When the Windows 8 Consumer Preview hit the shelves, several reviewers noted that the OS has what seems like split personalities — the new Metro-style interface with a more traditional Windows desktop awkwardly lurking in the background. This split continues all the way to the bundled applications, with the OS featuring what amounts to two discrete versions of Internet Explorer (IE) — one designed for the Metro interface and the other an evolution of the IE we’ve all come to know. While some reviewers have questioned this seeming incongruity, I see it as a potential killer feature.

The next big Windows evolution

If you were around when Windows 3.0 first began taking over enterprise computing, you probably remember the awkward relationship between text-driven MS-DOS and Windows. “Native” Windows software was a relatively new phenomenon, and DOS-based software running in a window was a very common sight.

With Windows 95 and NT4, the command prompt became a component of Windows and eventually faded from perception, with your average user rarely experiencing it or even being aware of its existence. Windows 8 represents a similar and even more complex evolution. Early versions of Windows changed how we interacted with our desktops, shifting from a text-based computing experience to graphical, mouse-driven interfaces. Metro represents an evolution in not only the interface — shifting from mouse to finger — but in form factor as well. In the Windows 3.0 days, laptops were a tool for corporate types rather than a common appliance, and tablets were a dream of computer scientists and sci-fi writers. Allowing the traditional desktop to coexist with this new computing paradigm allows users and developers alike to adapt to Metro.

The split personality advantage

As I mentioned, not only does Windows 8 come at a time when our interaction with our computers is changing, but form factors are changing as well. I don’t believe Metro makes as much sense on the desktop as it does for a touch-driven device, and I’m not sure we’ll see touch become the de facto standard on the desktop in the near future, so an OS with split personalities makes a great deal of sense.

I’ve frequently wondered why device manufacturers don’t do a better job of letting our devices — phones, tablets, and even desktops — change the way they interact with us based on context. Mobile phone profiles and themes were a good start, but Windows 8 might truly embrace contextual computing, whereby our computing experience changes based on whether we’re using the device as a tablet, docked with a keyboard and mouse, or (in the future) even based on the location or activities we’re performing.

I’m looking forward to loading my copy of the Consumer Preview to see this split personality OS in action. If executed well, this could not only be an evolutionary crutch but the start of a march toward context-aware computing. Done poorly, we may be brought back to the awkward days of misbehaving applications, hacks to make older applications work, and conflicts between the two personalities of Windows.