Windows 8: What we know now that we didn’t know then

Mobile Sep 17, 2011 No Comments

If months ever felt like years, this is one of those times as it was only in June that Steven Sinovsky, President of Microsoft’s Windows Division, gave a first look at Windows 8 at the D9 Conference.  What we saw back then was only a snapshot of Windows 8 and what we heard was only a broad, intentionally vague discussion of it.  Microsoft promised that we’d have much more answered at their BUILD conference in September.  They didn’t let us down this week as Sinovsky took developers through a very long keynote highlighting more features of Windows 8 and the ways to develop for it.  As if that and another few days of sessions wasn’t enough, Microsoft released a developer preview to the public for anyone to download.  We took our own turn in our walkthrough of Windows 8 on a laptop.  With a few days to reflect on our time with the OS and what Microsoft has been willing to tell us, it’s time to turn our attention to the broader questions of how this new direction may play out for Microsoft.

After that intital look in June, we speculated that Windows 8 threatens to actually do harm to the three elements of the Windows ecosystem.  In our editorial, we separated out the areas of traditional desktops, tablets and phones as the areas that could be negatively affected in their own way.  So much of the piece was speculative by necessity, because Microsoft wasn’t willing to tell us everything at that time.  So now that we know more, how are we doing?

Windows Desktop

We identified two missteps in Microsoft’s strategy 1) that the Metro interface is not useful to the traditional desktop user or business and is actually inferior and that 2) the desktop experience is not being improved in any meaningful way.

 1) After using the Metro Start screen and the associated Metro apps, I’m more convinced than ever now that this is not a useful desktop interface.  It’s very visually appealing but is significantly less productive and won’t be of much use to businesses or individuals for work-related tasks.  It’s now more clear than ever that while Metro works with a mouse and keyboard, it’s absolutely built for touch.

2) The Windows Desktop has been deprecated in Windows 8.  Even if Microsoft allows OEMs to default to the traditional desktop for enterprise machines, Windows 8 offers almost nothing of value that we’ve seen so far.  If BUILD is any indication, Microsoft is entirely focused on Metro and the lack of changes in the desktop reflect that.  The most noticeable change is the inclusion of the Microsoft Office ribbon UI in Windows Explorer, something that’s being met with derision.  Now, enterprise customers will have to look at this and decide; is it worth it to upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8?  The answer is a clear no, and Microsoft has another Vista on its hands.  Remember, there are countless businesses and government entities still using Windows XP.

Windows Tablets

We criticized that 1) Windows 8 is not a lightweight and simple OS that is what consumers want for tablets and 2) the application languages available for deveopers pale in comparison to the native development available for the iPad.

1) One of the first things Sinovsky addressed in his keynote was the fear that Windows 8 is going to be too heavy for low-power machines.  To prove his point, he pulled out an old Thinkpad that he’d used to demo Windows 7 as proof that Windows 8 hasn’t ballooned into an unmanageable size.  The only problem with that is that nobody cares how well it runs on an Intel CPU.  The real action in the tablet space is on ARM.  Intel keeps promising lower power consumption, but by now they have to actually prove it and have failed to do so.  Microsoft won’t really demonstrate anything running properly on ARM, so they have failed to put anyone’s mind at ease there.

Even worse is the experience available to consumers.  So far we’ve seen every indication that consumers will not be able to immerse themselves completely in the Metro environment.  In everyone’s demonstrations, including Microsoft’s, people would get thrown into the traditional desktop by necessity.  After using it myself and comparing my experiences to other reviewers’, I’m even more disappointed that escaping the desktop seems next to impossible.  Some have argued that ARM tablets won’t have the desktop enabled, but the message has been very convoluted and Microsoft is not helping at all in that department.  At this point, it seems to be a stretch to say that the desktop won’t be available on ARM.  If that was the case, Microsoft would have said so, and in this case it’s subtraction by addition.

2) We were incorrect in our criticism of the limited development frameworks for Metro apps.  Microsoft unveiled a full-featured platform and tools chart this week that included familiar C-related languages.  Honestly, I put the blame for this misstep on Microsoft because they just kept drilling home HTML5 and Javascript at D9.  But give them credit for not being completely insane and only offering web-based apps.  This should lead to Metro apps that will not only be attractive but potentially powerful as well.  How well they will suit consumers on touch devices remains to be seen, however.  For as much as we love Windows Phone, the Metro applications still seem a little too text-heavy and arbitrarily spaced out.

Windows Phone 

We said that Microsoft is making a mistake by keeping separate its existing phone OS and planned tablet OS.

This is actually bearing itself out, but in a different and worse way than we originally thought.   For starters, Silverlight is the dominant development language for apps on Windows Phone and is not in Microsoft’s plans at all moving forward.  Not giving developers the opportunity to develop for both phones and tablets with Silverlight will drive people away from Silverlight at a time when Windows Phone is struggling mightily to gain any type of traction.  Making Metro a familiar experience for millions of users could help Windows Phone in the long term, but that won’t happen for well over a year, which we noted could be too late for Windows Phone.

But it gets even wilder.  There have been a number of reports that Microsoft plans to eventually make Windows 8 the OS for its phones with a unified code base.  The amount of effort that will go into that would be enormous.  It might also cause problems with existing apps and again force developers to change course slightly.  Plus, all of that is putting aside the question of why they would put something as large as Windows on their phones.  It harkens back to the problems they had with Windows Mobile to keep it fresh as a phone OS because of their need to have a unified platform that ran on everything.  If Microsoft does this, it couldn’t possibly happen for another year.  In another year, if Windows Phone has any momentum, this could hurt it and hurt it unnecessarily.  It might be a decent long-term play, but right now the timing is very crucial in the phone market and time is running out for Windows Phone.

One more thing

It’s worth mentioning that I think the new Windows Metro environment looks great and feels fresh.  The question isn’t whether it’s appealing.  The question is if the way that Microsoft is executing is going to be effective for their business and ecosystem as a whole.  There are a number of market forces that threaten Microsoft beyond its capability to control its fate.  There will be time to evaluate those factors, but for now it’s enough to ask if they are doing everything they should at such a critical time.

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