Thursday, February 7, 2013

A glimpse into madness, or "Why I love Windows 8."

I wrote this up as an email to an acquaintance of mine, and figured I ought share. Now, keep in mind - I understand myself to be irrational and flawed at times, so if you don't agree with me, that's fine! I'm nuts! Really! Just be polite about it and we'll be fine :)

Since we never quite got around to it during the show (understandable) or lunch (likewise understandable), I figured I'd just go over the reasons I'm one of the Windows 8 fans.

First off? I've got a taste for doomed things. Well, not quite. Perhaps. Its a coincidence, perhaps. But, there's OS/2, BeOS, the Sega Dreamcast, NeoGeo Pocket Color, the Palm Pre, etc. In fact, once I decided I really loved PCs and Windows (really around Windows 7's public beta), then the real rumbling of us being in a "post pc era" started catching on. I even liked and admired Microsoft's work on Vista, believe it or not.

Its rather odd being a banshee. I suspect the good folks at Microsoft sighed in relief I didn't buy a Surface RT.

Seriously, first off; I've seen and used the Metro design language since 2006? 2007? with the Microsoft Zune. It was original, it was functional, it was sensible, it was an example of what Microsoft could do when they turned off the xerox machines and did something. A good example, at that. My third generation Zune flash-based player, complete with that weird squircle thing (you could touch, swipe, and click) was fantastic. The Zune software got me to leave iTunes; it was simple, worked quite nicely, was very straightforward to me, etc.

I started following the Windows Phone development in 2010; it was an evolution of the Metro design language. Initially rumored to be the "Zune Phone," when details started coming out it was clear it wasn't just that. In fact, while it certainly had commonalities, they definitely built upon it. The design team took the portions that made sense, but added more to it while not compromising the minimalist aesthetic. Moreover, it wasn't a simple adaption of the computer desktop to a phone (which Microsoft had done before), rather it was an original take on things, which is what I appreciated about the Pre (which I still feel has the best phone multitasking metaphor to date).

But, the most impressive thing? Microsoft did something that was out of character; they broke binary compatibility. There was no backwards compatibility between the hardware or software of Windows Mobile 6.* and Windows Phone 7. Moreover, the problem that plagued Windows Mobile (wildly varying hardware configurations and all the associated issues) and now frustrate Android developers? They were doing away with by requiring licensees to follow minimum specifications and a set platform. While there were a good number of areas for OEMs to differentiate themselves (both software and hardware), there was a basic level of expectation that all phones would meet. It was like Microsoft realized their greatest strength was their greatest weakness - their OEM partners - and they were doing something about it finally.

Now, this isn't why I love Windows Phone, so I'll leave it there. However, that is available for later discussion if you like. I should mention that there's an irrational element to what I like, if not love, but its well rooted in the appreciation that with my usage? I can get away with choosing based on aesthetics :)

Now, Windows 8 and Windows RT. First off, learning it would have the Metro interface (now called "Modern," I think) and was looking towards the post-PC era. Microsoft's past tablet initiatives were interesting, but I felt they were impractical for most people. Seeing them address where the market was rather than doubling down on their strengths? Taking a risk? Interesting!

Then later on, I read up on the changes they were making under the hood. Yes, the operating system was going to be schizophrenic. Metro was going to be sandboxed and separated from the desktop. The two didn't especially want to interact. Trick being, of course, OS/2 was the same if you had it running Windows 3.x (one of its selling points and downfalls, ironically enough). Apple's OSX ran itself, but would also start up OS9 as the Classic Environment for a few versions (I'm sure you remember that). That's before you even get into virtualization or emulation. So, in a way, an OS wanting to be two different operating systems isn't so foreign an idea to me.

The key element, however, was WinRT. A new API that was exclusive for Metro. Apps in that environment could not access Win32 (there are exceptions for browsers, maybe some others, but on the whole...). Again, a baby step of trying to get rid of dead wood. Not as dramatic as Windows Phone, but regardless, it was something that felt very uncharacteristic of Microsoft. Programs were sandboxed, could only interact with each other in specified ways, and those ways could expand as you gained applications (which is very much reminiscent of BeOS).

Additionally, the integration of Microsoft's SkyDrive and other cloud services? Much like a smartphone and tablet, it makes for a good, smart use of online. Pulling down my settings, my contacts, letting me access my SkyDrive up and down, etc? Fantastic. But like my Windows Phone and Xbox? Downloading and installing an app, a game, whatever, is one and the same. There's not separate download then installation processes. Once its downloaded, its available. Updating? All centralized for all apps. Want to uninstall something? Simply right-click then hit "uninstall" - its gone instantly, with no mess, no crap left behind clogging things up. Expected on a good smartphone, but revolutionary for Windows when compared to "Add/Remove Programs."

The UI was more than simplified; it feels very, wonderfully consistent. While the full-screen (and 1/3:2/3 split screen) feels abominably wasteful for large screens, its fantastic on smaller ones such as laptops. It feels quite good, honestly, and makes use of the metrics Microsoft got of most Windows users who use almost everything at full screen. Switching with a mouse, keyboard shortcuts, etc., is just fine. Trackpad gestures are great. Get it on a touchscreen and its very nice. A lot of the superfluous elements are out of sight until they're needed , maximizing the available space.

On my desktop, however? I simply switch to the desktop. The x86 version of Windows 8 is more fully functional than the ARM-based Windows RT. The changes made for Windows 8/RT on the desktop are very good, but I wouldn't necessarily say they're worth a full version release in and of themselves. That said, they are still good, and continue polishing the excellent work done with Windows Vista and 7. The lowered memory overhead is great, the reworking of Windows Explorer, good compatibility, etc. Its Windows 7.1, arguably.

Looking at it as a whole? Windows 8/RT is probably the closest we'll see anytime soon to Microsoft having a do-over, a "from scratch" OS. Its not as bold as Apple going from OS9 to OSX, but then Microsoft went through that ugly phase going from Windows Millenium/9x (which was arguably still a grotesque DOS based mess) to Windows XP and the cross-platform NT kernal. Paul Thurrott, the great MS cheerleader, argues that the ill-selling and rather confusing Windows RT tablet OS is actually a glimpse at the future Microsoft wants.

Apple's relatively ruthless culling of dead weight, old features, etc., often annoys me (recently got rid of my iMac), but I feel its a not insignificant factor in why OSX has evolved so well. Microsoft and their dependence on enterprise/business can't make moves like that, but even glaciers move. It will likely take 10 years for the vision being around, getting tweaked, etc., before its fully accepted, but I do think its necessary movement. Win32 will likely stick around for quite some time, but for the professional market. The consumer market? Or those without IT? I think that WinRT is really where they need to be looking in the long term. The problem with Windows is that I feel its traditionally ill-suited for its market position with the general public. If Apple went ahead and licensed out OSX? That'd be preferable. Sadly, the hardware dongle that OSX requires... :p

Still, its Microsoft being smart about it, finally. They're going at the only pace they realistically can (slow, pulling along 10+ years worth of luggage), going about it sensibly, and honestly they're letting Google become the new 90's Microsoft with Android becoming the new Windows. Much like the Windows Phone, its a middle ground between Apple's total control of the hardware/software (ie, a Mac is a singular product, not two separate products) and the mess of Android being a free for all between the OS, hardware, etc, but the freedom that goes with it. There's a clear mandate of how it should be handled at a minimum (reflected in the problems OEMs are having with W8 being on fundamentally W7 hardware), but even then I'm finding it to be competent on old hardware like my desktop PC and laptop.

The learning curve, the "its different!", "not what I'm used to!" etc., is what's causing the most fuss. Ironically, the Mac users are the ones coming into Costco and warming up to it. My sister in law has had the most positive response from them; they're quick to experiment, pick it up, and even happily buy. The PC users who are simply used to older Windows and fancy themselves power users (but probably aren't) are fussing and kicking up a storm, which is a pity. Its perfectly usable, if not more so, with a keyboard and mouse. Keyboard shortcuts are smart, the search is fantastic and more functional/flexible, and its great. Very seriously, I do no miss the Start button because I feel its actually less efficient, not as fast, and not as flexible.

And again, must say, I'm being irrational and emotional, but that's me and tech ;)

Bottom line for people? Give it the chance it deserves, and the time it needs. Its excellent! When I use Windows 7 and Vista, it really does feel like a step backwards.  Again, I've upgraded both my computers with it, and really enjoy it. Once you get past the learning curve, I hope you'll feel the same.

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