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Windows 8 – a dual personality


October 30, 2012
By Corrie Sloot

1345 words – MR rataj dec folder

Windows 8 – a dual personality

by Tom Rataj

It’s been almost three years since Microsoft launched Windows 7, its successful replacement for the disliked and inconsistent Vista operating system (OS).

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Much has changed in the computer world since then, most notably the introduction of the Apple iPad, Blackberry Playbook and numerous Google Android based tablets. The sheer simplicity of their touchscreen interface and wireless connections has completely changed the way many people access information.

For many casual users who primarily surf the web, use e-mail and social media sites, the tablet is almost the perfect solution. For content creation (documents, spreadsheets etc.) and business use though, a regular computer easily trumps the tablet.

Most tablet users also have a regular computer but bought a tablet for its go-anywhere form factor, versatility and instant-on nature.

Also during these years, the touchscreen “smartphone” has rapidly overtaken the mobile phone marketplace, for many of the same reasons that tablets have been so successful.

While Microsoft was in the early smartphone business with its decent Windows Mobile phone OS, it has long been relegated to the sidelines. Several years ago it re-entered the smartphone market with its revolutionary Windows Phone OS.

It was designed from the ground-up for small touchscreen devices, but instead of using the usual icon based user-interface it introduced the “Metro” style interface. Using much larger “tiles” instead of icons, the interface allows the tiles to display live content such as Facebook, weather, news and other information without the user having to launch the full program.

The Windows Phone OS has gone through a number of version updates since then, resulting in a decent product. Nokia, Samsung and HTC offer Windows Phone based smartphones but Microsoft’s market share remains quite small worldwide.

{Windows 8}

With the large and rapidly growing tablet market and softening sales of traditional desktop and laptop computers, the future of computing is clearly headed towards a hands-on touchscreen based world. Microsoft has recognized this while developing Windows 8.

Instead of developing two or three different operating systems for different form-factors (phones, computers and tablets), Microsoft has created one core OS that will eventually run on any form factor. This will not be limited to tablets, smartphones and computers but also “Smart-TVs” and navigation, communication and control systems in vehicles.

Windows 8 launched October 26, shocking, surprising, confusing, intimidating and confounding users with the most radical overhaul ever. My limited hands-on experience with the consumer preview version and final product leads me to predict there will be a fairly steep (but short) learning curve.

Heavily borrowing user-interface designs from Windows Phone, it introduced the Windows 8 “Style” interface as the default home screen. Style starts with the same large and colourful, touch-friendly square or rectangular tiles as on Windows Phone, with the same live content characteristics. Programs written specifically for Windows 8 launch and run only from this interface.

For older programs and those not written for Windows 8, users must switch to its other persona, the “Desktop.” Closely resembling Windows 7 and earlier, but without the familiar Start button, the Desktop works in a more or less familiar manner, although it has been given a visual and functional overhaul.

This is where things will really get dicey, because users will need to switch between the Style and Desktop sides depending on what they want and need to do.

Users switching to or upgrading to a Windows 8 machine would be strongly advised to use the introductory tutorials that launch during initial start-up. This will greatly reduce their level of frustration, confusion and stress when making the switch.

Because the Style interface is designed primarily for touchscreen devices, using it on a non-touchscreen device without first using the tutorials will be a very frustrating experience. Even a touchscreen device will be frustrating until you learn and understand the new interface, which is actually pretty good.

Apparently finding inspiration in the Blackberry Playbook user interface, portions of Style rely on the user swiping onto the screen from the edges or corners to reveal and access various programs and menus.

To access computer settings, for example, the new “Charms” bar is accessed by swiping onto the screen from the top or bottom corner of the right side or moving the mouse pointer to those corners.

To switch to and from open Windows 8 programs, users swipe or mouse onto the screen from the top and bottom corners of the left side of the screen to reveal large thumbnails of the running programs. To access the menus and controls for an active Windows 8 program, the user swipes-in from the top or bottom.

The Windows key on a computer keyboard also gains some new-found power in combination with other keys to assist with navigation on a non-touchscreen device.

The Style side of Windows 8 comes complete with many basic standards apps like mail, calendar, people (a portal to social media apps), photos, maps, video and music, camera, Windows App Store, Xbox Live games and the Microsoft SkyDrive cloud storage app.

The Style and Desktop sides of Windows 8 also have some unique navigation and interaction rules that users will need to learn and adapt to.

On the Desktop side of things, all windows have been “flattened,” losing their fancy semi-transparent title-bars, 3D effects and rounded corners for a lighter-weight, cleaner look.

Windows 8 will probably work best on a tablet type device because the screen size lends itself best to the Style interface. The hidden controls are better suited to tablet sized screens than larger, non-touchscreen desktops.

With the growing smartphone and tablet markets, many users will have three or four “computing” devices, creating challenges in keeping everything synchronized. Windows 8 helps somewhat by managing synchronization of key elements through Microsoft’s cloud based services.

Windows 8 also introduces a new online Microsoft “App” store, where users can purchase programs directly from Microsoft and other vendors. At launch there were just over 10,000 apps but this is expected to grow rapidly because of Microsoft’s market share.

In addition to the major stuff, Microsoft has also done a bunch of fine-tuning with various parts of Windows 8. It boots faster, has quicker text and graphics performance, surfs the web faster with better HTML5 (the next major Internet layout language) support, improves security and offers better battery life.

Some core Windows utilities such as the file manager also get enhancements, including the addition of the “ribbon” interface first introduced in Office 2007.

{Hardware}

To further confuse computer users, Windows 8 has two different versions based on two types of processor hardware.

The desktop version normally runs on computers using either Intel or AMD processors but tablets running Windows 8 will also be able to run on cheaper ARM-type processors.

Entry-level tablets will run Windows RT on ARM processors, while more expensive tablets, laptops and desktops will run the regular Windows 8.

Software will not be interchangeable between the two versions so users will need to shop carefully. Hopefully vendors will ship both versions in the same box for the same price.

Also on the hardware side, Microsoft is getting into the computer hardware business by designing and selling its own Microsoft branded Windows Surface tablets in both RT and full Windows 8 versions.

Multi-touch enabled mice and touchpads have been announced by Microsoft, Logitech and other computer peripheral manufacturers. Touch enabled desktop monitors will likely flood the market as Windows 8 gains traction.

{Transition OS}

I strongly suspectWindows 8 will be a transitional product taking users away from the “traditional” Windows experience towards the all new Style interface designed for all form-factors.

Whether Microsoft and other major software vendors can complete the transition by the time Window 9 arrives in three years or so remains to be seen.

Windows 8, once users get used to it, has the potential to be a decent product, especially when used on a touch-enabled device.

Until the end of January 2013, the upgrade package for current Windows users is only $40. The full version is $140.


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