Coming Attractions: Windows 8

A Mac man test drives and rants about Microsoft's OS

Let's get a couple of things straight right off the bat. First, it's absurd to take the opinion of an obvious Apple partisan like me about Windows 8. I've been using the Mac for more than 20 years, so it's going to take a Star Trek-level time-travelling reboot to get me really excited about the next version of Microsoft's operating system. Second, I can't really review Windows 8. No one can. Even with a preview release set to arrive early next month, Windows 8 isn't due in its final form for months. Who knows? Maybe, like a movie, Microsoft will spice it up with a car chase or a happy ending.

Or a nude scene. Just thinking out loud.

At the same time, while my preference for Macs is documented (please refer to the Journal of Obsessive/Compulsive Behavior, Volume XXVI, Issue 8), I've also used Windows professionally since version Windows 3.1, which is 160 years in desktop operating system lives. This was back when we had to stoke our steam-powered PCs with coal in the morning to boot them up. We all have black lung.

As Microsoft gets set to ship a new preview release of Windows 8 in early June, this is the perfect time to hear the only perspective on Redmond's latest operating system that really matters: that of a devout Apple fan. Here are a few thoughts on the latest rough beast to shuffle toward us from Redmond:

Windows 8 is my favorite version of Windows ever... because it's the least like traditional Windows.

Like a number of Apple fans, I think Metro--Microsoft's tile interface that originated on Windows Phone 7 and is now the default in Windows 8--is quite nice. And you know the primary reason we think that, right? Because it's a complete departure from Windows as we used to know it.

Which is good, right? Because it turns out it really was the Windows interface we didn't like. We're not just irrational Microsoft haters under the thrall of Cupertino's Reality Distortion Field. Man, that's a load off us, isn't it?

But how far does my respect for Windows 8 go? Well, would it surprise you to know that I wrote this entire article on Windows 8? It should. Because I didn't. I wrote most of it on my MacBook Pro and my iPad.

I did write a lot of it on Windows 8, though, using the consumer preview of the update released earlier this year. And even that simple task leads to some of the problems with this release.

As others have already noted, grafting the Metro interface on top of Windows creates a schizophrenic experience. It works pretty well for apps that are coded for Metro, but launch a traditional Windows application and you'll be partying like it's Windows 95, with a menu bar across the top and a task bar at the bottom and a dull sense that this is work instead of fun. Quit that application and you'll find yourself at a traditional Windows desktop minus the historical Start menu.

The Start menu has, for all intents and purposes, been replaced by Metro. While the Start menu in prior releases of Windows inevitably became a morass of cascading menus as you added applications, Metro is cleaner but two-dimensional. Tiles scroll horizontally, which works fine on a tablet or a mouse with horizontal scrolling capability (such as the Mighty Mouse I have connected to the Mac mini I ran Windows 8 Consumer Preview on via Boot Camp), but without one of those, it's a literal and figurative drag. You can, however, simply start typing the name of the application you want to use (like with Spotlight on the Mac, but without even hitting a key combination) and it will come up, assuming you know what you're looking for. But if you're primarily relying on a shortcut to get around your operating system's primary user interface, it seems like there might be something wrong with your primary user interface.

Microsoft has declared Windows 8 a tablet operating system "without compromises" because it runs on tablets and desktops and toaster-fridges and can run desktop applications on any Intel-based hardware. Surely any operating system that has a matrix to let you know what features are available in which version can't be compromised, right?

But running Windows 8, it often seems that what's been compromised is your sanity. Metro tiles seem analogous to app icons in iOS, but unlike iOS, there's no persistence with the tile scrolling. Launch an application in iOS and close it and where are you? Right where you were. Launch an application in Windows 8 and close it and where will you be? Well, it depends on the application. If it's a Metro-enabled app, you'll be back in Metro, but at the first set of tiles because it operates like a menu. If it's a traditional Windows application you just closed, you'll be in the traditional Windows desktop.

To access Metro from the desktop, you use your mouse to drag your cursor down to the lower right hand corner and click the Start button which takes you back to the Metro interface, an action that is not easy for the first-time user to figure out. You can also just tap the command (or Windows) key. I find it strange that in implementing a touch-friendly interface, Microsoft seems to have sacrificed the mouse in favor of the keyboard.

Metro and desktop applications also behave differently. You can minimize a Metro app by moving the cursor to the top of the screen and clicking and dragging it down, which is a fairly intuitive motion and one I got the hang of pretty quickly. But this doesn't work for traditional applications.

This is the pig of Windows 8 that resists any attempts at applying all forms of lipstick. There's simply no getting around the fact that this is a confusing dichotomy. Additionally, Windows on ARM--now saddled with the mock-worthy name "Windows RT" for "Run Time", which has so much meaning to consumers--won't run traditional desktop applications other than a core set provided by Microsoft. (Please refer to the matrix, thank you for calling.)

So, Microsoft's big hope for getting into the tablet space is an operating system with an attractive but flawed front end that's incongruously tied to a legacy desktop, and will require different versions of applications depending on which hardware you have.

What could go wrong?

Some people point to the OS 9-to-OS X and PowerPC-to-Intel transitions as an instances of Apple forcing the same compromises. But those were transitions. Is Microsoft really transitioning from the traditional Windows desktop? If so, why is it even present on the ARM architecture?

If Microsoft is able to move away from the Windows desktop and toward Metro, I think Windows will become more appealing to even long-time Mac fans like myself. More appealing than it was, I mean, not more appealing than the Mac. The problem in making this leap is the mass of inertia that grips Microsoft's corporate clients. Windows 8 is a huge change and many businesses have only finally upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 7 in the last couple of years. Many still haven't. Like, say, your dentist.

I love iOS, but let's face it, its primary user interface is just a nicer version of Simple Finder which has been around since OS 8. When Apple brought the iOS application launcher interface "back to the Mac" as Launchpad with last year's Lion release, the company had the good sense to make it optional. While Apple seems to be content to let iOS and OS X slowly get to know each other over a few years, Microsoft is throwing a Metro/Windows shotgun wedding.

Metro is an extremely appealing interface. The tile animation is slick and refined, and I like how tiles update to show current information. What I'm less sold on is slapping it over the Windows desktop and forcing this unholy union. I like where Microsoft seems to be going with this franchise in the long run, I just wonder how painful this year's release is going to be.

But then, I'm biased.

John Moltz recently gave up the glamour of working in corporate IT to write online at his Very Nice Web Site. He does not respond to questions about whether he used to write what amounts to Apple fan fiction.