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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 [email protected]. 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 4:59 PM