Windows 8 a Desktop User’s Experience

While we are still two months away from general availability, Windows 8 was released to MSDN and Technet subscribers yesterday.

Much has been written about the juxtaposition of the new Modern UI (the user interface formerly known as Metro) and the legacy desktop.  One is for touch and the other for traditional PCs.  Since I have a traditional PC, I do what I can to avoid the Modern UI; thankfully it is a fairly easy accomplishment.

First though, Windows 8 is polished in the same way that Windows 7 was.  You may disagree with the design philosophy, but there is no arguing with the implementation. It is stable and fast and there is no need to wait for a service pack to make the transition.

But should you upgrade?  On a traditional PC I don’t see enough prominent changes to justify the expense and time involved in upgrading from Windows 7.  XP era computers will not be fast enough to run it and if you have held off upgrading your Vista box to 7, then wait a little longer and get 8.

First, what’s missing or replaced in Windows 8?  To name a couple of obvious examples; the start button, the start menu, aero glass, gadgets, Media Center, and DVD playback.  The start button and menu have been replaced with hot corners and the start screen, these operate the same as their predecessors did in earlier versions of Windows.  If 5 minutes doesn’t familiarize you with these changes, then you may want to get checked for early onset Alzheimers.  If the test is negative, there are lots of OSs available with a traditional desktop.   Aero and gadgets will not be missed while missing Media Center and DVD Playback is a boneheaded move to save a few dollars.  To my knowledge the price of adding these multimedia features back has not been announced and the upgrade is not yet available.

Since I don’t have a touch enabled device, following is what’s new for traditional desktop users.  The log-in screen has been altered substantially, I don’t know if it is better or worse than previous versions, but it is different.  While multi-monitor support is improved (hello multi monitor taskbar) I still find the need to use Display Fusion to manage my monitors.  File Explorer has been incrementally improved, the ribbon is masterful in its implementation (I had my doubts).  The ribbon can be hidden, its features are not needed 99.75% of the time, it both saves screen real estate and aids in feature discoverability.  The task manager has seen vast improvements in both usability and responsiveness.  MS account integration has been added to make syncing settings between PCs easy, iso (and other image files) files can now be mounted without the help of third party utilities (about time).  The recovery options have been revamped but I haven’t had the need to use them yet.  Also, Hyper-V virtualization is baked in but I haven’t played with that yet either.

I’ve installed Stardock’s Start8  which transforms the start screen into a smaller version of itself which overlays the desktop, it also allows you to boot to the desktop.  This free (so far) utility is necessary fare for those without touch enabled devices.

The new theme is so much better than any that has come before it.  Gone are the bloated transparencies, the pseudo-3D effects and gradients.  This leaves a polished and unobtrusive layer of chrome.  While it is entirely subjective, I like the new flat squared look.  The taskbar and selected window bar can be set to change with the background, a nice touch.  There are still a couple of areas that could use some clean-up, I would like to see the transparency removed from the taskbar and the goofy glow removed from hovering over taskbar items (at least they don’t jump;-)  Some settings windows have been updated to the Modern look, a nice improvement over the Windows 95/98 look they have had for 15 years.

I have not had any problems with hardware or software that ran on Windows 7, I think it is safe to assume that this stuff will just work.  Hardware wise, I am really wanting one of MSs upcoming surface mice (or is it mouses?)

In conclusion, I think Windows 8 is a solid incremental update to Windows 7.  I think that this is one where the supposed technorati will hate it while most users will like it.

More interesting is wondering what Windows 9 will be like.  Will it flesh out Modern UI to make it a desktop replacement or will both UIs be maintained in duo?


Towards Defining the Post-PC World

PC; before it became politically correct it stood for Personal Computer.  At first it only applied to IBM compatible systems, but anon it became synonymous with a class of computing devices regardless of provenance.  Historically, PC refers to a general purpose computing device designed to be used by one person at a time.  But more broadly it has also come to refer to a multi-user device that runs arbitrary code.

With the advent of smartphones, tablets, and other computing appliances; there has been debate about whether or not these devices are in fact PCs.  In some ways these devices are much more personal than traditional PCs.  Generally designed for a single user, these devices sometimes forgo the ability to run arbitrary code.  So, are they PCs?

I would argue that they are in fact PCs, but PCs of a special type.  I propose adding “Appliance Computer” (AC) and “ultra-Personal Computer” (uPC) to the lexicon of computing definitions.

An Appliance Computer can be defined as a PC meant for a specific purpose or without the ability to run arbitrary code.  ACs would include devices designed to only run a web browser (ie ChromeOS) and devices designed to only run a manufacturer’s defined code set.

An ultra-Personal Computer would be a device which meets the standards of a PC, yet whose size, purpose, and/or usage scenarios make it predominantly a single user device.  By this definition, AT&T Android devices (which lack the ability to run arbitrary code) would be ACs, whereas Verizon Android devices (which retains the ability to run arbitrary code) would be uPCs.

Windows RT (the upcoming ARM version of Windows) lacks the ability to run arbitrary code and, at best, can only be considered an appliance.  The same applies to Apple’s iDevices.  However; root, jailbreak, or otherwise hack these devices to run arbitrary code and they  become uPCs.

These ideas are simply formed and may not hold up under rigorous (or even cursory) debate.  Just getting out some things that have been percolating in my brain recently.

RIP: WIMP (1984-2012)

Windows, Icons, Menus, and Pointer (WIMP) is a GUI paradigm popularized by Apple in 1984.  Of course Apple didn’t invent WIMP, that was Xerox PARC in 1973.  But Apple did steal borrow the idea and popularize it.  Microsoft gave WIMP its lasting look with the introduction of Windows 95, and until recently, not much changed.  Computing converged, and the WIMP paradigm reined supreme.

With the rise of mobile, full screen became the norm and the concept of windows retreated onto the desktop.  But the seeds for the demise of WIMP were sowed a decade ago.  In 2002 MS released Win XP Media Center Edition, the media center application eschewed the WIMP paradigm in favor of  a clean text based interface.  This new interface was fleshed out further with the first refresh of the Zune media player in late 2007.  The Zune desktop client also went sans menus and focused on a text driven interface.  With the release of  Windows Phone 7 in 2010, sporting a fully Metro-ized interface, the writing was on the wall, WIMP’s days were numbered.

Now, with the soon to be released Windows 8, WIMP’s dominance is challenged and Metro has achieved parity.  Metro is a Microsoft specific UI paradigm based in classic Swiss graphic design, favoring clean typography while removing as much UI chrome as possible.

In Microsoft’s Metro, Windows have been replaced with full screen apps and a (somewhat limited) tiling interface.  Icons have been replaced with text based tiles, providing more information more quickly that was achievable with an icon based system.  Menus have been slowly done away with and a ribbon interface is taking their place.  The pointer is still prominent in mouse driven desktops but is done away with in touch based systems (as well as gesture based systems like MS Surface and MS Kinnect).

Hence the title, RIP:WIMP.  This is not to say that we won’t be using the legacy WIMP UI for quite some time.  Windows 8 gives Metro parity with WIMP.  Windows 9 will move us more fully into the Metro paradigm and it is an open question if WIMP will be anywhere in site when Windows 10 rolls around.

So while WIMP was popularized, but not first implemented in 1984, its replacement is implemented, but not yet popularized, in 2012.

And WIMP is popular, it has been the dominant paradigm for 18 years (an eternity in tech time).  There will be heavy resistance to its replacement in the coming years.  Trial and error will have to occur before its replacement is accepted and completely implemented.  This new UI paradigm is still being fleshed out, it still lacks a catchy acronym/name, and the pieces are not all in place yet.  But they will be.  In the meantime we will have bastardized Frankenstein kludges like Windows 8.

Inertia is strong, but human/computer interaction will progress, and WIMP will be a casualty of that progress.  The writing is on the tile.

Edit: Here is a MS page on Metro that illustrates a lot of what I said above.  Watch the videos, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth ten thousand.