Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Windows 9 will be a smashing hit!

I just spent some time with Windows 8 on a computer I purchased for a family member.  Windows 8 marks such a huge departure from Windows that you might consider either holding off a PC purchase, or just get a Mac or a Linux machine instead. Even a Mac will feel more familiar.

Some caveats before we start. I don't know all the terminology around Windows 8 (neither would any new user).  My primary Windows experience has been the Windows XP.  My primary system is Linux because I am a developer, and I use Windows really only for playing games. That said, I can claim some knowledge of computers.

My entire experience can be summed in two words: just baffling.
  1. Metro versus classic apps: this is a confusing minefield. The metro apps don't show up under Control Panel -> Programs. You can launch them only from the Metro interface, and then they take up the full screen where the UI is hilariously large. One of the applications I used was a third-party webcam application bundled with the computer. It had no close button, no menu bar, and the bottom was filled with immense Fisher-Price buttons. Luckily Alt-F4 still worked and closed the window.
    The real confusion here is that the Windows Taskbar no longer shows Metro applications. So the Task Bar doesn't show all running applications anymore. Alt-Tab moves you through Metro and classic applications, but they might as well be on two different systems. It felt like Metro apps were first-class citizens and classic was a Virtual Machine instance. In this world, why bother with the taskbar anymore?
  2. No overlapping Metro apps. Wow, and this isn't the first time that this was tried.
  3. Within minutes of using the new Start shell, I had to install Classic Start. The entire interface for launching applications is totally horrifically broken. To go into all applications, you have to press the Start button, and then click on the down arrow. Then you get an overwhelming list of every application there is, including websites like eBay.  How on earth are people supposed to navigate through this every time they start a new application?
  4. Settings -> "Search and apps" under the Metro Start shows completely different things from "Settings -> Programs" in the Control Panel in the Classic menu. Not just the names, the actual programs listed in the two is different. The Metro Settings contains programs that take 16kb: magical stuff like 'eBay' and 'Skype' which are most likely URLs. The Control Panel in the Classic menu contains the usual Windows XP items like McAfee, Windows .NET libraries. As far as I see, they have no intersection. "Search and apps" contains Metro apps, some of which are URLs and some of which are real programs. The distinction is deliciously vague, so some of them launch in Firefox, while others start an application.
  5. Screen-gestures to navigate around is retarded. There is no way I can use this on a daily basis without my right arm cramping up. Whoever came up with this probably doesn't use a PC for a living. I suspect the goal is to make it like a tablet: but a tablet use-case is so very different from a PC that they might as well be different appliances. And if you choose to use the trackpad for everything, the pointer traversal to go from one edge of the screen (charms) to the other edge of the screen (switcher) will quickly fatigue your fingers.
  6. UEFI secure boot. You can turn off secure boot to test out Knoppix or Ubuntu. But if you do, you get a prominent error message drawn on top of the bottom right of the screen. As far as I can tell, there is no way to turn off this annoyance. There is a special update to disable this watermark though.
  7. The default theme has insanely fat window borders. I looked for some sort of Classic Windows theme to make my window decorations sane again, but didn't find anything in the five minutes I spent on it. Turns our you either have to edit the registry or download a third-party application to do this.
  8. The menu bar on most Windows applications is the ribbon. Again, no way to turn this into something sane.
The entire operating system feels like a cruel joke. At many points I was amazed that this product actually shipped without someone realizing what a terrible idea this is. I suspect people used it on tablets where this works (better than Windows 7). Then they convinced themselves that PCs would be fixed in the next release and that capturing the tablet market was worth the head-shot to the PC users. The system is a Frankenstein-style collection of Chrome OS, Apple's App Store, and everyone's tablet UI bolted together on top of Windows. It feels like Windows 9 Early Preview Beta rather than Windows 8.

I predict huge adoption problems. This is Vista v2.  Microsoft has a crazy version of Intel's tick-tock cycle  where every alternate Windows is broken. The next release looks like cutting-edge engineering: Windows 95, Windows ME (dud!), XP, Vista (dud!), Windows 7, Windows 8(dud!).

Microsoft isn't alone. Canonical and Gnome tried this same story with Unity.  A team is given the mandate to do something daring, something refreshingly new and bold. They try it, and convince themselves that it works. Either external feedback is not solicited or they believe that once people spend enough time with it, they will grow to like it too. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't have an extra month to re-learn basic computer skills And the real world isn't invested in the Windows 8 outcome. If it doesn't work in the first week, it will be replaced by something that does, perhaps the previous version of the software. Perhaps the competitor's version. Forcing it down people's throat only makes them antagonistic and belligerent. I'm sure Unity is a lot better today. But Canonical's aggressive upgrade has pushed me towards XFCE and KDE.

Computers are an essential tool now.  Online discussions are filled with car-analogies, but that is not even close to reality. Most people spend an hour each day in a car, but many hours in front of a computer. Computers are as essential as your fingers.

Luckily you don't have to spend much money to get a feel for Windows 8. Just use your existing computer while wearing thick gloves.


(Broken Windows image courtesy: Wikipedia)