Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Windows 8 is the next Microsoft Bob

I just installed the Windows 8 preview in a VM and tried it out.  My first impression: these people do not get it.

Here’s the deal: Windows 8 is basically Windows 7 with the Windows Phone Metro UI slapped on top of it.  To be fair, Windows 7 isn’t a bad OS.  I’m a Mac person, and all of my personal work is on a Mac (or iPad), but I also use a Windows 7 machine for my day job, and I’ve been using some variety of Windows for my job for decades now.  (I’m not saying I love Windows 7, but it’s relatively stable, and some of the major rough edges have been smoothed over.  I could write a book about all of the philosophical problems I have with the Windows paradigm in general, but I could also write a book using a Windows 7 machine, and I have.)  Duct-taping this huge piece of Metro on top of it hasn’t doubled system requirements and it doesn’t eat up major CPU or memory.  For the most part, if your system ran Windows 7 fine, you can expect somewhat similar performance in Windows 8.

The Metro UI: either you love it or you hate it.  I personally don’t like it; I think it looks like a poor attempt at a Star Trek: The Next Generation theme, and I don’t understand how all of this swiping and tiling is supposed to simplify life.  Based on the number of ardent fanboys furiously masturbating all over this new paradigm, maybe there’s something there.  Based on the abysmal sales of the Windows Phone, maybe not.  But if you are one of the people who are in love with this UI, the good news is that it’s now glued on top of your Windows interface.  If all of your apps are using the Metro interface, and you’ve got a touchscreen, you can interact with your PC just like your phone.

And there are two caveats right there.  Most people don’t have a touchscreen monitor.  And I personally barely want to lift my hands off the home row of my keyboard and go to my mouse; it would be an ergo nightmare to have to stop and pause and reach for the screen and pinch and grab and zoom and flick and swipe every god damned time I wanted to look at the clock or switch between apps or cut and paste or whatever.  Presumably there will be some keyboard shortcuts, but I foresee this as being a huge pain in the ass.  Plus you have to go drop another three or four hundred bucks (or more) to go get a new monitor?  No thanks.

And one of the great strengths of Windows is the ninety-eight zillion programs already written for it.  Roughly 17 of them will use this new Metro interface at launch.  That timesheet program you have to use at work that looks like it was written for Windows 3.1 is still going to look like it was written for Windows 3.1, but your magical world of touching and swiping and spinning and scratching isn’t going to work so well with its mess of radio buttons and drop-down lists that were all the rage in 1996.  And if you don’t have a mouse to fall back on and just have your fat fingers and that touch screen, forget it.

If you are a power user, and you do need to use the old fashioned mouse and keyboard, you’re probably going to shut off Metro and go back to Windows 7 and the Start menu and the same old same old.  If there’s an easy way to do this, fine.  But this means that Windows 8 offers no compelling upgrade from Windows 7, and there are going to be tons of Windows 7 faithfuls for years to come, just like there were millions hanging on to their XP systems as Vista marched on.

This system-wrapping is reminiscent of Microsoft Bob, Compuserve Wow, the harsh coexistence of DOS console programs in a Windows world, and every other attempt to reskin the complex world of Windows and dumb it down so it’s so easy your mom can do it.  You can create a really cool interface that looks like the fuckin’ Minority Report computer, but when you fire up that garbage income tax program your bank sticks you with, at best it will turn the whole experience sideways and clutter up the whole thing.  Or, maybe it won’t work at all.  Windows 8 does have a fallback, essentially running a Windows 7 desktop and explorer in its own sandboxed metro app.  But it’s as elegant as if you were browsing away on your iPad and a DOS window popped up and started a copy of WordPerfect 5.1, and you had to figure out how the hell to do a Shift-f7 on a keyboardless tablet while a white on cyan monstrosity of a window took over your display.

Here’s the bigger problem: if you are on a tablet, why do you need to bring an entire desktop OS with you?  Everyone’s talking about how Windows 8 will be the “iPad killer”, but if Microsoft thinks this Metro UI is so great, why aren’t they taking a version of the OS running on Windows Phone and scaling it up to a tablet?  When I pull out my iPad and want to look up a movie time or find out what year Leon Czolgosz was executed, I press a button and the screen is instantly on.  When I sit down for a day of work at my Windows 7 laptop, I give it the three-finger salute and wait and wait and wait and watch Macaffee scan my crap and wait and wait and eventually get to my desktop.  Why would you haul around the entire Windows 8 OS on a stripped down computer meant for quick interaction?

And why would you set your minimum system requirements for a tablet OS so high?  The iPad is a different system architecture than Windows(*), but if you could run Windows 8 on it, it would be godawful slow, and would need double the RAM and double the disk space.  And yes, the fanboys will say “well, maybe Apple sucks for releasing such a crappy tablet then.”  Sure, but how is someone going to release a competitor with roughly double the specs, and come in at a price point that doesn’t seem outrageous?  And if you do release a nicely-equipped-for-Win8 tablet, how much is it going to weigh?  How long will the battery last?  (Real world example: Lenovo has a ThinkPad tablet that uses a core i3 processor, has 4gb of memory, and a 320gb hard drive – a real, not SSD hard drive, mind you.  It’s about an inch and a half thick, compared to the iPad’s half-inch, weighs in at about four pounds versus the iPad’s 1.5, and costs about twice as much.  You may say it’s an unfair comparison because the Thinkpad is basically a full laptop cut down into a tablet, but then you can’t run Windows on a lightweight tablet like an iPad, which is my point.)

I said (*) because the iPad uses the A4, which is an ARM processor; Microsoft has said that there will be an ARM version of Windows 8.  That’s good news for tablets.  That means you might be able to use a cheaper/faster machine that’s more optimized for a tablet than your x86/64 Intel hardware.  It also means (but is unclear) that the ARM version of Windows 8 might be stripped down or more lightweight, to fit on a cheaper machine.  The bad news is that those ninety-eight zillion programs that work on your desktop Windows machine won’t work on your tablet.  You’ll need to buy new versions of everything, and that’s assuming that your software will be available in an ARM version.  That obscure timesheet program you’re forced to use?  Not available for ARM.  And sure, it’s not available for the iPad either, but this large base of software that’s a major strength to Windows is suddenly gone.

Tablets are not desktop computers.  Desktop computers are not tablets.  You use a tablet to browse the web or plink away at a text word processor or play Angry Birds.  You spend 90% of your time in a browser looking at facebook or watching YouTube; you don’t need a god damned supercomputer for this.  Yes, Microsoft fanboy, the iPad can’t run AutoCad and can’t render trillions of polygons a second, just like the Toyota Yaris can’t do 0-60 in under three seconds or haul around a concert grand piano.  Does that mean the Toyota isn’t a useful, easy, cost-effective way to drive to the mall?  Does everyone need to buy a $160,000 supercar to drive to the mall?

And why not have different interfaces for different machines?  Do motorcycle manufacturers put steering wheels and gas pedals on their bikes to offer a seamless interface between customers with both machines?  Why does my shower have this confusing two-knob system for mixing hot and cold water?  I’m a computer user; why can’t it have a QUERTY keyboard and a mouse to make the interface seamless?  Or maybe my computer should have a Hot and Cold knob, and for the 90% of the time I can’t run an app with those, I can switch over to a keyboard?

Or maybe because my next little Toyota should have a similar architecture to a large moving truck I’d use to haul around furniture.  They should make a car to compete with the Smart that contains a full-sized big-block V-8 engine.  And then, to make it cost effective, they could detune that thousand-pound engine in a 1500-pound car so it only puts out 61 horsepower, and everyone’s a winner.  Right?

Sorry, I don’t get it.  I don’t see how Microsoft is going to catch up to the hundred million iPads already sold with this strategy.