With its innovative ’tiles’ approach, Microsoft’s latest OS is a huge leap forward – although it may take some getting used to….
It’s called Windows 8, but it might be simpler to think of it as Windows 7 + 1. Underneath everything that you’ll see at first is the same Windows that anyone who has been using Windows 7 since October 2009 is used to seeing.
But it’s that +1 that you’ll see first – and that’s where, for many people, the surprise may start. Microsoft has completely rethought the initial experience – the process by which we start interacting with a computer when its screen comes on – and replaced the “desktop” with a series of large tiles which you swipe (with a finger, if you’re using a tablet or touchscreen laptop, or mouse) from side to side. “Modern UI”, as it’s called, involves big tiles without the fussy “Close” or “Minimise” or “Maximise” buttons.
I’ve been using the final version of Windows 8 for a couple of months on a Samsung touchscreen tablet. Some people may find it disconcerting – the more ingrained you are in how Windows 7 does things, the harder the adjustment may be. But after a while, the new version feels relaxing; natural, even.
The “Start screen”, as Microsoft calls it, consists only of those big tiles, and completely replaces the desktop you first see on Windows – although, let’s be clear, that old Windows desktop is still there. It’s just hidden one layer down, and if you want to jump down into it there’s a perfectly good fireman’s pole in the form of a tile called “Desktop”. Click or touch that, and you’re in Windows 7.
The Start screen houses whatever you want it to on those tiles – which can be “live”, so that the weather tile shows the forecast, the Mail tile shows the mounting unread toll, your Calendar tells of the next meeting … it’s a helpful, innovative experience. (Not coincidentally, the Xbox already does, and the smartphone version of Windows, called Windows Phone, does the same; Nokia, HTC and Microsoft all hope that Windows 8 will give that side of the business a big boost too.) You can “pin” Windows 7 apps to the Start screen, and you can also download free or paid app from the built-in Windows Store – which has only about 10,000 apps so far, but it’s growing fast.
Using “Modern UI” apps does take some getting used to. It’s a minimalist experience which does away with all the clunky windows and scroll bars of the “old” Windows. The entire screen is filled with whatever you’re doing, without any of those pesky Close or Minimise buttons. Whether it’s Internet Explorer, or the “social” app (which ties together your social networks in one place), or the Mail app, the whole thing takes up all of the screen. There is a neat system that lets you view two windows at once – a second one can be dragged in from the right, and then takes up roughly one-fifth of the screen; you can’t do that with an iPad. However, two is all you get; you can’t pull in another window and have three apps in view.
The control buttons are hidden, and the navigation to get you around the rest of the system – back to the “Start screen” – is squirrelled away off the right-hand side of the screen. Move the mouse there, or swipe in from the edge, and the “Charms” (as they’re charmingly called) appear. Those take you back to the Start screen, or to elements such as the Settings panel (though not all of the old Control Panel).
But it’s around this point that the “+1” nature of this all gets slightly uncomfortable. If, for example you want (for some reason) to change the date on your computer, you won’t be able to do it in the big Modern UI tiles. You’ll have to take the fireman’s pole down to Windows 7. And there it’s all suddenly … the same again. It’s like Bobby stepping out of the shower in Dallas. Or, to put it another way, it’s like you’re in HG Wells’s Time Machine, and have come away from the happy Eloi above, in their big-tiled world, and discovered the Morlocks labouring away beneath. All those Close, Minimise, Maximise buttons. Title bars on windows. Resizing. All that stuff you’ve been doing since Windows 3.1 all those years ago. Weirdly, there’s a version of Internet Explorer down there too which doesn’t have the same windows as the one “above” – so you can have two versions of Internet Explorer going with totally different screens.
One other point: the “below” version of Windows 8 is like Windows 7 – except there’s no Start button. It’s gone. You’re intended to find your way around to programs via search (via the Charms, which are still there on the right). Once you’ve accepted that, you’ll find that Windows 8 – or 7+1 – runs quicker, more securely, and much more like the operating systems we’re used to on tablets and smartphones, which are themselves becoming the principal way people do computing; if you include them in your totals, PCs are barely a majority of the computers now in use worldwide.
So for Microsoft, Windows 8 is a huge leap forward – and yet it’s doing it while holding all the baggage of the “old” Windows going back decades. Expect some cries of pain in the weeks and months to come as people adjust. However, viewed more broadly, it couldn’t do anything else: the desktop paradigm is getting tired, and the tiles approach is fresh and quickly becomes intuitive. In a few years, taking a trip down to the Morlocks’ level may feel like a fleeting visit to a long-forgotten friend: so much to talk about, but much more important things to do elsewhere.
That Windows 8 is going to be a huge hit is a given; PCs sell in big enough numbers that it’s a given. What will be fascinating to watch is how it is received – and whether it does better for tablets than on PCs (where corporations can “downgrade” to Windows 7). With everything to play for, Microsoft’s refreshed the way to think about computing.