of IE10. This continues the IE trend of minimizing the UI and allowing the website to be the focus. Web Developers, you just got back around 100px previously eaten by UI. In the web world, we talk about ‘above the fold’ or ‘before the scroll’, with extra pixels available, it means more of the page can be seen.
Common browsing interface controls like refresh, multiple tabs and the address bar can be accessed by right clicking. Yep, that’s right, the right-click that has traditionally been used for getting image properties, viewing source, printing etc is not available in IE10 metro.
The second version of IE10 in Windows 8 is the version on the desktop. Minus hacks, this is the first time we’ve been able to use the IE10 rendering engine with a UI. The IE Platform Previews don’t usually include the UI, that only arrives at the beta release. IE10 on the desktop is pretty close to what we are used to in IE9.
There is actually a way to go between the two versions. Why would you need to do this ? Microsoft have said IE10 Metro won’t support plugins like Flash, and even their own Silverlight in the Metro version. So if you are on a site with rich media, right click, then use the icon (currently looks like new file, this will likely change), then select Use Desktop View. This launches IE10 in the desktop mode and opens to the same page you were on. It works, but is annoying to go between the 2.
If you haven’t already, opt into the HTML5 version of YouTube.
Developers also need a way to create icons for Metro shortcuts, favorite icons aren’t used currently used for the Metro tiles, just a generic IE logo. The favicon colours are actually used to influence the tile colour. Windows 7 with IE9 web shortcuts, placed web apps at the same level as desktop applications.
Control Panel also gets the confusing double treatment. Depending on which setting you want to change will depend on which Control Panel you need. The new Metro Control Panel will no doubt expand to include more of the standard desktop control panel options over time, but will be challenging to remain simple with a mass of options.
The 3D Aero flip is gone. Alt+Tab still exists, but certainly hasn’t been highlighted in the Windows 8 discussion. The new hotness for switching application is to pull the previous app from the left hand side of the screen. With a mouse connected machine, moving the cursor to the left of the screen allows for the same switching.
You can use scrolling to flip through any open app before clicking. This solves the criticisms of some that denounced this switching for taking too long to jump back 3 or 4 apps. This type of app switching is further evidence of a touch-first approach.
Desktop apps and services clutter the Metro UI
Installing applications and their associated services in the Desktop, strangely result in shortcuts being created in the Metro UI. While this may be an effort to make applications easily accessible, it quickly becomes a chore to cleanup after an install. Annoyingly applications have to be removed from the Metro home screen one at a time. This needs to be changed before release.
The ability to log into a Windows 8 machine with a Live ID gives recognition to the fact that most of us roam between computers. Taking your settings and even applications with you will be awesome, it just isn’t yet. I now have Windows 8 running on 3 different machines and have had to configure settings and log into applications every time. Once developers get access to the new Live APIs, this will all become seamless when moving between machines.
A Windows Live ID, better known as a Hotmail account (or passport) for those old enough, can also have a PIN code or picture password (gesture) associated with it. This actually makes logging in much easier. The swipe up to unlock Windows makes a lot of sense for touch-enabled devices, but not so much on keyboard + mouse setup. As a tip, you can simply double-click the lock screen to open it, rather than swiping upwards.
When setting a User Tile, you can actually set a video. This just loops when sitting at the log in screen. Its not entirely useful, but is new in Windows 8.
Split screen and Aero Snap
Aero Snap is a feature I use multiple times every single day. So successful, there’s a number of Mac Apps that emulate Aero Snap in OSX. So going forward, the 50/50 split could be improved even further. Unfortunately it hasn’t been. Split screen allows a Metro App to be pinned to 1/3 of the screen, while the other 2/3 is taken up with a second application. This could be used to keep an eye on your twitter feed while browsing the web.
What I was hoping for, and actually called for at the time of Windows 7’s release, was even more snapping options. Sometimes I want a 60/40 split, sometimes a horizontal split instead of a vertical one. Actually I’d go one step further, at times I have my monitor divided by an application on the left taking 50-70% of the screen, then 2 or 3 applications positioned down the right hand side. I have been manually positioning these for years, something Aero or Metro snap should be making easy.
To be perfectly honest this kind of Metro snapping simplicity is likely due to the touch-first approach of Windows 8. No more claims that touch is an afterthought, no use keyboard and mouse users are the weird ones. Metro split does require at least a minimum of 1366 pixels to activate.
Application features are able to present themselves to the OS for use by other applications. A common use would be browsing the web, then using Start > Share to post online to Twitter via the sample app Tweet@rama or to Facebook via Socialite. The active web page’s URL is entered into the update textbox automatically.
This same extensibility could be used with photo editing applications. The questions remains how this plays out when you have a 5 or even 10 applications capable of performing said task. There’s doesn’t appear to be any method of setting a default app, like you would a default browser.
Reliability and Performance
I questioned whether to include this section at all, but decided to discuss it, with the goal of giving a vision of what’s to come rather than seriously evaluate the Windows 8 developer preview code. Naturally there’s a bunch of excess code in a software release at this stage of development, there’s also sure to be efficiencies and further power saving changes in-store.
Battery life on Windows 8 is actually very similar to what I get with Windows 7 on the same hardware.
Performance of Windows 8, even at this stage is impressive, with Microsoft continuing to improve OS performance between releases. While Windows 7 ran great on any Vista hardware, even some XP hardware for that matter, Windows 8 will run on any Windows 7 machine.
Launching Office 2010 apps was probably the most noticeable improvement, with no sign of the loading / launch screen.
Sleep and resume
Excitement spread quickly a couple of weeks ago, when cold boot times for Windows 8 were shown off on video. With more and more of us just sleeping our laptops, it’s important to not the times for sleep and resume as well. Running on a 2011 MBA, sleep is instant, either closing the lid or hitting the power button, the machine sleeps immediately. Resuming takes around 3-4 seconds before returning you to the lock screen.
With the new hardware that will arrive with the launch of Windows 8, expect this to improve.
Shut down insanity.
Apparently it was too easy to shut down Windows before, well not any more. To shut down Windows 8, you need to roll over (or press the Start button, then go to Settings, then Power, then Shut down. This really is obnoxiously complex for a task users do every day.
Closing Windows 8 applications
When switching from one Metro app to another, the previous app is simply suspended, much like an iOS app, until you switch back to it. So those looking for a close button in the top right, you won’t find one. It is a substantial mind shift away from a mode of operation we’ve been trained to do over the past 20 years.
To seriously kill an app, you can fire up the newly redesigned Task Manager and end the task, but a well written app should never need that.
Windows 8 Developer Preview is a very promising look into the future. Microsoft wasn’t prepared to set a date in stone for the final release of Windows 8, but current thinking is that it will land late 2012. There’s bold ideas and daring changes here, that will take some time to get used to. Even more time will be required to convince business to embrace the new Metro UI.
The key to the Metro UI being adopted and traditional apps fading into a distant memory, is developers, developers, developers. Ballmer himself pointed out one massive attraction for developers choosing to write for Windows.. No other platform has the user base of Windows.
To be totally sold on Metro, I really want to see and use an advanced app, something like Office or Photoshop translated to work in the new format. It is one thing to present stocks or twitter data feeds presented in a clean, attractive app, but quite another to create a Metro app with so much functionality.
Microsoft will make Windows 8 a success, how happy and willing consumers are to jump on-board is the real question. Metro apps are so clearly the future, so Metro app availability and the Microsoft Store will be a critical piece of the Windows 8 puzzle. Microsoft need to open the cheque book as they have with WP7 and get key apps ready at launch, if not by the beta release.
I look forward to the release of the Store and Windows 8 Metro apps.