All things modern.
Windows 8 can is an operating system with a split personality in that it tries to cater to the needs of a tablet as well as desktop computer at the same time. If one were only interested in a single side of this personality that you could forget that the other existed. Perhaps this is how Microsoft intended it or perhaps it just turned out that way.
Since the desktop side of the system will be more familiar to most of us I will start with this. Essentially it looks the same as a windows 7 desktop except that there is no start button. There are aesthetic changes to the graphical elements as well and while they do look better, they are not significantly different in operation.
The key improvements lie in the aesthetics and usability. For example several of the core windows applications have been given the ribbon style menu that is well known from the office suite. Two examples are WordPad and paint. The task manager however has been given a complete overhaul and is now significantly better. To me, the overall look and feel is a big improvement and I would upgrade for these reasons alone.
Things really begin to behave differently when you try to start a program. As mentioned there is no start button on the taskbar. When one hits the start key however, one is dropped into a whole new interface. At first this can be quite startling as one second you are in familiar territory and the next you are in a totally different world with different laws. It’s like hitting start and suddenly snapping to MacOS. This feeling can be quite daunting but as soon as you realise that you are in nothing more than a start menu on steroids, the mind settles down.
I have described this as a start menu on steroids because at a very basic level this is used to start your programs. For example simply hit start and type ‘word’ and hit enter and you are back into the familiar desktop environment with an MS word window open, just like you do already in Windows 7. If that is all you need your start menu for then that’s all you will have to use it for. However, Microsoft has given us the option to make the start menu much more.
First there are the live tiles. The concept of a live tile is that it represents a miniature view into a running application, actively presenting relevant information without needing to start the application fully. If you do want to start the application, simply click on the tile. This is very similar to widgets pioneered by the vista sidebar, abandoned by windows 7 and now championed by Google Android. The best thing about widgets is that if you don’t want to use them you don’t have to.
The funny thing is that clicking on the start menu active tiles don’t start an application on the desktop, instead an app (app = mini-application) starts in the start menu itself. It’s a bit like an application residing within the start menu application. The start menu has its own control system as well, top corner for open apps, bottom left to back to start page, top or bottom right for common application controls.
This is where the spilt personality becomes apparent. On the one hand we have a full desktop user interface for producing and a cut down, touch friendly and cheerful looking interface for consuming. Each of these interfaces are excellent in their own right and are optimised for what each is most likely to be used for. The desktop offers us familiarity as well as optimisation for high resolution applications like Photoshop, web development, multimedia editing and so on while the metro UI offers simplicity and ease of use for fun and games, browsing or communicating.
Difficulties can arise however in how two vastly dissimilar systems can co-exist. As separate systems on separate devices I would say that they are both great but going from one to another requires learning new laws of physics each time you swap. This leads me to suspect that the intention was never to use both interfaces on the same machine or at least not at the same time. I could envision a tablet PC on which you would use the metro UI on the move then get home and dock it to a keyboard, mouse and large monitor and use it as a traditional PC. These two modes of operation unfortunately require very dissimilar hardware and I wouldn’t want to be detaching my high power AutoCAD rig and using it as a tablet while I stroll around town.
Ideally then, two separate devices would be needed but then why combine the UIs at all? Perhaps it is beneficial to combine the experiences simply to maintain a single total experience across devices, or as bait to lure you into buying another Microsoft product to go with your desktop instead of say, an iPad. Personally I have no space in my life for a tablet between my laptop (windows) and my smartphones (Windows phone and android) but if I wanted a tablet right now, I’d buy an iPad. This unholy linking of the two UIs is perhaps meant to force everyone to use both and eventually sway people like me into the windows ecosystem.
One must also consider that Microsoft intends that one day all windows applications will be just another metro app. While this will unify the UX by discarding the old desktop, I just don’t see a coder, CAD designer or researcher who is accustomed to multiple WUXGA+++ monitors working on a cheerful touchy feely metro app so I see the co-existence continuing well into the future.
Whatever the justification, what I am pleased with is that as usual Microsoft gives us features that we can either choose to use or not to and I think it is this more than anything else that will make windows 8 a success even if it fails to draw the tablet crowd away from apple as I am sure Microsoft are hoping.