If you have a memory better than that of a decorative vegetable, you’ll remember the slow and painful limp from the No Man’s Land of Windows Vista to the barely habitable favela of Windows 7. Like the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, Windows 7 was heralded as the saviour of the OS, only to eventually reveal that it’s basically the same thing with a different look. In a bid to reduce the extent to which Windows 7 would suck, Microsoft set out on an intrepid adventure of petitioning overly critical nerds to publicly test the OS before release, once again proving that Microsoft doesn’t understand the nitpicking nerdrage of the blogosphere.
Did it work? Well, Windows 7 was at least half decent, but between the beta versions and the final release nobody could really see that much difference. Microsoft had made a few token changes to it, but seemingly ignored most of the suggestions. So what’s their new approach to public testing of Windows 8? Do exactly the same thing, but for longer! Again, much like a Presidential campaign, we’re probably more than a year from the actual release of Windows 8, but the public dick-swinging has already begun.
If Apple have only shown us one thing from the massive success of the iPhone, it’s that independent developers are content generating goldmines. Apple can get content for their devices and make a nut-ton of money, without having to go through all rigmarole of coming up with ideas or employing and managing developers, only giving the original developers a share of the profit made. Palm then showed us that a device with an app-store, but without a decent amount of antecedent apps will fail miserably. Microsoft have opened up the first preview of Windows 8 with the hope that developers will begin developing apps for the platform early, ready for immediate edification by the disenfranchised masses come release day.
Not only that, Microsoft have finally realised that their attempt in Windows 7 to pre-empt the slowly rearing head of the tablet beast, which consisted solely of making the icons and taskbar a bit larger, wasn’t good enough. They were easier to see, but they were still stuck in awkward corners and edges of the screen that any tablet with the lightest of screen bezels would render unusable. Enter ‘Windows Metro’, a name that makes me think less of dynamic, on-the-go business and more of free newspapers and cramped cars. To their credit, the User Interface for Windows Metro is actually quite well designed, distinct icons arranged in the centre of the screen, trumping iOS’ arguably now rather dated UI by having these icons include feeds, such as news or weather and being far more colourful: great for an infantile mind like mine. A spacious onscreen keyboard and applications that appear to have had a lot of thought to the touch-screen put into them show very clearly where the bulk of Microsoft’s money in developing Windows 8 went.
Metro’s look has been polarising, some people adore it whereas others see it as a garish explosion at the Crayola factory. I can certainly see the Early Learning Centre colour scheme becoming a strain on the eyes after a while, and it would certainly look out of place being whipped out during a business meeting. But, at least for my part, I rather like the overstated eccentricities of the Windows Metro UI, but we’ll see how I feel after a few weeks of using it regularly, or when I grow beyond the mental age of six.
The Metro UI is not designed to be used on desktop machines, so Windows 8 contains a desktop mode for us knuckle (and mouse) dragging Luddites, which sadly is where we meet the same disillusionment we had with Windows 7. Microsoft is making such a big deal of the Metro interface because Windows 8, in its desktop mode, looks almost exactly the same as its predecessor. The average user will most likely see the identical design and see no reason to upgrade; for the slightly nerdier user, however, there’s enough going on under the hood to make it a must-have.
Windows 8 will be able to run on ARM processors, used in almost every tablet currently on the market, with the exception of the iPad, so we can see it feasibly challenge the Android stronghold. Unlike previous versions of Windows, the latest incarnation is designed to be a ‘one size fits all’ operating system; with the Metro UI built-in alongside the desktop blend, as well as support for low power netbooks. This also means that the minimum system requirements are slightly lower than Windows 7, because getting it to run on ARM chips meant a pretty big code overhaul. This also makes writing efficient applications easier and more engaging for developers, baiting the line to catch more cod(ers).
Microsoft have finally updated the Task Manager to show more useless information that will only matter to you if you’re testing software. A new addition is the display of disk status, showing when an I/O is active, the read/write speed of the current task and so on. If you have a fetish for number porn then this is the OS for you. Windows 8 finally sorts out that fiddly multi-desktop thing, and allows you to cram Metro-style feeds and link bars into the edges of the desktop-view window. You can now link your OS login with your Windows Live account, if you happen to have one, or you can replace the classic password on tablets with a ‘picture password’ where you press certain parts of the screen to unlock it using one of your photos as a guide to remember where to touch. In the event that you mess up your computer so badly you need to start over, Windows 8 now has a ‘refresh’ feature that will restore your computer to a clean OS install, but without deleting all your files and applications; which is nice of them.
Early testing of Windows 8 by TechRadar shows memory usage is down slightly from the already fairly frugal Windows 7, and the requirement of the software to run on lower powered ARM chips has given Microsoft the incentive to write more efficient code. But since we’re only looking at an early developer version, Microsoft still has plenty of time to stick in unnecessary bloatware before final release; and if history is anything to go by, they certainly will.
Though the Metro interface is cleverly designed, highly functional and finally gives Microsoft a strong contender in the tablet arena, if like me you have absolutely no intention of ever buying a tablet computer then you won’t use most of the new features in Windows 8. Of course, you can use the Metro UI on a normal desktop but since it wasn’t designed to be traversed by a mouse I can see that getting tiresome very quickly. There’s a fair bit going on under the bonnet, a few minor UI tweaks here and there but for the average user that won’t matter, and once they know that it’s desktop view is essentially the same as Windows 7, then what’s their incentive to upgrade? Again, we’re only looking at a version specifically meant to catch the attention of app developers, a crowd to whom substance is more important than style (looking at them, it’d have to be). But with a shiny new tablet interface to show off and a legion of low-maintenance programmers ready to build Microsoft a plethora of new features, the story will probably be much different in twelve months time.