Microsoft

Decipher fact from fiction: Deconstructing the debut of Windows 8

The debut of Windows 8 has everyone talking, but do they really know what they are talking about. Deb Shinder deciphers fact from fiction for you.

Last week at All Things Digital's D9 conference in California, Microsoft Windows and Windows Live Division president Steve Sinofsky introduced the next version of the Windows OS to the world. And what a coming-out party it was. The guest of honor was all dressed up in a brand new Metro-style GUI, putting to shame all those reports earlier this year (based on leaked screenshots of early builds) that this would be only a "minor update" of Windows 7.

Since that presentation, there have been countless analyses of what we saw, ranging from straight "just the facts" reporting to some pretty wild speculation, peppered with lots of opinions. One thing we know: Microsoft got everybody talking about Windows again, and for a company that many pundits had begun to label irrelevant, that's a good thing.

This week and next, I'll be sharing some of my thoughts in the wake of this debut of a whole new Windows - beginning with its name.

An OS by any other name ...

Prior to this official unveiling, Microsoft has tried to keep a tight lid on all the details of the Windows release that Steve Ballmer called Microsoft's "riskiest product bet." Those within the company weren't even calling it Windows 8, despite the widespread use of that moniker in the tech press.

In fact, it was interesting to me that Sinofsky, when pressed by Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg at D9, said "we're just going to call it a code name"- although when Steve Ballmer called it Windows 8 at a developer's conference in Japan last month, that prompted many reports that the name had been confirmed. Sinofsky has previously referred to it as "the Next Windows" or "Windows vNext." During the demo, he called it "this build of Windows."

All this makes one wonder if there is disagreement within the company about the name, or if they just haven't made the final decision yet.

It's obvious that the company has at least settled on Windows 8 as the official code name. A video of Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for Windows User Experience that demonstrates the UI, is titled "Building Windows 8."

Does it even matter? After all, a rose by any other name would smell the same - but Microsoft isn't selling roses. They're selling software in a market that is becoming increasingly competitive. In the marketing world, names matter a lot.

Marketing is an area in which Microsoft hasn't always excelled - and it's something that Apple does very well. The naming scheme for OS X (Tiger, Leopard, Lion) conjures up the image of something that's sleek and fast and powerful.

On the other hand, Microsoft has been all over the map when it comes to naming Windows. First we had version numbers (1.0 through 3.11), then year numbers (95, 98, 2000), a couple of two-letter labels (NT, ME, XP), then Vista (which Microsoft probably would like to just delete from the timeline altogether), and finally, full circle back to version numbers again with Windows 7 (well, sort of. The actual version number is 6.1).

As an OS name, Windows 8 has some advantages: It's short and sweet and simple; it clearly identifies this version as the successor to Windows 7 and, perhaps most important, it's already firmly established in the public mind. Let's just hope Microsoft doesn't find itself behind the 8-ball with the new OS.

If Microsoft does decide to break away and go with a "real name" again, rather than a number, I hope they'll get a good theme going like Apple has, and give us some continuity. Given their "all in" philosophy, maybe they should name future operating systems after types of clouds. Windows Cirrus, anyone?

Stay on top of the latest Microsoft Windows tips and tricks with TechRepublic's Windows Desktop newsletter, delivered every Monday and Thursday.

Does this really change everything?

Whatever its name ends up being, as Walt Mossberg noted during the demo, the new Windows looks very different from previous incarnations. From its v1.0 beginnings, Windows has been menu-centric. Although the look changed and got more refined over the years, most tasks were performed by clicking a menu, which opened up a list of selections. This works fine with a mouse or trackball, but on touchscreens, not so much - especially if the screen is small.

That's one of the reasons Windows-based tablets never really caught on (along with the premium prices that the early tablet vendors put on them). It's also the reason Windows Mobile was so frustrating for its users. Putting a desktop interface on a handheld device just didn't work - at least, not well.

And that's the reason Apple so often gets the credit for "changing everything" with the introduction of the iPhone and iPad. The Apple devices succeeded where others (including Apple's own previous stab at the tablet market with the Newton) failed. That happened because they stopped trying to make a small device that worked like a desktop computer (and thus needed an input device such as a stylus to emulate the mouse) and designed iOS for a whole new way of doing things.

I read one commentary claiming that Windows 8 just "copycats" Apple. While that might be true in a very broad sense (it will have integrated touch support; it's rumored that it will have an app store), that's a bit like saying GM copied Ford because they started building cars with four wheels and a steering wheel in 1908, after Ford did it first in 1896.

If you watched the D9 demo, you know that Windows 8 looks nothing like either Mac OS X or iOS. The Apple products are still icon-based, whereas Windows 8 uses "live tiles" instead. At first glance, it might seem as if tiles are just big square icons that butt up more closely against each other - but the difference is in how the tiles behave, providing you with information without the need to open the program a tile represents.

In addition, tiles don't only represent "apps." A tile can also represent a particular website, a specific social networking contact, a location on the map, etc. You can pin tiles to your screen (we no longer seem to be calling it a "desktop") and arrange them in groups for better organization.

This doesn't copy Apple, but of course it's not entirely new, either. Microsoft uses the live tile concept on Windows Phone 7, which was first introduced in February 2010 at the Mobile World Congress. The phone OS also draws on elements from the interface on the Zune music player.

But the basic look of the new Metro UI goes back further than that - it's very familiar to fans of Windows Media Center. In fact, when I first saw the WMC edition of Windows XP, I said Microsoft should extend the pretty interface of the Media Center application to the whole OS. Who knew they were listening?

In addition to the WMC/Windows Phone 7 look and feel, Windows 8 includes some innovative elements that we haven't seen before, such as the split keyboard that will make it easier to thumb-type on a tablet-sized device.

In the D9 demo Sinofsky's co-presenter, Vice President Julie Larson-Green, said this is the biggest change to Windows since the switch from Windows 3.x to Windows 95. I would go even further. From the user experience point of view, this could almost rival the move from MS-DOS to Windows.

Does one design fit all?

While some are accusing Microsoft of copying Apple with Windows 8, others - including our own Jason Hiner - think they didn't copy Apple enough. In his Windows 8 analysis titled One Thing Right and Two Things Wrong, he takes issue with Sinofsky's stated "no compromise" approach and says Microsoft should have created a separate tablet OS as Apple did with iOS. He argues that because it didn't work so well to put Windows 7, which was created for the desktop, on tablets, it won't work to put the touch-friendly Windows 8 on the desktop.

I'm not so sure of that. Based on Sinofsky's demo, Windows 8 will offer a lot of flexibility. On the desktop, it can be touch-centric. Or it can operate as a mouse-and-keyboard OS. Or it can combine the best of both of those worlds, allowing you to interact via touch for some tasks and via traditional input devices for others. The presentation made it clear that the taskbar and menus are still lurking in there, for those who just feel more comfortable with the "old way" or who need that capability due to the lack of a touchable monitor.

I think that was a good decision. Following the demo, I heard several people bemoan the fact that the "old house" (Windows 7 style appearance with the taskbar) hasn't been done away with completely. Apparently they have never worked with real users in the real world. I have, and while some users happily embrace a new interface, many others want the option to reap the under-the-hood benefits of a new OS without a drastic change in its look and feel (hence the popularity of the "Windows Classic" theme). Giving both groups what they want is part of the "no compromise" stance.

Had Sinofsky asked me, I wouldn't have called it that, though. When you build a product as with everything else in life, there are always some compromises. I'd have labeled it something like "full flexibility" - because that's really what it's about.

I want to be able to sit on the plane or a park bench and browse the Web, check my mail, or watch a video on my slate. I want to be able to go to a meeting and take handwritten notes. Then when I get to the hotel room and need to get serious work done, I want to be able to plug in a keyboard and mouse and get down to business - without having to bring along multiple devices. I want something that lets me both consume and create content, and does the two equally well. I want the best of both worlds.

Jason worries that in trying to do the job of both desktop and tablet, Windows 8 will do neither very well. That position makes sense if you assume that there will be only one "flavor" of Windows 8. But I'm guessing we'll see several different editions, as we do with Windows 7. And I think the edition that's designed to run on ARM devices will be leaner and meaner than the one that's made for enterprise desktops - while still able to do much of what full-fledged Windows can do, if that's what you need.

I think sometimes hard core techies forget how important it is, to ordinary users, to be able to run the programs with which they're familiar. Microsoft's assurance that everything that runs on Windows 7 will run on Windows 8 is a big deal to those people, and just might be the deciding factor when they're faced with the decision of which tablet to buy.

I like my Android tablet a lot, but I sometimes get frustrated with its limitations. I ditched the iPad after a few months because its functionality was even more limited. I'm excited about the possibility of more continuity across my desktop, laptop and slate, without sacrificing usability or performance. Will Microsoft pull that off? I don't know, but if they can, it could put Windows out front in both the desktop and tablet games.

Next Week:

Is there more to Windows 8 than just a pretty (inter)face? And what about the cloud?

More reading:

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

21 comments
Tronn
Tronn

Thank you very much, Mrs. Shinder!! This was the absolute best article on Windows 8 thus far! Please keep up the great work!!! I'll keep following!

silversurfer310
silversurfer310

Debra, i just wantd 2 thnk you 4 all your past contributing articles over the yrs! i have really learned alot from what you have had 2 say on a whole litany of computer subjects! i just wantd 2 say thnk you 4 all your work! james (silversurfer310@shaw.ca).

poultrygeist
poultrygeist

The thought makes me have run away thoughts of working at a fast food register.

blackepyon01
blackepyon01

As long as it has the "Clasic interface" I can make do. If I wanted it to look like a Mac, wouldn't I just get a Mac?

Walthy
Walthy

Debra, I agree with your description of your perfect PC. Mobile and touch screen, and yet can do desktop work. I'm really excited about the possibilities with the Ultra laptops talked about in the last week. I have an HP tablet PC which I love. I don't need the DVD, and I would love a keyboard that is detachable. Half the weight would be good and better battery life. I still want a full Windows machine and not an underpowered netbook, but the mobility is important. I need one machine that can do it all at around 2-3 lbs and would love at least a 12 inch screen, but smaller will work if I can attach it to a speedy dock with keyboard and monitor at home (I'm getting old). I do support work at several locations so I really need the keyboard most of the time, but separable would be fine. The units using the keyboard as a screen protector seem perfectly legit to me. A double screen with touch keyboard would be fine also. How about a Pixel Qi (pixelqi.com) screen for outdoor use in bright sunlight and ultra low power?

mswift
mswift

Microsoft should get smart here. Call it Windows Red and donate a significant proportion of gross sales to eliminating aids and starvation. Gates has done a good job of this personally. The whole company could become a good citizen of the world by doing this.

Rndmacts
Rndmacts

More insinuations that Microsoft copied from Apple and Google, Live Tiles were introduced with WP7 which introed the Metro interface, Apple's new OS just announced has what looks to be a direct ripoff of look and feel of metro on its desktop. Everybody is assuming that the desktop OS and the tablet OS will have the same interface, funny from what I heard is the OS will poll the hardware and install the version appropriate to that equipment. The metro interface will be a user decision to install on hardware that isn't touch enabled. There is not going to be a mad rush to purchase touch monitors, they are still expensive to purchase. While the demo showed a large screen, the actual unit where the OS was demonstrated was a tablet. I can see Microsoft introducing a small touch screen/mouse device to enable the touch capabilities in the Metro interface. I like Metro on my wp7 smartphone and would like it with a tablet but as for my notebook and my desktop PC, I think I will prefer my Win 7 UI, I have mobility issues with my shoulders and elbows so reaching for a monitor screen would be excruciatingly painful if that were the sole interface.

blarman
blarman like.author.displayName 1 Like

No real difference. The biggest thing I see is that Apple and Android understand that there is a significant difference in how you USE a tool: a pair of needle-nose pliers is different from a pair of locking pliers even though they are similar. I see operating systems the same way: they are a tool used to manage the hardware and launch the applications I need to use. If you make the OS easier to use for a specific task, you make it harder to use for another: specialization does that. That's why the "everything and the kitchen sink approach" used by Microsoft makes such a disaster out of things. Apple and Android understand that access to keyboard and mouse change EVERYTHING about how to use a computerized device and designed their interfaces accordingly. Microsoft may be able to put together an OS that has tiles. Whoopee. What will be the real acid test is to see if the OS #1 can run on mobile platforms and #2 still allows for different input styles (keyboard vs motion).

sales
sales like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

The iPad and iPhone' OS isn't on Apple's Desktop or Laptops, is it? Then what makes MS think that Mobile 7 Tiles will work on the Desktop. I for one use my system for business and pleasure, and I don't ever see myself having a touchscreen on my desktop. Tiles don't work for business use, they may be used as an addition due to the 'Live' aspect of them, but not as the sole means of navigation.

gcomputeronet
gcomputeronet

I already have a touch screen on my desktop. I know of several others with touch screen desktops, including a business using them daily. The future is touch, legacy will be available for a while yet, but the need to include both is there. I'm sure the touch UI can be turned off via some selections in add/remove windows features.

09wwuer0sdvfojkasdfk
09wwuer0sdvfojkasdfk

2012 try typing in the dark some more

seanferd
seanferd

and amusingly cop to the error in your edit as well. Just FYI. I'd love a back-lit keyboard myself.

09wwuer0sdvfojkasdfk
09wwuer0sdvfojkasdfk like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

The new UI is fine with me. What isn't okay is the perpetual delay from Redmond of delivering the actual product to market. This (at least the tablet version) was supposed to be ready by holiday season this year, maybe January 2008 (per Dell's leak). Now the accepted date by most journalists is "late next year." Microsoft and Windows will never regain lost markets (netbooks, tablets) and will most assuredly lose major market share to Apple with its tight integration of products. Once again, the best ideas and research come from Microsoft, yet they cannot ever get the product out the door. Think I am wrong? Mango will arrive ONE YEAR after WP7 is released to the public. Google Chrome has already had three updates since IE9 was delivered a few short weeks ago. The iPad 3 will be here by Christmas. Under Ballmer, Microsoft has become a slow-moving behemouth incapable of responding to competition or settnig the bar with the release of its innovations. This time next year, when Windows 8 "arrives," Microsoft will be on par with Novell. Once the leader, now not even a second thought. This is what happens when you put a snake-oil salesman in charge of the world's largest tech company.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Weren't they always. I mean, it's been a long time since Bill wrote any code. Did you know that his vision for the company was to make smaller code than anyone else? That is what Microsoft means. Small software. He used to write highly optimised code with everything you need and nothing you don't. Then he hired a team of programmers and turned them over to the marketing dept...

amj2010
amj2010

We all know the debacle of w6 vista called, it was a mesh, hastetily constructed to beat the competition,, after a while it finally worked properly, while constructing another ploy weeseven,, which was in reality Vista Finalised and Updated. Now amper done, MS comes up with another thing which is lagging far behind Apple's progress, what will they prove? tell me....

stevebsame
stevebsame like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Hmmm, not so many facts in this "fact from fiction" article, 2 pages in and still covering speculation over what it Might be called, moving on to mostly cover more rumour, speculation and opinion. Perhaps a better title would have been "What people are saying about .... "

Sbostedor
Sbostedor like.author.displayName 1 Like

This is absolutely nothing like anything that Apple would ever even think of putting out. Microsoft has innovated a great design here and there is very little that is shared with Apple. We did a big run through of it on @itunwrapped and I wasn't shy about saying that products like this very well reel me back into being a Windows fanboy again/

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop like.author.displayName 1 Like

Great job guys. I dig the new touch interface. I am in the traditional interface camp. I like windows 7 and I never was an XP addict. I even tried Vista and it worked for me (Because I made it work). I have no interest in a touch screen desktop and I don't want the extra bloat for that ability to sit forever unused like windows media center. I want separate versions. Call the new one Windows Touch and make Windows 8 the desktop version. Don't mix up the names or make it one thing because you will end up confusing people and having a larger image in the end. The installer could give you options of which image you want to deploy or an "add and remove features" type of selection. This way I can get the parts I will use without the parts I won't.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

There is sure is a lot riding Windows 8. Do you think Microsoft can pull it off? Can one operating system work across so many platforms or is Microsoft dreaming?

BurningLamp
BurningLamp like.author.displayName 1 Like

I think Microsoft might just be able to pull this off. It's all about being able to build the different 'flavors' of the OS to work on the different platforms, like Debra said. The user experience of Win 8 should be quite flexible as it allows for both touch and traditional input. I think this can stabilize user experiences (and expectations) across devices, allowing users to eventually get used to a similar UI on all their devices. MS must aim to offer a new experience to users (not just some cool features), changing the game as Apple and others have done in the past. I just wonder about the underlying architecture and issues like security and OS stability. These have been the major problems of MS over the years. A 'new' OS must be able to decisively eliminate (or at least reduce) many of the old woes.

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