Windows 8 makes wobbly bridge from desktop to tablet
When it comes to tablet computing, it all starts with the iPad, followed at a great distance by everything else. That’s why there was so much hoopla over Wednesday’s unveiling of Apple Inc.’s newest version.
Still, the rivals keep on coming, and that includes Microsoft Corp. The software giant released a consumer preview last week of the upcoming Windows 8 operating system - its latest, and maybe last, bid to make an impact in the tablet wars while hanging on to faithful users of standard personal computers.
There’s a lot to like here: a finger-friendly user interface inspired by the company’s excellent Windows Phone 7 software and tight integration with Microsoft’s online services. But as a bridge between the PC and the tablet computer, Windows 8 remains a bit too wobbly for my taste, with a design that tries to work on both touch and mouse-driven devices but ends up being an inelegant compromise.
At least it begins easily. Setting up Windows 8 on a brand-new Dell laptop was just about painless, and pretty revealing. Earlier versions of Windows gave you the option to set a user name and password for security purposes. But with Windows 8, you can log on using an account from one of Microsoft’s online products, such as the Hotmail e-mail service, which has 350 million subscribers.
I logged on using Hotmail, and instantly my Windows 8 desktop came to life, linking me with Hotmail messages, listings from my online calendar, and photos I’d uploaded to Skydrive, a Microsoft file storage service.
That should sound familiar if you’ve got a phone or tablet that runs Google Inc.’s Android operating system. Google also offers a one-stop shopping sign-in, so it can shower you with Gmail, Google Calendar, Picasa photo sharing, and other goodies. What Google did was build a lovely little walled garden of online services that few of us would want to leave; but now Microsoft’s built a garden of its own. If I were a Google executive, I might just start to worry.
Windows 8 would have me up nights if I were an Apple exec as well. Who’d have thought that Microsoft could school Apple on user interface design? But the more I see of Windows 8’s interface, the better I like it.
What you get when you launch Windows 8 is a new design concept called Metro, which replaces old-fashioned program icons with tiles - brainy little rectangles that not only identify programs, but also come alive with real-time information updates. You don’t just see an indication that you’ve gotten new mail; you see who sent it and the subject line as well. The calendar tile displays your next appointment; the finance tile shows the latest Dow and Nasdaq numbers.
Microsoft began building Metro for its doomed Zune music player, and ported it to its marvelous but unpopular line of smartphones. Given that Windows 8 will certainly sell hundreds of millions of copies, Metro is about to become the next leap forward in screen interfaces.
The trouble is that Metro was designed for use on tablet computers with touch screens. Microsoft has diligently tried to make it work on mouse-and-keyboard computers, and with some success. But it made certain design choices that will inevitably frustrate traditionalists, beginning with the death of the Start button.
There’s no longer an obvious go-to icon that lets you access vital controls. Instead, you drag the mouse over to the lower left corner and glide upward along the edge to reveal miniature icons of the programs currently running in the background. Move to the right to unveil a control menu. Some of the layout decisions are a complete puzzlement.
For years, people have mocked Windows because it makes you press Start to shut off the computer. Under Windows 8, the off switch is buried in the Settings menu, a decision that seems every bit as odd.
Metro tiles take you to the standard Windows 7 desktop, except for the lack of a Start button. I bet that’s how most nontablet users will run Windows 8, until Microsoft figures a way to make Metro a more natural fit for keyboard and mouse.
Too bad, because Windows 8’s future is mostly on the desktop. Microsoft knows that, which explains Windows 8’s uneasy, compromised design. But compromise is no way to loosen Apple’s grip on the tablet market.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.