You've heard about it. You've probably read about it. Maybe you've even tested one of the betas or release previews. Everybody knows: Microsoft are about to release a new version of their behemoth of an operating system: Windows 8. We've seen Microsoft release new versions of Windows before, of course, and there was never much to it, but this time around, it's different. This time around, the largest user base in the history of software is facing a revolution. Microsoft is fundamentally altering the character of their product, and nobody knows what to make of it.
I considered writing a review. I could have, I tried the preview — but I'll just cut straight to the chase: I like it. I think it works. It's a good, well-designed interface, that's perfectly suited to keyboard-and-mouse use if you just give it a chance. Before tackling the more interesting questions, though, I'd like to quote some reviews just to clarify what we're talking about here. Mr Jeff Atwood, of Coding Horror and Stack Overflow fame, has this to say on the subject:
Windows 8 is, in my humble opinion, the most innovative version of Windows Microsoft has released since Windows 95. Maybe ever. And it's good. Really good! I can't remember the last time I was this excited about a Windows release, except when I was kind of obsessively running betas of Windows 95 and waiting for Windows 95 to be released. Don't judge me man!
Okay, so Jeff's just a little excited. But what's it all about? Yesterday's This Is My Next feature on The Verge is a little more explicit.
Using Windows 8 is like living in a house made out of internet. There's a browser, sure (and it's a good one despite being named Internet Explorer), but the whole OS is constantly changing and updating because its every fiber is connected to the internet. As Paul Miller noted last week, the computer itself has morphed from hub to spoke, giving you access to things rather than managing those things itself. Windows 8 fills that role beautifully, and luckily for me I’m not taking a year away from the internet so I get to enjoy the benefits. (…) The Start Screen makes it possible to check a dozen things in five seconds — from any app, just tap the Windows key, and you can check to see if you have a new email, an upcoming appointment, inclement weather, or any breaking news. Tap the Windows key again, and you're back to your original app. Imagine how long checking all of those things would take using Mountain Lion.
With this year's release, Windows is jumping head-first into the post-PC era, and, from what I can see, it's spot on. Microsoft is trying to redefine the personal computer, and their vision makes perfect sense: what the vast majority of Windows users use their computers for is exactly what Windows 8 does well: browsing the web, connecting with friends, looking at photos, watching films, and maybe writing the odd letter or blog post. The new user interface, formerly known as Metro, revolves around content; it says so in Microsoft's design guidelines:
Content is the heart of Metro style apps, and putting content before chrome is fundamental to the design of Metro style apps. Everything else is accessory—or chrome—that helps present and enable interaction with the content.
The Windows 8 based tablet/ultrabook chimæra is a kind of iPad without the limitations, and this is exactly what most computer users today actually need.
But what about the others?
I've been speaking a lot about the majority of users—but what about the others? What about the remaining minority? Who is this minority that is not well-served by Windows 8, and do they matter?
The fact of the matter is: the Windows 8 user interface is so focussed on content consumption that it forgets about content creation. It's so bent on being touch-friendly that it locks out tasks that cannot be accomplished on a tablet. As David Pierce points out in the Verge article I've been quoting,
Photoshop’s not going away any time soon., and Photoshop is never, ever going to be a first-class citizen of the shiny new Windows 8 world. It is not possible to build a graphics program of the calibre of Photoshop with the restriction that it has to work well on tablets.
Yes, the Windows “desktop” is still around, and it's quite possible to run software like Photoshop in it, but it's clearly conceived as a legacy feature. It's so badly integrated into the rest of the system that it's quite clear that you're not supposed to use it if you can help it, and nobody but a philistine yearning for the days of Windows 95 would actually want to use it.
There is a whole range of people who are treated as second-class citizens by Windows 8. Graphic designers. Photographers. Film makers. Architects. Engineers. Scientists. Programmers. Mouse-and-keyboard gamers. What about these people? What's the plan? What are they going to do?
Maybe they'll stick to Windows. After all, it won't actually work any worse than it did, will it? Perhaps, perhaps not. I think there's a real chance that many of the customers that Microsoft don't care about a whole lot will, in fact, turn their backs on Windows, even while millions embrace the new age. The PC gaming industry, reportedly, isn't too keen on Windows 8, and it looks very much like those that don't want to focus on the tablet and phone market are planning an exit strategy. The number of games for Mac OS X has been continuously rising for ages, and chances are that Valve porting Left 4 Dead 2 to Linux isn't an isolated development. The gaming industry is planning for the possibility that much of their clientèle is going to leave Windows in disgust.
What about the creators? From graphic designers to microchip engineers, they make Windows 8 and its content focus possible, but they need the kind of power that Windows 8 doesn't want to intimidate you with. But then, isn't this exactly the market that Apple has been targeting? Haven't the creators been deserting Windows in large numbers for years? Maybe, just maybe, Microsoft have given up on the creative market.
Windows 8 is going to be a smash hit. There will be great devices, great apps, a great experience to be had. It will be a great fit for all those people that need a computer because everybody needs a computer, for all those people that really just want to have a great time on the internet. And yes, some Apple hipsters like David Pierce will switch, because, let's face it, it makes sense. But those that want their computers to be powerful machines with which they can do great things, from the inspired soul that wants to create a masterpiece, to the hedonist gamer thrilled by the idea of making millions of pixels of Max Payne dance across the screen through agile keyboard commands, those, I expect, will prefer to think different. Then again, many of them already do.
And what is going to happen to desktop Linux? I don't know. It may triumph, or it may fall. That may be a topic for a future post.