As Ian Dixon (blog | twitter) posted recently Windows 8 was demoed on video and for the first time we had a glimpse into what the next version of Windows will bring.  As Jon (blog | twitter) and I discussed with Ed Bott (blog | twitter) recently on TDL Mobile Show 74 there are many examples of Microsoft totally failing to understand that smaller devices have different requirements when it comes to UI (User Interface) and UX (User Experience).  Over many years they tried to squeeze “Windows” onto devices that used touch as the primary input and as those icons and labels shrunk it became impossible to control them with our stubby fingers.

Many OEM’s tried to cover up these problems with overlays, HTC Sense  or HP TouchSmart software for example, each of which were fine examples but it’s impossible to “skin” an entire OS (operating system) so eventually you were thrown back to the harsh realities of Windows running on small devices.  The problem with laptops and desktops was even worse as the overlays had no way to directly access the touch API’s and so introduced a lag that made the whole experience less than ideal.

The biggest issue of course is that each OEM came up with their own solution to making Windows touch-screen friendly which completely destroyed the familiarity of Windows and gave each device it’s own learning curve.  Then along came devices like the iPhone, and later the iPad, which were game changers and each had a consistent UX and on each device the UI was designed with touch input in mind.  Finally after years of trying to “fix” Windows Mobile came the day when Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone to the world and people like me breathed a sigh of relief; they finally understood that Windows doesn’t work on all devices and that small screens, like smartphones, need a UI that has been built with for use with touch input first.

I have been one of those calling on Microsoft to upscale the Windows Phone UI onto tablets and slates (I’ll refer to either device as a slate from here on) as it was obvious that it could work on those devices too.  Microsoft needed to either write an OS for tablets or at the very least give the OS it’s own tablet UI.  Thankfully it seems that Microsoft have realised that Windows Phone with it’s tile based UI is perfect for tablets and we got our first taste of this last week.

Now the one criticism I’ve heard about iOS and Android based tablets is that although they are great for consuming content (watching videos, web browsing, social networking, etc) they struggle when you try and create content on them (word processing, blogging, etc) since they are awkward to hold and even when you hook up a keyboard the software available might not be the full version you are used to from your Mac or Windows PC.

Microsoft has tackled this head on because with Windows 8, lurking beneath the tiled start screen, there is a full version of Windows that can run the same applications you run today (ARM is a slightly different story here for legacy applications but they can be re-compiled to run here too) in the same environment you are used to.  This means then when you plug a mouse and keyboard in there should be no reason why you can’t create the same content you always have on a desktop pc.  The start screen isn’t an overlay it IS Windows and the UI is baked right into the core OS (so it won’t suffer the lag that solutions like TouchSmart have).  There is a concern, of course, that Microsoft must re-design everything to give it a touch friendly UI and that includes all settings within the control panel, etc and not just the top layer.  If they fail to do so then we are back in territory that will severely hurt the UX.

Making changes to the Windows UI to become touch-centric was an obvious and necessary step.  Then comes what I believe to be the real masterstroke, this new start screen will be the default interface on ALL Windows 8 devices regardless of form factor.  The start screen can be operated with a mouse and keyboard or even a remote for those HTPC enthusiasts.  Why do I think this is a genius move by Microsoft?  Because as I said at the start what has been lacking is a real sense of identity for Windows when you move away from the desktop pc.  With the start screen on every Windows 8 pc and laptop people will become familiar with that new interface and so the transition to a Windows 8 tablet or indeed a Windows Phone becomes easy with very little learning curve.  The consumer experience should be totally seamless and I can see it driving sales of other devices like tablets and phones.

I know that Mary Jo Foley (blog | twitter) has her reservations (Windows 8: Nice for tablets, but what about PCs?) and Ed has already shown that Windows can indeed suit the tablet environment (Yes, the “gigantic, enormous” Windows really can run on a tablet).  I gave my initial thoughts on Windows 8 during this weeks TDL Mobile Show 79 but thought I’d also follow up with this post.

What do you think, is this pure genius or total insanity?

9 thoughts on “Windows 8: Genius or Insanity?”
  1. I sort of agree with you Ian, HTPCs is a god send , so tablets can become that
    magic netbook / laptop replacement , its a masterstroke. But as a desktop users I
    think Mary has a point , I was left wondering ‘ I wonder if I can turn it off to get the old
    start menu back….

  2. I sort of agree with you Ian, for HTPCs is a god send , so tablets can become that
    magic netbook / laptop replacement , its a masterstroke. But as a desktop users I
    think Mary has a point , I was left wondering ‘ I wonder if I can turn it off to get the old
    start menu back….

  3. Another nice post 😉

    I think that the idea of keeping a similar UI ‘theme’ over multiple platforms for Win8 / Win Phone is a great idea.

    There are obviously times when you’ll want (or need) the old school Start Menu>drill down through multiple folders/options experience.

    For the times when that isn’t required though, having the live tile experience and touch centric interface certainly seems to lend itself to where technologhy is leading us (I’m guessing that more and more laptops will be shipping with touchscreens for a start).

  4. I did swap some interesting emails with Mary Jo after I contacted her about that post and while I agree that an extra click to get to the desktop when using a pc could be annoying I’m not convinced it will be.

    Thinking about how I use a pc it’s rare that I want to access the “desktop” when I unlock it, more likely I want to activate an application which is that extra click anyway (on the taskbar) but in this case it would be a tile instead. It’s also possible that the pc will remember it’s last state so if you had dismissed the start screen already then you won’t need to do so everytime you unlock it.

    As I said on the podcast for people like my parents this removes the complexity of a desktop and will actually make the pc easier to use not to mention the fact they have a touchsmart so they’ll win twice here.

    I for one hope Microsoft do not include a way to turn this off, like they chose not to allow disabling the Ribbon UI when it was introduced into Office, as I think that way they would lose the benefit of a consistent look and feel across devices. I also think it could prove really useful on a desktop pc for that same “glance and go” experience that is now available on Windows Phone. Imagine at a glance you know if you have any emails, if the person you were going to contact over IM is online, and many more possibilities…

  5. I’m looking forward to being able to try it out. It should certainly give a shot in the arm to my old HP TX2000 Tablet PC.

    Still, I remain to be convinced that a mouse is an efficient way to drive a touch-and-gesture UI. Just as trying to use a mouse in a painting/drawing program is rather like trying to paint with a rock, I have the feeling that a digitiser pad using touch or pen will be much better.

    I’m hoping that we will see a resurgence of digitiser pads, and in particular, I would like to see an affordable wireless digitiser pad using touch on the market. That, for me, would be the ideal control surface for an HTPC running Windows 8.

    1. It is possible, depending on resolution, that you won’t get the touch-friendly UI on the TX2000 as Microsoft have stated certain features will be disabled as the resolution shrinks.

  6. Hi Geoff,

    I’d agree but also remember that with a mouse and keyboard you’re likely to drop out of the touch UI fairly quickly. There is an alternative though with the new breed of touch-enabled mouse as @thurrott just tweated:

    I really can’t wait to try Windows 8 out for the first time, I really hope there is a public beta program again as they did with Windows 8.

    1. Hmm, that’s an interesting mouse… It might be the way forward for me for my Desktop PC. It’ll be interesting to try it out for the HTPC as well – providing the wireless range is good. I currently occasionally use a Microsoft Arc mouse on the HTPC – and the range is terrible.

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