Windows 8 signals transition to a touchscreen world2012-11-27
Windows 8 reviews are decidedly mixed. Some claim sales are disappointing, although StatCounter data suggests Microsoft’s new operating system has already surpassed Android as a Web client. Controversy has arisen over the Surface RT, with some surprised that the tablet won’t run legacy Windows applications (the Surface Pro, due sometime next year, will do that).
Most of the complaints about Windows 8, though, have to do with the overhaul of an interface that has remained fundamentally the same since the launch of Windows 95, which introduced the iconic Start button, ever-present in the lower left-hand corner. Confounded by the start button’s disappearance, many have paid for a third-party add-on to bring it back. There’s also consternation over other parts of the OS that require people to learn new ways to find and do things.
It’s the new Vista, some have proclaimed, comparing Windows 8 to the operating system everybody skipped, opting to stick with Windows XP until Windows 7 came along. Reports are circulating that companies are not adopting Windows 8, but whether that remains true in a year or two remains to be seen. Few companies upgrade upon the first release of a new OS, waiting for the product to mature a bit and running it in test environments before deploying company-wide.
That’s okay. Microsoft has proclaimed that it is committed to Windows 8 for the long haul. That’s a smart move, since after using the new OS for a couple weeks, I recognize that it’s an important step forward during a turbulent transitional period. More than anything else, Windows 8 is an acknowledgment of our irrevocable move to a gesture-activated touchscreen-centric world.
Touchscreens have been with us for more than 20 years in guises such as office building directories and point-of-sale displays. But it took Apple’s introduction of the iPhone—followed by the iPad—to demonstrate the common sense of touchscreens as the interface for our personal devices, and Google sealed the deal by making Android a full-fledged alternative.
Neither serves all that well as a complete operating system, though. iOS is just row after row, screen after screen of static icons, while Android—though I love it—can be needlessly complicated when it comes to settings and configurations; sales of the Android-fueled Chromebook haven’t exactly been burning up the charts.
The engineers at Microsoft looked to the future, when touchscreens would be ubiquitous on our desks as well as in our pockets, to devise Windows 8. And while it may perplex those accustomed to mouse-driven control, the new OS will pick up considerable steam as that transition to a touchscreen environment gains steam. Microsoft will also undoubtedly continue to tweak the system as it learns more about how the touchscreen is used across the PC/laptop/tablet/smartphone ecosystem.
The Windows 8 laptop I bought—the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist—offers a touchscreen in both the clamshell laptop mode and in its tablet configuration. Sure, I lamented the loss of the start button for a while. But rather than install a third-party replacement, I got to know the new start page. It takes some getting used to, but there’s a point at which the light bulb turned on (it took about an hour) and I recognized that this approach is actually easier than the old mouse-driven design.
When lamenting the Windows 8 learning curve, a lot of critics point to the out-of-the-box simplicity of the iPhone and iPad. It’s true; you don’t have to spend any time learning how to use it. But does that make it better, or just simpler? There are scads of examples of products whose utility is unlocked by taking a few minutes to learn how to use all their features. A lot of Windows 8’s power is not evident on the start screen, but a simple leftward swipe from the right edge of the screen drags the Charms sidebar into view. From here, the tap-type combination that has become so routine on other devices works brilliantly with a robust search function (one of the easiest ways to find the tool, file or setting you need). The Charms context adjusts to whatever tool, file or setting you’re using. For instance, from the start page, search is universal. From within the Wikipedia app, search is confined to Wikipedia.
The tiles design—what Microsoft used to call Metro—also is a touchscreen delight. The tiles are easily configured, grouped and labeled. Swiping and tapping makes accessing content and tools a breeze. And the live tiles mean you can see everything from news headlines and weather to messages from contacts without having to open a browser or app. Again, you can configure which tiles appear on the home screen so that irrelevant real-time messages don’t become a distraction. Live tiles, though, meld the real-time and social nature of the Web directly into the OS home screen.
Switching between the start screen and the desktop also becomes intuitive, to the point that it no longer seems like a switch at all, just the normal function of the system. The tiny Start button that has anchored every version of Windows for the last 17 years was designed for the mouse. Once you’ve moved to touch, who needs it? Of course, since so many applications are also designed with the mouse in mind, during this period of transition the mouse continues to function well even as its utility begins to fade.
For those without a touchscreen, there is an ample supply of inexpensive devices like touch pads that mimic touchscreen gestures. And you can manage the system with a mouse, although clearly the intent is to be well-positioned as the dominant OS by the time the mouse has become a quaint antiquated interface device. It’s already leap years ahead of the Apple desktop OS, which doesn’t accommodate touch at all, and is far more powerful than the limited, icon-centric iOS.
Some critics have argued that there’s no need for a common operating system across multiple devices. I agree. On the other hand, if someone figures out how to produce a consistent interface that works well across all devices—as Microsoft has—it only makes life easier.
By no means am I suggesting that Windows 8 is perfect. As the first touchscreen OS for computers aimed at the mass consumer market, it’s clearly a work in progress. Critics are also focusing their ire on the Windows Store, home of an anemic supply of fee and free apps. The same complaint, however, was leveled at Android during its early days, which initially offered a woefully limited number of apps. As the user base grew, though, so did the inventory of apps; nobody shrugs off Android today over app availability and the Samsung Galaxy S III alone is outselling the iPhone. As app developers acknowledge the size of the Windows 8 user base, the number of apps will increase. The current storehouse of apps is no reason to expect windows 8 to fail.
Instead, by establishing itself as the de facto touchscreen system for general computing, Windows 8 is positioned to become a significant force. Microsoft is wise to be patient, shrug off proclamations of Windows 8’s failure, continue adjusting and enhancing the OS and promoting the benefits of moving to the touch world to which we’re all headed.