The Windows 8 Conundrum

The Changing Computing Landscape

Before getting into where Microsoft went with Windows 8, you may want to look at where the PC market is going these days.

Many tech sites will throw out terminology like “Post-PC Era” and other vague terms, but the consumer purchasing habits are pretty clear.  After the arrival of the tablet (cough… iPad… cough) and with the ever increasing power of smart phones, more and more people are using portable devices for their general computing.  This trend started even before the tablet really, as laptop sales began to overtake traditional desktops years ago.  Generally, the computing market seems to be breaking down like this:

  • Smart Phones – The most widely owned and used computing platform, completely dominated by Apple IOS and Google Android devices.
  • Laptops – These are still #2 in distribution, but tables are coming on strong.  Cheap Windows laptops are still king here, but for the high $ set, the Mac Books are very competitive.  Only recently with the so called Ultrabooks have Windows laptops had a similar level of polish and industrial design.  Even with better designed laptops, the Tablet is very likely to overtake sales in 2013.
  • Tablets – This is by far the fastest growing segment.  The vast majority of users simply surf the web, write an email or two, and watch videos of cats.  For those users, a tablet is just plain awesome.  Light weight, inexpensive, and with long battery life, a tablet was what was most commonly under the Christmas tree this year.  The iPad was the very first to be an actual usable device, and has dominated the market ever since.  This year though, Android is starting to make a significant dent in Apple’s market share.
  • Traditional Desktops – These have been fading for years.  There will always be a market for these though, when it comes down to doing actual computationally intense work like audio, video, and photo work, a desktop cannot be beat.  Then there’s the hardcore PC gamer set, there’s no way a tablet or laptop can come close to the graphics power available in a desktop. However vocal the people that fall into this category are, they are still going to be a small minority of the market.

Why Windows 8?

You may not like Microsoft, but they’re not stupid.  They’ve seen the direction of the industry and with Windows 8 have attempted to react.  First it started with the phone OS, Windows Phone 7.  This was the first attempt and a wholly touch centric OS from Microsoft, and among the tech community it was well received.  Unfortunately for Microsoft however, the consumers didn’t follow.  This isn’t the first time a good phone operating system failed to make a dent (Palm Pre anyone?).   The next logical step was to update and expand the concept to larger screens.  In doing so, MS chose to take a different path than its competitors.

  • Apple – the Apple method has been to maintain the phone / tablet combination separately from the desktop / laptop, so we have iOS, and OSX.  They have some similar underpinnings, but remain separate nonetheless.
  • Google – Android has been setup to share phone and tablet OS since Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0).  However, Google has no equivalent desktop OS at all.  The Chrome OS found in cheap Chromebooks doesn’t count, it relies entirely on the cloud for pretty much everything.
  • Microsoft – MS has decided to unify the whole ecosystem with Windows 8.  The same kernel and codebase can be transported from a phone, to a tablet, all the way up to the traditional desktop.

While Microsoft was developing the new path, they chose to take some risky moves in the process while trying to walk a balance beam between the old Windows desktop models and the potential new world of touch based computing.  The work brought us their new modern UI, simultaneously the largest innovation and complaint.

Modern UI

Formerly known as Metro… this is the term for the colorful live tile based interface that started with Phone 7.  If you’ve used it on a phone or one of the few tablets out there, chances are you may like it.  Generally, in the phone and tablet form factor it is well received, on the desktop however… not so much.  The main point of contention for desktop users has been the loss of the start menu.  This actually seems a bit silly to me and based more on the fear of change than anything.  There were plenty of people who rejected Windows XP’s changes to the start menu, then Vista, then Windows 7.  There are however a few deficiencies that I’ve noticed in general usage, leaving the impression that the operating system as a whole is not quite finished.

The Down Sides

Multiple monitor support is weak.  While they’ve done some improvements to the task bar across multiple displays, the use of hot corners is strange when you have an extra 4 or more corners between displays.  Also, why can I only launch one full screen modern UI application?   I have a whole other screen available, shouldn’t I be able to fill each with an app?  I do however appreciate the taskbar improvements and the use of panoramic or unique wallpapers on the displays.

The UI often bounces between modern structure and the legacy desktop, particularly if you’re navigating through settings screens.  This isn’t anything but a visually jarring inconvenience on the desktop, but it’s a much larger problem for tablet users poking around without a keyboard and mouse.

Locked down boot loaders have been enforced with Windows 8 and UEFI systems provided by the major OEMs.  These cause problems for users that like to load Linux or other operating systems on their computers.  Luckily, this doesn’t apply to hobby system builders so many of these folks will be fine, but if you’re planning on loading an alternate OS on a OEM computer, make sure the UEFI Secure Boot option can be disabled.

The Windows Store has been made the primary distribution method for the Modern UI applications.  This is very similar to the iOS model and actually lands somewhere in between Google’s and Apple’s approach.  An important distinction here is that this policy applies to the modern UI applications only, and will thus primarily affect tablet users.  The good part here is that traditional desktop applications are still distributed just like they used to be.  And since the OS still supports all the legacy Windows software out there, you can still just pop in a CD or hit a download link and install your programs.

Windows RT

This version of Windows is, in my opinion, pointless.  The result of releasing a Windows tablet stripped of the legacy support that makes it “Windows” puts the product on the same playing field as the iPad, which is a loosing position.  There simply isn’t enough going on with the Windows store to make that market position a winner.  The majority of the demand is likely to be on full blown Windows 8 Pro tablets where the options of attaching a traditional keyboard and mouse and running your old familiar programs is a significant advantage.

The Up Sides

The core system in Windows 8 takes the solid core of 7, and makes it even more solid.  There are really not a whole lot of deep changes here, just some handy optimizations.   Microsoft was keen on the fact that this OS was destined for tablets and mobile devices, where power management is key and memory usage need to be minimal.  The end result is an OS that can beat the performance of Windows 7 in most situations, while consuming less power when it’s not needed.

The way Windows handles changes in network connections is very much improved.  Windows 7 and prior would often leave you’re connection on wireless even after connecting to a much faster and more reliable wired Ethernet connection.  Only after doing some connection properties metrics adjustments would you be able to force traffic over to the faster connection.  And this would not work for active connections, such as a file transfer in process.  Windows 8 now detects the changes and re-routes traffic immediately.  Even an in process file transfer will jump to the fast connection immediately.

The Task Manager and File Transfer Dialogs are also much improved with more information on what’s going on with your system.

Potential Markets

I see Windows 8 fitting into a market currently not addressed by the competition, the tablet that converts up to a full blown workstation.  A full blown x86 processor will always destroy the performance of an ARM system, and Windows 8 is currently alone in that capability in the tablet market.   The only trouble now is that OEM’s have yet to figure out a good way to make that happen.  There have been a handful of creative ideas:

  • Transformers: By adding a keyboard clamshell to a traditional tablet similar to Asus’s transformer series, Windows 8 can bridge between a laptop and a tablet.  This is an established and potentially valuable spot to be in.
  • Convertibles: Some OEM’s have played around with changing screen configurations to transform a laptop into a chunky tablet, these have a bit too much weight to directly compete with an iPad
  • Dockables: This is what I would like to see more of, a tablet with reasonable speed and battery life that docks into a full blown desktop workstation.  So far, no manufacturer has jumped on the potential of Thunderbolt’s PCI Express capabilities to make this really happen, but when it does I see great potential.

The main drawback to the Windows 8 pro as a tablet will be battery life.  At least until Intel’s Haswell low power chips arrive in designs, the most reasonable design will be limited to under 6 hours of battery and definitely not reach the iPad’s up to 10 hour mark.  This is where the usage case comes in, that kind of battery life is probably more suited for general consumption where an ARM processor makes sense.  When one is doing serious work where CPU is needed, you’re less likely to be chilling on a couch when working so a reduction in battery is not as likely to be a big deal.  For me at least, 4 or more hours would be sufficient if it met my requirement of being a capable PC workstation.

What Happens now?

We’ll have to wait and see.  Tablets are now an unstoppable force that will continue to outsell traditional PC’s in the future.  The modern UI is unique and stands out a bit from the competition and Microsoft’s one OS to rule them all strategy is also unique.  Only time will tell if it is enough to challenge the iOS establishment and the freely licensed Android ecosystem.  One thing is for sure, Microsoft needs to continue to refine its product and smooth out the rough edges of the UI with considerations for both pure finger touch tablets and desktop power users.  Waiting another 3 years for Windows 9 is going to be too slow when the competition is turning out annual version updates.

One thing is certain, the PC landscape is changing rapidly and the mouse and keyboard dominance will fade for the general user.  Holding onto the legacy business users and hoping for the best is no longer an option, those that choose to ignore the shifting market will be left behind in the history books.