Microsoft has done the near impossible with its Windows 8 announcement this last week – it has catapulted into the lead in client OS software design ahead of both Apple iOS +MacOS/X and Google Android+ChromeOS. This is the good news for Microsoft – the bad news is that Apple and/or Google can quickly regain the advantage as Microsoft is still months away from release of Windows 8 despite the appearance of the Windows 8 Developer Preview. Also this competitive pressure is going to put pressure on Microsoft’s Windows margins much as Google Apps and Oracle are doing to Microsoft Office.
But Microsoft Windows 8 design victory is is simply a case of a better UI strategy, development support and cross-device commitment. Windows 8 outdesigns Apple and Google with its Metro UI interface. Metro’s tiles beat iOS and Android icons with active content. Metro has disciplined set of touches and gestures that apply uniformly across desktop to tablets and any device that crosses the 1000 pixel wide barrier[just about all devices in the next 2-3 years]. Both iOS and Android are behind artificial screen size barriers or none compete stricture when appplied to the desktop/laptops – for example, no touchscreen for MacOS/X or only in a browser for Google’s ChromeOS on laptops].
In general Windows 8 has applied a graphics design motif to all its screen element in contrast with the jumble of stylings and growing stock of outlandish touch gestures being patented by Apple and the vendor muddle allowed to proliferate on Google Android devicess. Windows 8 also prospers by providing more tools for development, better direct links to the Cloud, and new programming enablers with async for improved speed, contracts for cleaner sharing , and better security measures. In sum, Windows 8 is a leap ahead OS design for a broad range of mobile to desktop devices and everything in between. Now just like in a stock market advisory, this pronouncement is full of caveats and conditions. Here is the crux of those conditions:
1)Windows 8 will be released on tablets and PCs between May to October 2012;
2)Windows 8 when released will have no gotcha dysfuntionality in the style of Microsoft Vista;
3)Windows 8 when released will use less memory than Windows 7 running the same software on the same hardware configuration;
4)Windows 8 response time across the board will be faster than Windows 7 running the same software on the same hardware configuration;
5)Windows 8 will make the Desktop UI a full touchscreen citizen;
6)Windows 8 will continue to support the current Windows classic GUI on all platforms – smartphones, tablets, desktop PCs where screen size exceed 1024 by 768 pixels[Note this rules out almost all current smartphones and many tablets today; but with quadcore processsors and next generation high definition screens becoming available in the next year - Classic Windows GUI should run on those "beefed up" smartphones and tablets].
This is a formidable set of provisions but note that the latest version of Windows 8 Server is not included in the release time frame; but the latest version of Azure is presumed to be available.
What has Microsoft done to win this notable reversal of fortune? Simple – spurred by the competition from Apple and Google on smartphones and tablets, Windows 8 should deliver a better and more uniform RAIA-Rich Anywhere Interactive Applications as client OS experience than either Apple or Google has on offer. Lets look how Windows 8 will deliver where Apple and Android fall short.
Anywhere – for countless PDC and TechEd conferences Bill Gates would trot out a slide that purported to show Windows runnning on devices from tiny watches through phones onto desktops and finally servers – among the press there was always a knowing chuckle or two. But with Windows 8 and the Metro UI that ball game changes dramatically in Windows favor – Windows classic or Metro interface will fit from small to large devices . And not just fit but prosper. And that is because Windows 8 has a great cross device Metro UI but has also added great new app features. These include the Cloud operations and Share to and Play to interfacing to a wide range of devices. In contrast, Apple has been slow to make the Cloud connection and only shares with its own iPad, iPod, and iPhone devices. Google appears to be doing the same with its Android and ChromeOS systems – a limited to browser experience in ChromeOS while both Android and Chrome OS see the Cloud through Web-only eyes.
Interactive – there is so much to like in Metro UI . First, tiles make icons look antediluvian for being a launch point because icons are not live with active data like tiles. Second, the careful adjustment of the touch interface to more disciplined and natural gestures is a god-send given the many three-fingers-and-a-wink type gestures that are being Apple-patented and thrust onto the mobile market place. Third, reducing menu and iconic clutter, make for more easily used and learned apps. Fourth, attention to good graphics and design/animation details with many starter templates means good UI design principles will likely prosper. Fifth, the commitment to both live and active processes [tiles are constantly active as are all apps which remain in memory, available at a swipe], means a fresh interface. And one could easily go on and on. In contrast, ye Editor is surprised that both Apple and Google got caught flatfooted on a number of these interface innovations.
Applications – as noted Windows 8 supports Metro or Windows classic applications with built in features like async, contracts, and notifications make Windows much more versatile in delivering fast and well designed applications. Async alone almost guarantees that Redmond will more than meet caveat conditions 3) and 4) above. What is particualry notable is the the use of Expression Blend as a live debug/development tool. Also the building in of Hyper-V as virtual machine of choice means that VMware takes a big hit but cross platform takes a positive move. In sum, new and interesting applications have a much better chance to be developed on Windows 8- ye Editor did not expect to say that.
So both users and developers will have two Windows GUI interfaces to choose from and for developers, the advantage of 4 development tools to work with – C/C++ for pedal to the metal apps, C# and Visual Basic for faster developed and more UI friendly apps and then HTML5 for quick Web and even device top apps. But the real gem is the way that Windows 8that take advantage of the Cloud andcancommunicate with many devices[however, see our downside worries just below].
Finally take a look at what the Metro UI brings to interface Design and Layout:
The Downsides of 8
First on the Metro UI side I worry when I see no tooltip/popup windows allowed[no overlapping windows allowed in Metro]. Ditto nixing of tab panels and accordion panels. And no sliding/resizable panels - just the left or right “charmed” fixed size secondary panels. In short, Windows 8 design guru Jensen Harris appears to have imposed some inflexible options on an otherwise very well designed Metro interface.
But ye Editor hardly expected to be praising Microsoft Windows 8 - especially after the travesty that was Vista. And give Steve Ballmer credit, he stuck his neck out letting the creatives and developers [ top marks to Jensen Harris and Steve Sinofsky]not marketing types or jostling young turk execs decide how to make a truly cross device Windows reinvented work. But, lets face it – this is Redmond so you have to consider the downside and Redmond is not shy or short changing on … well some “hardball” nasties.
First, and foremost Windows 8 is as usual – highly proprietary. This means do not expect to be able to port Metro Apps to other OS platforms with any help from Redmond. Mono on Linux is way behind the 4.5 .NET Framework and the Metro Windows Runtime is exactly that – a “Windows-only” runtime. Likewise Windows 8 Cloud feature require Windows Azure - don’t look for lots of support for Amazon EC2 or other competing Cloud Frameworks – the Cloud vendors will have to provide their own connections into Windows 8.
1)Browser wars with Netscape made for crippling non-standard extensions still lingering to this day in IE;
2) For 6 years starting in 2000 Microsoft did no new features in IE prompting a Firefox and then Chrome rebellion;
3)On promised in 1998 compliance with Web standards, only IE9 in 2010 finally came close to complying with those long promised standards.
Much of this boils down to questions of compatibility and interoperability. Currently the biggest problem confronting IT shops large and small is isolated silos of information. The data is there but on an OS infrastructure that make cross platform queries and data movement extremely challenging in both development anhd consistent, timely performance. There are both small signs of improvement but also [see immediately above] worrisome trends as well.
Notably, with Windows 8 Wintel becomes ARMnWintel. Already there is talk that Windows Classic UI will not run natively on Windows 8 ARM-based tablets and devices. Microsoft has been cautioning that their mind is not yet made up. This decision has so many implications and possibilities one can only say stay tuned. Finally, Microsoft has been monopolistically arrogant – Microsoft’s tablets + Phones, IE and Windows Vista underline that. The belief that they could release software and then shape the market just does not apply – as Apple and Google have proved for the past 5 years. So software that is less than beta or requires third-time charm revsions – those days are definitely over. But does Microsoft recognize this? Only the Shadow knows… so it becomes a question of trust.
A Question of Trust
The above problems indicate that before Windows 8 can be embraced, Microsoft has some serious questions of trust among all its stakeholders. For consumers, there has been the disasters of Vista and IE, draconian imposition of ribbons UI in Office and other Windows apps [changes requiring significant relearning curves for marginal interface improvements,]and the continued high prices for Windows software. In stark contrast there is only 1 not 6 versions of Mac OS/X and iOS [but Apple's Final Cut Pro recently saw major changes to the interface that has resulted in a surge in Adobe's competing Premiere Pro sodftware from disgruntled Final Cut users]. But Apple in the AppStore has brought about a revolution in software pricing and delivery which Google has emulated and established even lower pricing for Google Apps – many are free.
Windows 8 will have an App Store but when its intro-ed and pricing conditions have not been set. Redmonds take [30% in the case of Apple for most software sold in its App Stores] will effect both consumers and developers. This is coming at a time when major software vendors are switching to annual subscription pricing pioneered by SAS and being adopted by major players like Adobe and Intuit. So developers have a great stake in the directions Microsoft takes.
Developers have always lived under the Redmond gun that for their most successful programs/software, Microsoft may choose to enter the market and give its software illegal but hard to prove Windows first insights. In addition, if Microsoft does not get the market share it wants, it has a huge store house of programs where it can do special 2 for 1 deals or “extended free trials” until Redmond gets the market share it desires. Finally, ISVs at times have had to pick up the pieces for Windows security or reliability problems. Monthly security and reliability fixes have to be borne by Windows ISVs as much as end users. Finally, Corporate IT has not been enamored of the Monthly Secuiry’Tuesday’s no the litany of security and reliability debacles emanating from Redmon for the past 10-15 years.
Corporate IT gets a lot of services in return for their loyalty to Microsoft products including many tiers of discount pricing, special installation and administration programs, better support services, and early insights on new products. But Corporate IT has also born the brunt of virus and hack attacks for the past 10-15 years . True, some are self-inflicted wounds such that monthly security and reliability fixes are ”must dos” for their operational shops. And IT shops developers always have the problem of proprietary software, even Web and IE software,that adds unwanted sidetracks to their already overloaded development teams. But perhaps the major concern for IT shops is the lack of compatibility and interoperability when using Windows software. The resulting isolated islands of information means getting data to users is either too costly, not timely or simply impossible.
So all three major Microsoft stakeholders have some real concerns about the future represented by Window 8. Will the Jensen Harris Metro style interface be like the ribbon bar in Office – too rigid[remenber there are no pop up windows, no close icons, no tab panels, and other familiar classic Windows interface controls allowed in Metro] or add to implementation and learning costs. Will classic Windows UI be well integrated into Metro so that the same program can easily switch between the two interfaces as required by the tasks? How long will the classic Windows interface be supported by Microsoft? Will the new contracts, security manifest, identity system plus Windows Store add a new level of security against hacking and viruses that appear to have been achieved by Apple with iOS and the Apple App Store? In general, will Microsoft be like in the past “benovolent dictators” to their various stakeholders or more service oriented providers responsive to their partners needs on better than a 2-4 year development cycle?
Surprise, surprise Microsoft out-designed both Apple and Google with Windows 8 in both Metro style and developer implementation. Steve B. must thank Steve J. for giving Microsoft the chance to comeback by charging at least double the price for Macs for the past 3 years, not allowing Apple MacOS/X to run in VM”s on exactly the same hardware equivalent PCs, and restricting touch screen operations to iOS only[touch screen is still not allowed on Mac OS/X Lion]; thus not taking over the PC desktop and laptops markets. Now Macs are gaining but do not expect Tim Cook to reverse these pivotal decisions. But Windows 8 appears to clearly have won a decisive mobile OS design advantage by delivering a better cross device UI design with more options for development – good for users and developers both.
Google did an interesting thing in 2011 – in response to challenges from Facebook, GroupOn, Twitter and other social media systems, Google responded with the its first well designed Web interface – Google+. It is now in a position to hammer GroupOn and even Facebook and clearly has the best new software for 2011. Microsoft with Windows 8′s strong and compelling design gives Redmond a much better than even chance to do the same and become the best new software for 2012 with Windows 8.
Microsoft – The Windows 8 Unveiling
Boy Genius Report – Sorry Apple, Windows 8 usheres in the Post-Post-PC era.
CNET - Windows 8 hardware limits
InfoWorld – What we know about Windows 8 ; worthy of a closer look
TheOpenSourcery - More details on Windows 8
PCWorld - Windows 8, iOS and the future
ReadWriteWeb – Steve Ballmer – “We have a long way to go with Windows 8″
TheRegister – Windows 8′s high risk .NET Switch
The first of many visual comparisons with iPad: