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Getting to the Bottom of Windows 8 Is Nearly Impossible

Not to give away any trade secrets here or anything, but we're putting together a story for the November issue of Redmond on Windows 8. (By the way, if you'd like to contribute to the story with a comment or observation, e-mail lpender@rcpmag.com. But hurry -- the deadline is approaching very rapidly.)

Pulling this story together has meant taking a long, hard look at the forthcoming operating system and trying to get to the bottom of it somehow. What your editor has discovered, though, is that Windows 8 isn't just an OS. It's kind of a collection of OSes under one roof, and with it Microsoft might be trying to do too much and reach too many audiences. (Then again, Microsoft does a lot of that these days.) It is, metaphorically speaking, bottomless.

More than anything, it's confusing. You'll have to wait for the November issue of Redmond to get all the details (mainly because your editor doesn't know them all and other writers are still finishing the story...), but we can give you some idea here of why Windows 8 could and probably should be four or five separate products.

We at RCPU don't claim to be 100 percent sure of everything we're saying here. (And this time, we mean that more than we usually do.) We're trying to get it right, but this is slippery stuff. We're also stealing pretty liberally from works in progress by Keith Ward, Kurt Mackie and other Redmond Media Group reporters who are actually sorting this all out and will offer by Nov. 1 definitive answers to what are likely to be many questions. So, in the meantime, feel free to correct us (as always) if you see an error...or just float with us in our river of Microsoft vagueness.

First, there are the Windows 8 interfaces. Yes, plural. The touch-based tile, or "Metro," interface is a radical departure from any OS interface we've seen to date -- or from any interface of any kind, for that matter, except for the Windows Phone 7 UI, which Metro is designed to imitate. Metro will run on tablets and, in case you want your monitor or laptop screen to get really greasy and smeared, on standard PCs as well. It can, however, run either by touch or by mouse on PCs, in case you don't want to squeegee off your monitor every 20 minutes.

But Metro won't run x86 applications on ARM-based computers (essentially tablets). It will, however (we think -- this is where things get confusing) run x86 apps on PCs. But so will the Windows 8 "classic" interface, which won't look like Metro at all. The classic look will mostly be just like Windows 7, except with more of the vastly unloved ribbon interface shoved down users' throats. So, IT folks and users of heavy apps will probably use the classic interface, while the average office worker might -- but won't have to -- go the tile route on the PC.

Everybody will go the tile route on tablets, though, because tablets will only run Metro and will not run classic Windows 8. And while classic Windows 8 will run any Windows 7 application, Windows 8 won't run Windows 7 apps in Metro on tablets because Metro won't run Windows 7 apps at all -- as far as we can tell. We're just scratching the surface here, by the way. This stuff gets way more complicated—and most of the explanations Microsoft tries to give actually make it worse.

Confused? You won't be after this episode of SOAP. Actually, yes, you will. SOAP is a 30-year-old sitcom that has nothing to do with Windows 8 at all. We just thought it was a funny reference. But the bottom line here, if there is one, is that Windows 8 is confusing. It's kind of two operating systems with two-and-a-half interfaces (given that Metro will run via touch or mouse). And while it's meant to look, in part, like Windows Phone 7, it won't actually be Windows Phone 7, meaning Windows tablets and smart phones will technically run on two different operating systems. And PCs will be able to run on two different versions of Windows 8 in three different ways...we think.

This is post-Gates, 21st-century Microsoft at its very worst. Oh, sure, Windows 8 ought to be a great OS. The Metro interface looks fantastic, truly revolutionary and extremely attractive. And we're sure that Windows 8 classic will build on the stability and success of Windows 7. This isn't Vista. Vista was a disaster of a product that actually had some half-decent marketing and crystal-clear messaging.

No, this is the opposite of Vista. Windows 8 is a great set of products with lots of potential that Microsoft is likely to tank because it's trying to cram way too many disparate pieces into one box. Why not have a tablet OS, a PC OS and a smart phone OS? Or one that runs them all but comes in distinctly different flavors? Why try to cram two PC OSes and a tablet OS -- all of which to pretty notably different things and have pretty serious restrictions -- into one "product?" Software is supposed to be easy to use, not frustrating and confusing. This is slick 2010s software with overcomplicated 1980s marketing. It just doesn't make any sense.

The user, partner or IT professional who chooses to move to Windows 8 will likely sympathize with the parent who buys a bicycle for a kid, goes to put it together and finds that the instructions are only in Japanese. (Substitute some other foreign language if you actually speak Japanese...) Frustration is likely to be swift, heavy and completely unnecessary. And that's a shame because Microsoft really has something great here; it just doesn't know what to do with it -- and neither will most of its users.

Posted by Lee Pender on October 03, 2011 at 9:03 AM

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Reader Comments

Tue, Oct 11, 2011 Roman Berry Atlanta, GA

First, the kvetching about the ribbon interface leaves me wondering if the professionals who write here have even bothered to do the bare minimum of research into the subject of the ribbon, how it was developed and the voluminous user research behind the interface. I suggest firing up the Google and looking for "The Story of the Ribbon" as told by Jensen Harris. Most of the complaints I see about the ribbon are coming from people who don't seem to understand the ribbon. I was among you...until I saw Jensen Harris deliver his "The Story of the Ribbon" presentation live. Then I understood. Based on what was written here, the writer (still) does not. Second, the kvetching about Win 8 itself is, at this point, just clueless. Are you the least bit aware that the developer preview is not a beta release of a nearly finished product? This is barely alpha. The whole purpose of the developer preview was to provide a Metro UI platform for....wait for it...developers to use and play with so that they could set about building and testing Metro UI apps. Your entire post strikes me as poorly thought out, not well informed and ill considered.

Fri, Oct 7, 2011

Sorry that I started the Ribbon debate, but to clarify my points:
#1 - It doesn't matter that you like the ribbon interface while I don't, nor whether I need to "get over it". Even if only 20 or 30 per cent of users feel as I do (a very conservative number in my estimation), that translates into millions of people, probably including some powerful decision makers in large companies. If there's no way to turn it off while retaining full functionality in every utility in which it appears (which you can't do in the Office versions), that's a huge chunk of people who will need a much more compelling reason to move to Windows 8 than we've seen so far.

#2 - At the risk of fanning the flames even more, the problem with the Ribbon is not just that it's a bad idea. The problem is that it is a badly designed, poorly implemented bad idea, and we seem to be stuck with that. But it needn't be. Microsoft has never gotten things right the first time out. Typically, the second time, they fix some glaring problems and round off some rough edges, but the thing still isn't "right". The third time has typically been the charm: somebody finally understands how and why what they've been trying to do is wrong; somebody has an "Ah Ha!" moment, a light bulb goes on, and they come up with a slick and well considered way to handle things that people can adapt and build on for years. That pattern has been repeated numerous times, in many different areas.

The problem, as of late, is that Microsoft isn't taking that third step. Sometimes it seems as if there's just change for change sake, as in feature bloat, rather than actually accomplishing anything meaningful. Sometimes, it seems that some honcho (or group) somewhere becomes enamored of the 2.0 or even the 1.5 version, and they never seem to take that critical step of realistic evaluation and taking things to the next level.

I would hope that whatever Metro eventually evolves into (probably in Windows 9 or 10) could be really good for slate-style systems. But that's a long way out, and none of this is easy. Whether Windows 8 is the second stage of Metro or merely 1.5 (or 1.1) is still to be decided. But trying to mash it into a single, combined desktop/tablet/slate/phone, business/personal, all-things-to-all-people system seems unlikely to help move it along. And very possibly to hurt the existing desktop-oriented usability of Windows.

Fri, Oct 7, 2011 Robert Maryland

To: Long Time MS pro - Try getting up to speed on server core, and stop using the word pro in your user ID. As for the article, I found it to be off target. The writer makes claims that are generally confusing and just make the waters muddy. Keep in mind we are in the ALPHA stages here. Things will change and I seriously doubt the OS will force the Metro UI down your throat unless your running a WP OS. As for the UI, you need something like this for touch screen OS's because you don't have a keyboard handy. Try out and install to form your own voice, and stop listening to hearsay.

Fri, Oct 7, 2011

Strangely enough, it was just this 'minimalist design' that caused two members of my family to eventually set aside use of the Apple products we own, having finally had enough of always stuggling to find that for which they were looking and/or how to accomplish what they wished. The brilliance of that accomplished by Apple in the consumer space has nothing to do with superior technology and never did - no, that which is unique about Apple is something far more ephemeral - raising to an art form, creation and nurturing of a 'tribe', a dedicated community of consumers entirely willing to pay double for the same technology available elsewhere, something extremely difficult to replicate by others...

Fri, Oct 7, 2011 Vivek

Windows has literally dozens of different menu styles (Explorer is different from IE is different from Windows Media is different from Notepad is different from Paint is different from the Ribbon, and on and on.) Contrast this to the Mac, which has exactly one menu. Not just one style of menu but one menu, at the top of the screen. It is simple yet powerful enough to do things that none of the menus in Windows can - like a search box. That's what minimalist, great design buys you.

Fri, Oct 7, 2011

To the commenter who "likes the dual OS approach" because he can remove his tablet from its dock and play games on it: You do realize, don't you, that this is how things like Stuxnet and botnets get introduced into corporate networks? By people like you downloading and playing games on work systems, you endanger entire companies. While if discovered doing that in my company, it would be grounds for dismissal, it raises another point about why merging these two OSes is not such a great idea. The ecosystems within which "personal/life" computing and "business" computing exist are actually very different, and probably should be kept separate. As has happened so far with WinPhone, Microsoft's trying to merge the two runs the risk of failing or creating problems in both realms.

Thu, Oct 6, 2011

How Microsoft ever concluded that the ribbon was somehow a step forward is a mystery nearly as indiscernible as the value of Dan's comments - they do reinforce, however, why is is that I rarely bother investing any time in reader commentary...

Thu, Oct 6, 2011 Dan Iowa

And one more comment, since we're bringing up the old love or hate the ribbon debate again. For those who still complain about the Ribbon: There are tangible benefits over the old menu system. If you chose to ignore them that's your choice, but talking like they aren't there doesn't help the conversation at all. It's true you have to learn where things are again, but if you don't like where things are, you can always change it. (If you have the Ribbon that is.) Try going into a Ribbon based application, and right-click on one of the Ribbon Tabs. You'll quickly see tangible benefits with the customize Ribbon option. Once you have things setup as you want them, which may just be the default, you find that most of what you want to do is faster. Most of the time, 2 clicks (click tab and make change) at worst instead of 3 or 4 (click menu, click sub-menu, open dialog box, navigate tabs in dialog box, make change, close dialog box). It's kind of like having a menu just stay expanded or a dialog box just stay open while you're working on something. (Another tangible benefit.) Finally, try shrinking your windows to fit on a small or low resolution screen. You'll find that a menu'd application may just become unusable as menus take up all of the screen real estate, while using the Ribbon app means you just have to scroll the ribbon. These are all tangible benefits. Certainly on a smaller touch screen I can see the old style menus just becoming a real pain to use. But if you still hate the Ribbon and just can't fathom the idea of giving it a chance, you don't have to "get over it". You can continue to complain and resist. Of course you'll be a very unhappy person. You'll find that Microsoft is not going freeze time for you. They are not going to limit themselves to outdated user interfaces while other products adopt new and better interfaces that fit the devices of today. If they did, they'd go out of business, and you'd again find yourself, over time, in the position of having to change.

Thu, Oct 6, 2011 Dan Iowa

Just one more comment as I read through the article and the posts here. I find it amusing that in writing about how Microsoft is "going in the wrong direction", so many writers so often seem to contradict themselves so frequently in a single article or post. Even more amusing is the image that forms in my mind of Microsoft trying to follow all of that advise at the same time.

Thu, Oct 6, 2011 Long Time MS pro

MS should have split things a long time back. yes it is probably nice on some level that they share a common code base for application portability, but it means that everything takes too long to bring new products to market. For example on the server side, there is a LOT of bloat on each installation of Windows Server that probably really does NOT need to be there because Windows Server is NOT a workstation. Cut it down. For example, companies run hundreds of servers in data centers that never (or seldomly) get logged into on the console. Why not just have enough of a UI to just get around, vs all the junk that makes us have to patch servers too often. I know about server core so don't suggest that. Another example is Hyper-V. A great solution, but it is surrounded with bloat. That's a product that could be separated out for too. I mean by the time Hyper-V 3.0 comes out with Windows 8, VMware will be onto vSphere 6. Come on MS, things take too long to change and then when they do, the changes are too significant for the normal human IT admin to be able to accomplish. Let alone even sell the "value" to the business itself.

Wed, Oct 5, 2011

Thank you, Lee, for being bold enough to offer a refreshingly accurate assessment of the degree to which Redmond's lost its way, the magnitude of which I'd have once thought impossible. There's a very stark difference between your observations, clearly the result of years of experience focusing on the inner workings of Redmond, and the increasingly tedious rantings of both Microsoft apologists and wishful thinkers alike...

Wed, Oct 5, 2011 Ken McAvoy Wantirna South , Melbourne , Victoria , Australia

For all those ribbon loving writers - its NOT a competition. Your argument and vitriolic writing is about as meaningful about going on about which car brand is better. No we don't have to get over it - we don't have to be forced into liking what you like just because you say so - who the hell do you think you are anyway. Do not try and invalidate the concerns and opinions of others especially those who see zero benefit in changing just for the sake of change. Some of us still wish to see tangible benfits for wasting a lot of time and money learning new ways of doing the same old repetitive tasks. I loathe the ribbon - it's my view and I am sticking to it - in the same way I loathe the thought of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane that I paid to have a seat on without a parachute - best of luck frequent flyers !

Wed, Oct 5, 2011

In the same way that some hardcore gamers may dislike (or hate) the Wii, some "power users" may dislike (or hate) the ribbon. But guess what, you are the minority! There are tons of people (and new generations of youngsters) who benefit from both of these easier-to-use interfaces. And, if you are truly a "power user", why don't you double-click the active ribbon tab to minimize the whole ribbon? You can put your commonly-used commands on the quick access toolbar (or just learn the keyboard shortcuts). Then, the ribbon takes up no space at all -- until you temporarily bring it up with a click or the ALT key (the quick access toolbar is normally embedded in the window's title bar, so it doesn't take any extra space). Sure, I'd like more customization options for power users (and I certainly won't be happy if they block side-loading and put Metro in jail, and I wish they wouldn't sabotage Silverlight by blocking it within Metro, etc.). But, at least in terms of usability for the masses, I think Microsoft is headed in the right direction. I can understand individuals not wanting to change ("don't fix what ain't broken"), but I would think that you, as a technology editor, should understand that in major releases of Windows, Microsoft needs to push innovations like the ribbon (and Metro) in order to remain relevant. If you were in charge of Microsoft, would we still be using 8+3 character file names in text-mode apps? Personally, I'm happy that my little boy will grow up to wonder why daddy's dusty old computer has tiny 16x16 toolbar buttons and doesn't respond to touch.

Wed, Oct 5, 2011 Bob

Oh no. The harsh comment on the infamous O/S called BOB really cut deep. I still have the O/S Complete Package including the disk. Just afraid to run it on anything.

Wed, Oct 5, 2011

You do realize this isn't even a beta version yet right?

Wed, Oct 5, 2011

The ribbon wasn't shoved down anyone's throat - it was a result of a vast usability study. While menu commands may seem quicker sometimes, they don't allow for things like live-preview of format changes, for example. It's time for you to get over it. Things change.

Wed, Oct 5, 2011 Dan Iowa

I'm hearing the Vista grumbling over Windows8 all over again, and Windows 8 has not even reached Beta? Personally I would love the Ribbon over the old menus. No one has to shove it down my throat as long as it's properly implemented. Also I don't understand your desire that they split it into seperate OS's. If you're talking about the disks you use to install, I'm guessing those will be seperate disks. If you're talking about the interface, I don't understand. Are you saying you're a user that wants to have to switch between different interfaces depending on which computing device you are using? That you not only want to do that, but to be forced to do that? Who covets the idea that you be able to find a piece of software that works on one device, but will not work on another. I understand that we would be forced into those situations due to legacy constraints, but not that we should long for that to be the case. This is pre-beta right? I think it's going to be hard to not be confused, when Microsoft is still changing things. To use your bicycle analogy, it's like you ordered a brand new bicycle, and after complaining that the instructions are written in Japanese, you realize those aren't instructions. That's just the shipping label. There are no instructions because it's pre-beta. People who buy the Chevy Volt are not getting the concept car that was shown years ago at a car show. I think you said Metro is a great interface. Isn't that really the point?

Tue, Oct 4, 2011

Thanks for this article. At last, some honesty about the potential problems we are all about to face if MS doesn't take the time to make this mish-mash work smoothly. If I'm on my desktop system (multiple monitors, all high res, none touch enabled) I don't want to be pretending I'm flicking things with my mouse. I do want to be able to right-click and get appropriate drop-downs, and to click on check-boxes and radio buttons that don't take up way too much screen real estate. I sometimes need to use the command line, and Notepad. They better not be Metro-lated, nor Ribbonized. And I want "real" applications [things like 3DS MAX, Photoshop, and Visual Studio, as opposed to "Toy" apps like most phone apps are] to have consistent Windows-based UIs like always. Conversely, if I'm on a portable slate [my "tablet" happens to have a real keyboard], doing something like Network or file system security setup, I don't want to suddenly be dropped into having to fumble-finger my way through a keyboard-and-mouse oriented configuration screen.

Look at the Control Panel, Administrative Tools, and Accessories tabs alone and think how many UI screens have to be re-done to allow them to work both ways, and never get confused as to which is which. That extends to things like standardized File Open and Save menus, etc., too. And by the way, the Ribbon interface isn't just "unloved", it's HATED. Without some registry magic to turn that visual noise off, that alone will create a push-back against Windows 8.

My guess is that this stuff will actually be usable by about Windows 10, if the next great "innovation" doesn't overtake us first.

Which leads me to a question I really wish you guys would address: Everything from Microsoft recently seems to be getting less usable, not more usable; more cluttered, not less; less user friendly, not more. With less of the functionality that we actually need, and more hype and noise. Who is it that's behind this? Who is it that's pushing this stuff? Is it a kind of "group think" going on, or is there some cadre of powerful VPs or product managers or tech gurus that are giving us more "Microsoft Bob"-style garbage rather than "Windows 98"-type clean design?

Tue, Oct 4, 2011

I personally like the dual OS approach. I've been using the Build Windows tablet as the classic Windows 7 OS to develop but when I'm done I take the tablet from the docking and find a comfortable place to sit and play using the newer Metro UI. The Windows 8 OS on a suitable device means I can use the same device for work, play and mobility. Microsoft really has something with this release. Although Amazon's razor blade model for the new kindle does put a completely new competitive face on tablets.

Tue, Oct 4, 2011 Chris Chicago

It is too early to be making such sweeping generalizations and condemnations of a product still in beta. While marketing might fail to succinctly bundle up Windows 8 into tidy packages, to lay the blame all at Microsoft's feet shows a lack of big-picture understanding. First, I believe Apple is using a core code base for all of its form factors. Second, any credible OS of the 21st century is struggling with how to approach the multiplicity of form factors being sold to consumers. Look at Ubuntu and its shift to the Unity interface. Third, removing the differences between the aspects of Windows 8 (processor support, multiple interfaces, etc.) may simply be too much work to magically finish in time for the "first release" of Windows 8. That doesn't mean seamless cross-platform support for much of Microsoft's codebase will never be achieved. Anyone who claims to have crystal clear vision about what the market will want, and get, in five years, is terribly deluded.

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