In-Depth

Microsoft Partners Rave About 'Windows 8' Interface

Despite some worries about how Windows 8's "touch focus" will appeal to desktop users, partners are calling the new OS something few Microsoft products have ever been called: cool.

Microsoft partners said they are enthusiastic about the design and the tablet potential of "Windows 8," although some harbor concerns about how the touch-orientation will translate to desktop work.

Partners reacted to the OS a day after Microsoft previewed a "Windows 8" interface, which is the most dramatic overhaul of the GUI since Windows 95, at the D9 Conference and through online videos.

The four-and-a-half-minute Microsoft demo video instantly calls to mind the interface of Windows Phone 7 and its follow-on, code-named Windows Phone "Mango." Applications appear as tiles, and demonstrator Jensen Harris, director of program management for the Windows User Experience Team, moved between screens of tiles by swiping his finger across the surface. He introduced some new UI motions, such as sequentially cycling through running apps by swiping them in from the side, snapping apps into place to fill part of the screen and a new touch keyboard that puts half the keyboard in the lower left corner of the screen and the other half in the lower right.


Partners Applaud the New UI
Partners almost universally applauded the interface, especially for tablet-style use.

"My initial impression is that the UI for Windows 8 will be a huge step forward for partners," said Barb Levisay, owner of Marketing for Partners in Ruckersville, Va. "Partners have thrived working with the current business decision makers because this generation is comfortable with Microsoft. As the next generations -- the technology natives -- take over the strategic purchasing decisions, we have to present information on their terms. Windows 8 looks like it has hit that mark."

Levisay added that Windows 8 could bring something else to the Microsoft channel. "The partner's ability to attract talent is clearly affected by the coolness factor. With app development and touch, Windows 8 could give us back some cool. We need young, energetic entrepreneurs that are proud to sell Microsoft products -- just like the partners of today were in the '80s and '90s," she said.

Howard Cohen, a New York-based consultant to IT vendors and channel partner companies, said he was most encouraged by how Microsoft referred to "re-imagining" Windows, a step he believes was long overdue. "Let's remember the two things everyone said when Windows 7 came out: 'Hey, it's Vista except it works,' and 'Hey, they're trying to make it look more like a Mac!' Well, now they have finally leapfrogged Apple and delivered a more natural, comfortable interface that really gets out of the users' way and lets them concentrate on doing what they came to do," Cohen said.

"For the first time in a long time I feel like Microsoft may finally reclaim a leadership position in user interface design," Cohen said.

Amy Babinchak, president of Harbor Computer Services in Michigan, said it's too early to say what business opportunities Windows 8 might present, but she called the release exciting. "I traded in my iPhone for a Windows Phone a few months ago and haven't looked back. I think the live tile interface with touch, keyboard and mouse is going to burst open the world of devices. This is a very exciting time to be in IT."

Describing the interface as a "really huge move by Microsoft" was Jerry Weinstock, business development manager for CRM Innovation LLC, in Lenexa, Kan.

"The new Windows 8 UI is a sea change event that will make the user experience between computing platforms -- desktops, notebooks, phones and tablets -- a more seamless process," he said. "Touchscreen technology is finally reaching its promise. I can't wait to see how this core change in the OS will enhance business applications like Microsoft Dynamics CRM."

An open question for Microsoft has been if or how Windows will really work on what the world calls a tablet and on what Microsoft calls a slate or media tablet. "[Windows 8] is their answer: This is the way a tablet is going to work. If you can get it into the right profile hardware, that's going to be incredibly cool," said Dave Sobel, founder and CEO of Evolve Technologies in Fairfax, Va. "I'm kind of excited about where this could go."

Next Page: Desktop Question Marks

Desktop Question Marks
One partner who doesn't share the view that Windows 8 leapfrogs Apple is Karl Palachuk, CEO of KPEnterprises in Sacramento, Calif.: "My first impression is that you can't help thinking it looks like an iPad." While Palachuk likes the fast, clean interface for handheld devices, he and many other partners aren't sure it will work on the desktop.

Windows 8
Mike Angiulo, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Windows Planning, Hardware and PC Ecosystem, shows off the new "Windows 8" start page at the Computex event in Taipei, Taiwan, June 2, 2011. Source: Microsoft
"I don't think most people want to reach across their desk to put their hands onto a 22-inch monitor to get their work done. Perhaps we'll see touch monitors that eliminate the keyboard and sit at an degree angle on the desktop," Palachuk said. "The most obvious change for the channel is that we can see touchscreens and ergonomic discussions in our future. While the 'Star Trek' concept of wall computing looks cool, it would be exhausting to reach up all day to work on a screen. That means the screen has to come down and the hands have to come down. If you've got one surface for typing and viewing, then your head tilts down. Ergonomically, this interface doesn't seem to make sense on the desktop."

Sobel had almost the same reaction to the desktop question. "I'm sitting at my conventional desktop with my 27-inch display. How much do I really want to touch it to interface with it? Really, not that much," he said.

Sobel noted that the demo clearly exposed a Windows 7 interface that's clearly still there, and Palachuk agreed that the ability to easily switch interfaces will be important. "I suspect this new interface has some very cool features that no one will use after the first month. Like Windows Aero," Palachuk said.

Babinchak suspected clients would require a mix of interfaces that partners will need to help them configure. "The Windows Desktop has been around for a long, long time. Some people have had a hard time letting go of the XP desktop experience. Getting those same people to move into tiles is going to be interesting. I think we might see a distinct separation between the dinosaurs and the productive workers," she said.

The Tile-and-App Approach
There was a lot of excitement about the tile-and-app approach among partners, although some were eager for more details.

During the video demo, Microsoft's Harris explained the model. "Tiles are better than icons for a couple of reasons. They have a little more space for the app to show its personality," Harris said. "We introduced a new platform, based on standard Web technologies, so HTML 5 and JavaScript and it allows the millions of developers who know how to use those technologies to create a new kind of app for Windows 8. These apps are full-screen. They're beautiful. They are designed for touch, but of course they work great with mouse and keyboard, as well."

Sobel noted that all the apps in the demo appeared to be Microsoft apps. "The other piece we need to get into to make this truly exciting is to understand what the development requirements are to make apps run in that world," he said. "What you don't want to see is some guy not write his app well. Say one of those squares has some pixelated image that doesn't do anything right. Let's be totally fair -- that's not Microsoft's fault -- but they will take the heat for it."

A Unified Platform
For years Microsoft has talked about Windows as an advantage for mobile phones and potential slates because it's a unified platform. The problem was that users didn't want to interact with their phones or tablets through a Windows desktop interface. Suddenly, with an overhaul of Windows 8, Microsoft is looking at a top-to-bottom interface that's more handheld-device friendly, and partners are saying they are interested in where that leads.

"I've written recently about the concept and the importance of having a CUE, a Consistent User Experience, across all form factors and device types," Cohen said. "When you look at the selection of onscreen keyboards in Windows 8, I think you see their clear flag that this is what they intend to provide -- a singular interface for PC, laptop, tablet, handheld and probably even dashboard devices. This is every bit as important to the front-end of the new re-definition of business agility we're seeing as the rapid adoption of cloud computing is at the back end."

Sobel added that if you throw the Xbox Kinect motion sensor technology and the new Windows 8 gesture interface into the mix, scenarios get very interesting, very fast.

"What if I use the Kinect to make those motions? The interface on Xbox is not all that different from what we're seeing in Phone 7, Mango and now Windows 8. Microsoft is actually quietly standardizing on interface," Sobel said. Add the Skype acquisition, which Microsoft has said is a priority to get on Xbox, and Sobel said, "I can see business applications with that combination. I think there's something there that partners can get involved with."

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