Windows 8 has been criticised quite a bit in the press for some of the decisions Microsoft has made around user interface. As more and more criticism has surfaced, a negative spiral seems to have been created, and it has now become fashionable for pundits and techies to write off Windows 8 as a failure, even before it has hit the market commercially.
I have to say that a lot of the complaints I have seen have left me scratching my head. It's almost as if the critics are talking about a totally different piece of software to the one I have been using. My own experience of Windows 8 has been generally pretty positive, and I wonder whether a lot of the negative judgements made are based on either hearsay or very limited hands on time, rather than any level of in-depth use.
During this post I am therefore going to provide a couple of different perspectives based on the use of Windows 8 on more of a continuous real world basis for a reasonable length of time. I'll start out with my personal experience in a hard-core business context, but for a completely different view, I'll also provide some feedback gathered from one of my teenage kids, who has also been using Windows 8 for some time.
The Power User Perspective
As an industry analyst, I do a lot of multi-tasking in the average day, juggle many different information sources, and create a lot of content. This often involves working with survey data and making use relatively complex analytical models. I also do a bit of web development and multi-media stuff on the side, so all things considered, I would probably fit squarely into the category of 'power user'.
In terms of equipment, I routinely use a dual monitor desktop machine and a separate laptop/tablet hybrid (Lenovo T220). Both of these have been running Windows 8 for a couple of months now, and compared to Windows 7, I have seen productivity benefits in both environments.
Surprisingly, given everything you read about Windows 8 supposedly having been crippled for serious multi-talking use, it's the dual monitor setup that has highlighted some of the improvements the most. Put simply, Windows 8 is ergonomically superior to Windows 7, especially when working with multiple applications and documents simultaneously across two large screens.
The first and most obvious advantage is being able to access the start screen and system shortcuts from any monitor. Another important feature is the option of having independent task bars on each screen. The idea here is that the task bar on any given monitor reflects the application windows placed on that monitor.
Such changes might seem trivial, but they translate to a lot less mouse movement and head swivelling, which is both faster and physically more comfortable. Once you get used to the new way of working, going back to the old Windows 7 approach of all menus and task management being driven from one 'main monitor' seems very awkward and inefficient.
The usability benefit on the laptop when used in keyboard/mouse mode is not as great, but is still worthwhile. The combination of the new start screen and various shortcut mechanisms, e.g. right clicking in the bottom left-hand corner to bring up all systems functions, means that you that you can do pretty much everything on Windows 8 with fewer mouse clicks and less mouse movement than you need with Windows 7. I did find it took me a little while to get used to the corner/edge activated menus, but after a few hours of just getting on with work, it all became very natural.
On a controversial aside, I personally think Microsoft was right to do away with the old start menu, which to me now seems cramped, clumsy and inefficient when I go back to a Windows 7 machine. Being a typical lazy human being that gravitates to the familiar when given a chance, if the start menu was there I probably would have continued using it and failed to take advantage of the more efficient navigation mechanisms designed into the Windows 8 desktop. Now I wouldn't want the start menu back, even if I could have it, as it would be totally redundant, arguably even counterproductive.
So far, pretty much everything I have mentioned is concerned with using Windows 8 in desktop mode with a mouse and keyboard. I have also tried the new operating system in tablet mode and my impression as long-time iPad user is that it's pretty good in comparison, but I am reluctant to comment further based on my own experience as I haven't spent enough time with it to form a robust view. However, I can provide some interesting second-hand feedback.
The Teenager Perspective
A few months ago at Tech Ed, Microsoft provided everyone at a press/analyst gathering with a slate pre-loaded with Windows 8, so I came away with Samsung device and various accessories to play with. When I got this home, my teenage daughter (14 years old) asked to have a look, and about 15 minutes later she declared "This is SOOO much better than my iPad". I haven't seen much of the device since because she has been practically living on it, while the iPad has sat there with a flat battery gathering dust.
So what's the appeal to a socially-oriented teenager who, like all her friends, is an obsessive multi-tasking online communicator?
My daughter calls out a few things about the Samsung that she really likes. Firstly, there's the versatility. The Samsung came with a docking station into which can be plugged a monitor, network cable, keyboard, mouse, and any USB storage device or other peripheral you want. Windows 8 is then very slick in the way it handles docking and undocking - you simply drop the slate into the dock or remove it at will, and within a few seconds the machine sorts itself out. Great if you are doing homework at your desk one minute, then rushing out of the door to a sleepover the next.
Mentioning homework, the other thing my daughter likes is that the machine runs Microsoft Office, so she can do all of her writing and creative stuff as usual. From a leisure perspective, while she likes the Windows Store and some of the early Windows 8 apps, she has not surprisingly highlighted the relative lack of software available compared to the iPad. However, this seems to be more than made up for by the fact that she can access all the websites that she and her friends visit habitually and "they all work as they are supposed to", which is an indirect reference to the constraints of Mobile Safari on iOS.
Thoughts on the Learning Curve
The interesting thing in all of this is that never once has my daughter commented on the Windows 8 user interface. Looking over her shoulder, she happily flits between desktop and touch mode, and just gets on with it. This further confirms to me that UI related concerns commonly expressed by reviewers are more to do with lack of familiarity (perhaps sometimes accompanied by an unwillingness to make the effort) rather than inherent usability issues.
Having said this, familiarity among existing users is obviously an important consideration in a business context. Hitting a mixed ability workforce with replacement tools that are new and unfamiliar can lead to friction, productivity issues and a spike in calls to the help desk if users are not prepared for the change.
Given the usual lag between consumer and enterprise adoption of new Windows releases, the good news is that there are likely to be at least some members of the average workforce familiar with Windows 8 by the time it is rolled out, and the availability of co-worker support is not to be underestimated. There's then always the option of end user training, even though this is something that often gets overlooked.
Beyond the User Interface
While I think popular opinion to do with the Windows 8 user interface is generally misguided and has more to do with natural resistance to change rather than anything else, that's not to say that everything is perfect. I personally have some questions around dockable tablets and laptop/tablet convertibles that are used in tablet mode one minute and desktop mode the next. The OS handles the switch very well as I have said, but my concern is whether we'll end up needing two versions of important applications, optimised for each mode interaction.
Related to this, there are obviously questions for developers who essentially have to choose which mode/runtime environment to design and build for. There are then questions about Windows 8 RT and how desirable/viable this reduced spec version will be for business deployment.
So, let's shake this unhelpful obsession with the UI and missing start menus, and turn our attention to some of the other issues that matter a lot more in the long run. Businesses aren't going to be rushing to upgrade Windows 7 machines in a hurry (indeed some are only just moving to it from XP), but there's a good chance that Windows 8 tablets and convertibles will start creeping into organisations soon after they hit the market. With that in mind, it's probably worth IT departments thinking about the real implications of Windows 8 from a development, management and support perspective sooner rather than later.
Dale Vile, is Research Director at Freeform Dynamics.