Saturday, October 27, 2012

Windows 8

First Impressions of Windows 8

Note: This is the first in a series of posts on Windows 8 and my impressions of the new OS and what it will mean for the average user.  Considering the furor among users and the controversy that has attached to this newest revised OS from Microsoft, the subject just begs to be covered, and here we are!  It may interest you to know that this post was created on a notebook running Windows 8.

I. On Solid Ground with Windows 8

My first exposure to Windows 8 was at an official event, hosted by Microsoft, in which the entire point was to introduce the assembled agents of the Fourth Estate to their newest OS.  The approach that was used and the content of the briefing made it clear that the event was more than simply an opportunity for the news media to get a look-see at the new OS, it was carefully structured and produced as an indoctrination experience -- the host did not merely wish to expose us to the new OS, they wanted us to leave the briefing holding a specific view of the Operating System.  

It should not surprise you to learn that I don't like it when PR's attempt to manage us, and I especially do not like it when they work so hard to slant our impressions of the product that they are showing us in such a way so as to guarantee that we will form a specific impression.  To say that this is not how the briefing process is supposed to work is gross understatement, and under normal circumstances a company like Microsoft would never attempt such a thing, but as you will soon see, these were not normal circumstances.

It was quickly clear that their big concern was largely the manner in which we would, as a group and individually, perceive the new interface and how it will impact the users.  It was important to the hosts to see to it that we had ample opportunity to form opinions that went deeper than simply first impressions -- and I completely understand why they felt this was so urgent a concern; first impressions for most of the journos present were not positive.  The thing is, as is often the case in this type of situation, once you delve deeper into the experience there is a deeper experience to have, and in the end I am convinced that none of the attendees present would have walked away with the intentions of restricting what they wrote to just their first impressions -- after all that is not what we do, and it is not what we are paid to do!

I am convinced that had our hosts simply maintained faith in the men and women that they had invited to the briefing -- that we would do more than simply take a brief look and then write about it -- the end result would have been just as informative but would not have the taint of being handled attached to it.  After the briefing I gathered with the small group from the New England region -- most of them being writers I knew from other publications, and we found an Italian bistro in Manhattan (not hard to do) where we broke bread and discussed the experience that we had that morning -- and we all pretty much felt the same way.  

Ignoring for the moment that none of us relished the experience of being handled by the PR's the important point is that we went away from the experience with a better understanding of what Microsoft was trying to accomplish with their new interface, and it was not the handful of fluff reasons that had previously been making the rounds  online.  The new Windows experience was not the representation of Microsoft's belief that PC consumers would be making the switch to tablet and touch-based computing in large numbers, and while the new interface does strongly leverage that sort of computing experience, it also works fine with a mouse.  I am not going to head in the direction of exploring the intentions now -- that will come later -- but you should know that this new OS is not what it appears to be.  Not at all.

-- A Radically New Interface --

At least part of the problem that Microsoft faced with their new OS was the issue revolving around its entirely new and different interface.  The engineers in Redmond decided to make the next big thing in Windows an entirely new experience for the users, but in the doing of it they did not start out from a blank position -- in fact the interface is heavily influenced by a combination of the most popular mobile interfaces and the interface that is present on Microsoft's other big thing: the Xbox 360.

Describing the new interface in simple terms is.. Well...  Simple.  It is a screen that is made up of different sized square content-filled buttons that is virtually expandable by scrolling to the right, and inside of each square can be live and changing content that relates specifically to the program, app, or subject of the square.  Before we go deeper into the meaning of all this, we should examine that last point.

The screen that holds all of those squares is called the "Start Screen" and it replaces the Start Button that Windows users are very familiar with -- in fact that is the most disturbing element of the changes that have taken place between Windows 7 and Windows 8 -- the entire point to that exercise being to take the most popular objects, apps, and programs (or actions) and give them a dedicated square within which content that is related to the subject can then be displayed.

A good example of this is the square that represents your photo folder on your hard drive.  You know it is your photo folder because it is labeled "Photos" and because it morphs into a slide-show of your photos.  That is actually a pretty cool feature assuming you do not also keep your collection of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader photos in that directory folder -- if you do you may want to move it, because the square is very visible to anyone glancing at the screen.  Just saying.

Other squares may contain news photos for the news square, gaming icons for the games square -- you should be getting the idea.   The point to all of this is that in addition to representing a wide selection of the different types of uses that the average computer user puts their computer to, the Start Screen is meant to make accessing each of those tasks faster, since the user does not have to go looking inside nested menus or other folders to find the icon that they need to click on to run that app or function.

So far this is turning out to be a pretty slick idea, and if they had left it at that, and retained the basic structure of the desktop that most users are used to, this could have been a brilliant coup for the Windows Team.  But they did not.

-- The Desktop as App --

Rather than retain the focus of the OS as a desktop-centric element, the desktop in Windows 8 appears as another app, complete with a square in the lower left corner of the Start Screen.  This is an obvious destination if the user intends to run a program that belongs on the desktop, but once they open it a new series of surprises is in store, most of them not good. 

The first and very obvious change is the absence of the Start Button.  That may not sound like all that big a deal at first blush, but considering the fact that the Start Button on the previous versions of the OS was the literal "Go To Button" around which pretty much every aspect of using the computer was focused, it is a big deal indeed for most users.  Primarily because their comfort level has been destroyed and the one constant and the element that they fully understood and appreciated the use and function of is now ripped out of the environment to great effect.  What do I mean?

When you want to access the Administrative Tools on Windows, that process begins with the Start Button.  When you want to run an app that does not (for whatever reason) have an icon on the Desktop, you use the Start Button.  Reviewing the contents of a specific class of software was always accomplished via the Start Button -- the list goes on, but the bottom line is that this is no longer an available option and there is no way to get it back.  The bulk of the complaints -- the very vocal and very angry complaints -- that we are seeing online this weekend (remember Windows 8 just launched yesterday) focus on this issue.

The thing is that as it turns out, with the new structure of Windows 8, the missing Start Button is really not that big a deal after all.  Assuming you are willing to learn a different way of navigating your computer that is.  Yeah, you read that right -- I am saying that the issue that has practically the entire computing world angry is really a non-issue.

The important thing to understand is that there has been a paradigm shift with respect to the entire desktop and its focus on the PC.  The basic and fundamental position respective of it is altered to present the desktop as simply another tool element on the computer, and pushes it back to the position of being simply the home for apps that require a desktop, rather than being the focus for the PC.  If that is confusing, stop and read it again, and think about what it is saying.

The idea is really to refocus our attention on how we use the computer and why we used it the way that we did -- and why we can use it in a new way, and benefit from that new way of thinking about the PC and its environment.  If you are starting to gather the impression that I think Microsoft may have a point here, well, I do.  That is not to say that I am a Microsoft fanboy -- I am not -- but I am also not the sort of tech weenie who dismisses something just because I don't like the way it was presented, and I especially am not going to discount a new idea simply because it flies in the face of what I am used to.

-- A Good Place to Pause --

There is a lot to take in with the new Windows, and this is as good a place to pause in this exploration as any.  The lesson to be learned here is to start from a position of a new view, and getting used to the idea that change is not always bad, and not always good -- sometimes it is just necessary -- and in the case of the new interface for Windows 8, when you step back and look at the big picture (which by the time this series of posts is complete you will easily be able to do) it becomes a lot easier to appreciate the approach that has been taken, and the reasons for it -- issues we will start to examine in the next post...

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