The case for Windows 8

Microsoft's great hope against the iPad incursion has taken a lot of well-deserved heat, but here's why it could still succeed

I don't know anyone who likes Windows 8, not even dyed-in-the-wool Windows loyalists. It's a terrible collision of two decent operating systems -- Windows 7 and Metro -- that people have been loudly complaining about since the Consumer Preview release this past winter. Yet Microsoft has ignored the ongoing and widespread criticism in the final version released this week to developers and PC makers. (Users won't see it until Oct. 26.)

But there's a case to be made for Windows 8 that may be getting lost in the rightful anger and disappointment over Microsoft's mishmash.

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In a word, that case is all about Metro, the Windows Phone-derived portion of Windows 8 whose Start screen greets you each time you start up your PC. Microsoft is all but certain to call it something else, but whatever its final name, Metro is Windows 8's bright spot. Metro is simple, clean, and elegant in a Zen-like way. It forces its apps to be the same.

Those of us who are geeks want as much capability as possible. The other 90 percent of the world just wants it to work. If you do tech support for family and friends, you know this is true.

That's the appeal of Metro: It's dead simple to navigate among a screenful of tiles, which is all that most people would have. One right-click or swipe from your choice of the top or bottom edge opens any app options not onscreen for the app. A keyboard shortcut or swipe from the right side opens the charms that accesses search, sharing, and settings. A shortcut or swipe from the left side switches among open apps. Click the Windows key or button to switch back to the Start screen.

That's all you need to know to use Metro and its apps. And Metro apps do what most people need -- simply and without distraction.

That's the Windows 8 that can succeed. And it's why Windows RT should be the Windows 8 version that most people adopt -- it's the version of Windows 8 for ARM-based tablets that has just the Metro part of Windows 8 (plus a stub of Windows Desktop it uses to run Office 2013 in sort of a special mode invisible to the user). A Windows RT tablet could be the simple PC that people want, simpler even than an iPad.

On a desktop or laptop, Metro could also be the PC that people use, while the Windows Desktop portion sits essentially inert in the background, available for those times when users have no choice.

A colleague's wife already regards Windows 8 this way. She's by no means a geek, finding for example that the iPhone has more capabilities and complexity than she needs, so she switched very happily to the dead-simple Windows Phone smartphone. Now she's using a Windows 8 test PC the same way, checking email, accessing the Web, updating her calendar, and listening to music. When she has to go into the Windows Desktop, she regards it as a necessary and familiar -- but fortunately rare -- excursion into the seamier side of town.

For her, Windows is a means to an end. Now Metro is an easier, better means to her ends.

For most people, Windows 8 could very well mean Metro, and they will like Metro. If most people live their digital lives almost exclusively in Metro, the Windows Desktop part could simply be dropped in Windows 9, after its transitional use is done.

Think that's too cynical? Consider the experience of most Windows users I've encountered who switch to Macs. For a few months, they run Windows in a Boot Camp partition or in a VMware Fusion or Parallels Desktop virtual machine to use the familiar apps. But usually before a half year has passed, they realize they just don't go into Windows any more. They can -- and do -- live in OS X. Some are now living in iOS or Android. Many people will be able to live in Metro.

Ironically, the best case for Windows 8 is taking advantage of the part that isn't the traditional Windows. It's a case well worth exploring if your computing needs are simple and straightforward.

Maybe to save Windows, Microsoft has to kill traditional Windows after providing this transition version that helps people let go of the past.

This article, "The case for Windows 8," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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