Anti-Buzz: Windows 8, Part 1

by Andrew Emmott on April 20, 2013

in Anti-Buzz,Software

newface-620x461Windows 8 has been widely available for some months now and has existed in preview form for even longer, but I’m only just trying it for the first time now. When I first saw screenshots of the new operating system I was excited for two reasons.

  1. Microsoft was, (apparently), going for a post-WIMP interface. (windows, icons, menus, pointers)
  2. Like or not, Windows is the most popular operating system on the planet, so a paradigm shift here is a paradigm shift everywhere.

I wanted Microsoft to succeed here because it would mean a positive sea change in popular computing. My excitement has since dulled, largely because I realized the scope of the revolution was not as severe as I first thought. First the snazzy new interface is pretty much a clone of the Windows Phone OS, and second software is being pushed in an “app store” model. Neither of these things are bad, but the teeth on this move aren’t quite as sharp as I had hoped.

This review will come in three parts:

  • This week: Background information and features
  • Next week: Installation adventures, first impressions and thoughts.
  • Much later: A more detailed review after I’ve had more time to give the OS a fair shake.

So let’s get to the bare essentials.

Background

To be technical, Windows 8 is not “based” on the Windows Phone OS, but the interface design is very similar. The emphasis on touch screen controls and a comfortable “smart phone / tablet” look could appear to the cynically minded to be an attempt to cash in on a fad; minus the part where smart phones and tablets are hardly a fad. As I’ve said before, the influx of smaller devices has provided the creativity-breeding-restrictions to interface design, and it should have only been a matter of time before these design elements appeared on desktop PCs. It might be disappointing that so much design was simply imported from the small-device market – I would have rather seen Microsoft explore how to make those design elements work better for a real, full-fledged PC.

Windows-8-1That said, I would also take negative reviews of – even negative user reactions to – the new interface with a grain of salt. A similar sea change has happened recently on the Linux end of things, with the release of the Unity and Gnome 3 desktops; the popular reaction was similarly cranky: “Get rid of this smart phone stuff”

The heavy desktop user is clinging to the old WIMP paradigm like it was a card catalog. Time has passed, and the ire over Unity and Gnome 3 has subsided, and I won’t be surprised if in a few years the negative reviews of Windows 8 appear to be at least partially governed by an emotional reaction. All of the WIMP experts are having their knowledge devalued, and that always hurts.

Which isn’t meant to be a blanket apologia for the system, simply that I’m willing to cut Microsoft some slack for being brave enough to shake things up. It has been often said of the cell phone, (now smart phone), market that the user didn’t know what they wanted, that they never would have asked for cameras and texting and web browsers on their own. This might be one of those times where the long term vision is better than the public’s gut reaction. Sometimes, however, the long term vision is this guy and the gut reaction is correct. It’s possible that in two or three years every pundit who has labeled Windows 8 ‘a fiasco’ will be vindicated. For now, I think this one needs more time.

Features

Outside of the obvious interface update, Windows 8 does claim a number of solid improvements. I’ll summarize the most important ones here. A seemingly innocuous update is the task manager, which now sports friendly process names, more information, and a service for looking up more obscure processes online. For those who use it regularly, these are welcome additions, but the update is important in a spiritual sense as well; much of previous versions of Windows remained too old-fashioned for too long. Something like a list of processes might sound like and advanced user function, (and it is to a point), but recognizing that many corners of the OS were, for a long time, a part of the common user experience and redesigning them to match that reality was a savvy move. Only after this aspect of the OS is updated do you realize how much of Windows used to be designed for the IT support crew and not for you directly. Just because Microsoft never meant for you to browse the dark corners of your PC doesn’t mean users didn’t do it anyway, and now the experience is improved in the Task Manager and elsewhere.

Additionally there is “hybrid boot” which is actually just a fancy way to say, “the computer never shuts down it just hibernates.” This has the impact of faster boot times and the ability to “save your place” so to speak. Not having to reorganize your tasks just because you have the temerity to turn off your computer is actually a big improvement to usability, (and, if you care, it also encourages greener behavior because you have less motivation to just keep your computer on). More on this feature next week.

There are ostensible security improvements, but I can’t speak to them very well yet. What is notable is that OS has anti-virus software built in which, coupled with the OS’s proclivity for staying up to date via the Internet, will likely prove to be both a safe and convenient option.

Next time: So far I’ve just distilled the sales pitch, next week we’ll begin to see how it really plays out.

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