I wiped my main laptop this week and installed Windows 8 Developer Preview on it, which you can grab here. I read a few blogs regarding whether it was ready enough to act as your primary machine, and most of the responses were detailed and anlytical and the answer was always no due to various technical failings. I'd like to suggest that Windows 8 is entirely ready for you to use (with certain caveats) but that you won't WANT to continue using it, because it's design is fundamentally flawed. And that flaw lies in it's greatest potential strength, Microsoft's big gamble: that there need be no distinction between a desktop OS, a mobile OS, or a 10 foot OS.
In many ways Windows 8 looks and feels like Windows 7, which is great if you like Windows 7 (which I do), but changes begin as soon as you hit the Start/Windows button. What used to give us a Start Menu (which saw little major revision since Windows 95) now gives you a very mobile-inspired "Start pane", which Microsoft wants you to think of as the primary interface of your computer. The visual style is called Metro: it's very clean, it's smooth, it's touch-optimized, it's highly reminiscent of the Windows 7 mobile OS as well as the improved Xbox 360 interface. And taken on it's own, it works very well.
Some have complained that it's not very intuitive without touch, I think that's nitpicking a bit. I got used to the Metro forms and methods very quickly, and came to like a lot of the design and interactive decisions. All of the pre-loaded shortcuts that you see in the image above load "Metro-style apps" which are applications with UI's written according to the Metro design spec, and which open up in this full-screen, Metro world. Some of them are simple proof-of-concepts and others don't work great, but the concept is solid.
Where it all starts to break down, however, is in any application that isn't written with a Metro style. And that's not because it's not touch-friendly, or because it's not sleek and sexy like Metro... but because it tears you out of the Metro experience that you are meant to love. Loading any non-Metro app, or indeed clicking on the "Desktop" button available on the Metro Start pane, throws you back to the tried-and-true Windows desktop.
At that point, you are reminded that you can launch applications simply from your desktop, or from the start bar. You'll be tempted to fire up Internet Explorer, and start browsing the web. What's wrong with that, you might ask? Because there's also a Metro-styled Internet Explorer, and that's the one you should really be using. Or is it? I don't remember. I know that I was browsing the web in the Metro IE 10 (which is actually really good), and then I downloaded an application, which took me back to my desktop. After it installed I wanted to keep browsing the web, so I hit the Internet Explorer button on my desktop... but now I'm not where I was before. It's a different browser, with a totally different session.
Those kinds of problems start to rear their head more and more often, the longer you spend time in Windows 8. I lasted just shy of 2 work days, before the changes between Metro and old-school-desktop just became too jarring. I spent the first day predominantly using the old-school-desktop, and it worked great but wasn't much of a departure from Windows 7. I spent the second day predominantly using Metro apps, like Metro IE 10, Metro Remote Desktop, Metro Twitter and so on. Which was also great, except when it was throwing me out on street (desktop) when Metro came to end of it's functionality. After a few hours, I couldn't bear to click on the Start button anymore, because I knew I'd be faced with a beautiful interface and an even more exciting idea, only to be yanked back from the thrilling precipice of destiny by the drop-forged-steel chains of The Windows Desktop.
Before Windows 8 can really become viable, Microsoft has got to decide between Metro, and the old school desktop. There's simply no way around it. On phones and 10-foot UIs, Metro will clearly be awesome. I'd like to suggest that it could also rule on the desktop. It will present a great number of challenges, but if Microsoft hopes to move back into the realm of personal-computing-thought-leadership, then it's time they made some hard calls like this. I LOVE the idea of being able to develop an application once, and have it usable on all Windows powered devices. That's huge. And to get there, I'm willing to bid farewell to the desktop concept, even if I'm still using a desktop PC. Who's with me?
For those interested in some of the technical failings and successes, I made the following notes:
Windows 8 stuff:
- I installed some software that needed the .Net runtime. Windows is now aware of .Net, and can simply enable the Windows feature. I was told "the application wants to enable Windows features", so I clicked OK, and then "Windows needs to connect to Windows Update to download the necessary features". That's brilliance... simple, integrated, and no more asking for the install media.
- I had no problems installing and using OpenVPN, PDFCreator, PDFSAM (PDF Split + Merge), Spotify, Crashplan, WebEx, Google Video Chat, Skype, or Propellerhead Reason 6.
- Almost all the drivers for my Dell Latitude E6410 were found during install, a notable improvement from Windows 7 in my case. I was able to use Windows 7 drivers without any trouble, for those that were missing. NVidia's Windows 7 drivers installed totally fine.
- The Metro area runs fullscreen, but only displays on one monitor. You can easily move it from one to the next, but individual apps running in Metro are stuck in that one-monitor environment. This is totally stupid, and could be solved if they made Windows 8 be ALL Metro, ALL the time.
- You can't have a Metro app open in one monitor, and ANYTHING ELSE in the other monitor. If you've ever made Adobe Flash player video fullscreen, and then clicked momentarily on something on your second display, you'll know what I mean: the Windows fullscreen overlay can only handle one thing at a time, as soon as you want to work on your second display, the fullscreen state is lost. Metro suffers from this as well, and it's stupid. See the above point.
- The current version of Google Chrome won't let you re-arrange tabs... and not only that, but if you attempt to, it permanently pulls that tab into it's own window. Which is a game killer for me. So I installed Firefox, which is generally functional, but suffers from strange GUI rendering problems. Also... Firefox is a crap browser. That was the single biggest reason I went back to Windows 7 after only two days.
- Performance wise, it's running very fast. Boot up and shut down times were both between around 20-30 seconds for me, which is not quite as good as I get from Windows 7.
- There's a "correct as you type" spelling feature, which is cool, but I suspect is the cause of strange misspellings and word omissions in things I'm writing. I need to re-read just about everything, and I often find entire words missing (more than usually happens due to my own errors).
- When using Wordpress, I can't insert images into my posts unless I switch to Compatibility Mode.
- In Metro IE, self-closing popups (such as for authentication) work nicely: they appear, load, then disappear, returning you to the Metro IE tab you were on that launched the pop/tab/window. My description of this process is poor... you'll see it and you'll like it.
- My company's video site, CatchTheFire.TV doesn't play in IE10 at all (in either compatibility mode OR normal mode, Metro and otherwise). That's a bit of a problem.
- Google Video (part of our Google Apps suite) doesn't load at all in Metro IE.
- I gave IE10 a fair shot, and it's really not a bad browser; I'd place it a firm second behind Google Chrome. However the side loading issues that I ran into (which weren't wide-spread, but were catastrophic when they occurred) meant I had to install another browser.