Windows 8: Growing pains and marginal gains

Windows 8 isn't the disaster you've heard it is. Instead, think of it as a learning experience for Microsoft and users alike

Microsoft did what it had to do with Windows 8, and it did a better job than reports may lead you to believe.

Of course, that doesn't make Windows 8 a terrific operating system. Microsoft has made serious blunders in the latest version of its OS, and there's only one reason to consider upgrading. But Windows 8 deserves better press (or at least, less-bad press) than it's getting.

[ InfoWorld covers Microsoft's new direction, the touch interface for tablet and desktop apps, the transition from Windows 7, and more in the Windows 8 Deep Dive PDF special report. | Stay atop key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. | For more of Bob Lewis' continuing IT management wisdom, check out his Advice Line newsletter. ]

What prompted this average-user's-eye view was my wife's need to replace her aging laptop, which we did with a Windows 8 Ultrabook. It has 6GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, 32GB SSD cache, and no touchscreen. As her tech support, I've been figuring out Windows 8 more or less on demand. Along the way I've been asking myself what I'd have done differently if Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had called on me to replace Windows chief Steven Sinofsky. It's a tough question worth mulling, given the stark changes in what we have come to expect from an OS since a few short years ago.

Windows 8: A strategic view
Unless you've been living in a cave, you know by now that Windows 8 has two user interfaces: the more-or-less (aka MOLE) Windows 7 interface and the interface formerly known as Metro (TIFKAM), which was designed largely with tablets and smartphones in mind. Critics have widely derided this dual-mode design. Early InfoWorld epithets, for example, included "Windows Frankenstein" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Many of those same critics have been giving Apple advice for several years now: Unify the core of the operating system for use on all devices. This would require designing a more-or-less (MOLE, again) single-user interface suitable for screen real estates ranging from smartphone displays to multiple large monitors. So far, Apple hasn't done so. Instead, it's drawn a hard line between tablet-and-smaller devices and computers.

Microsoft, in contrast, now divides the world into four device classes rather than three: smartphones, tablets (the Surface RT), "laplets" (the Surface Pro and competing convertible laptop/tablet hybrids), and computers (desktops and laptops). This division inexorably led to Microsoft's decision to put TIFKAM on smartphones and tablets, while laplets got the TIFKAM/MOLE combo. Should it have put both TIFKAM and MOLE on computers as well? It had little choice, as the line dividing laplets and computers is, by definition, very fuzzy. (Microsoft's decision to offer different operating systems for smartphones and tablets is, in contrast, very hard to figure out.)

When you're using a computer, though, you aren't interacting with a strategy. You're interacting with a user interface. So let's roll up our sleeves and dig in.

Windows 8: A few basics
There has rarely been much point in upgrading a computer to a new version of Windows. This tradition continues -- there's still little point to it. The marketplace for Windows 8 is new devices.

On desktops and laptops, TIFKAM can mostly be ignored. It's there so that you can acclimate to it, not because you'll have much use for it.

A tip: If you're buying a Windows 8 desktop system, make sure you include a touch-sensitive monitor. You'll still mostly ignore TIFKAM. This will make doing so easier, and if you end up upgrading to the (reportedly) TIFKAM-enabled Office 2013 when it comes out, a touchscreen will make the difference between a bearable transition and one that made the switch to the Ribbon seem pleasant.

If you're buying an Ultrabook, it will come with an oversized touchpad, which handles TIFKAM gestures just fine.

Windows 8: The hands-on Utrabook experience
The short version: Could everyone please calm down? Like every previous version of Windows, Windows 8 isn't ushering in an era of paradise on earth, nor is it the first sign of Armageddon. It has some good points and some bad ones:

Meh: Windows 8 boots into TIFKAM. The first thing you'll figure out is how to get to MOLE (click the App labeled "Desktop"). The second is how to get back to TIFKAM (press the Windows key).

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