I’ve been running the Windows 8 consumer preview since the day it was available, both on my primary work machine and my home computers, and having seen both its highs and its lows, as well as actively probing its potential, I feel somewhat beholden to share my thoughts on the subject.
Firstly, let’s address the immediate feeling you get when you fire up the new OS and hit the start menu key for the first time. I hated it. I hated the fact that it took up my full screen, I hated that it looked stupid on a multi-monitor setup, I hated that its idea of organising all of my programs was to take every icon from each subfolder within the ‘Programs’ section of my old Start menu and lay them out in a flat layer. I immediately went and installed ViStart, which adds the old, familiar Start Menu back in.
Fast forward a couple of weeks though, and I’ve uninstalled ViStart. I no longer miss the Start Menu, and Windows 7 boxes feel old and clunky – why the change in heart? Well, firstly it’s fast. I mean really fast. Boot times are down to around 12 seconds (Core i7, 8GB DDR3, OCZ Vertex 2 SSD), and every motion and transition within the OS itself is incredibly smooth. Now when I hit the start key on my keyboard and the Metro UI flashes onto screen, it’s accompanied by a swooshing sound in my internal monologue – it’s so smooth. Secondly, I’ve tuned it to my needs. It was stupid of me to assume that it would be tailored to how I want to use it straight out of the box – in the business world, Microsoft don’t provide solutions, they provide products from which you can build a solution. Sharepoint, Dynamics, the System Center Suite, none of these are solutions, they’re products that a business must invest time tailoring to their needs. That’s how I now view Windows 8, and after a couple of weeks I have it configured in a way that suits me beautifully.
My acceptance of the new UI is one thing though, I live and breathe technology, it’s not a huge deal for me to get used to a new piece of tech or a new way of working. Understanding the real beauty here requires a probe below the UI layer, into the underlying business strategy underpinning the whole Windows 8 piece.
Microsoft have submitted a patent request (http://bit.ly/yBjhNk) that demands more than a casual glance, or a nod of ‘oh, that’s cool’. It’s a move that has the potential to fundamentally change the way we use computers, redefining what a computer even is. The core of the idea is a keyboard dock for a tablet, much like that of the Asus Transformer Prime, but with more hardware built in. While the Prime has a battery in its keyboard dock, MS are thinking bigger, adding an x86 processor for legacy app support, and more RAM. The upshot of this is that when you plug a tablet into this dock, it changes from being a tablet with a keyboard, to being a full blown laptop in every respect. With a touchscreen.
That would be a cool feature for iOS or Android, and it would give us new ways to consume data and work, but it wouldn’t fundamentally change how we perceive computers or interact with them day to day. Windows 8, in that respect, is a game changer.
In Microsoft’s vision (or how I perceive it at any rate) there won’t be laptops, or ultrabooks, or desktops any more. There’ll be a single tablet device that you take with you wherever you go, plugging it into appropriate hardware to expand its capabilities to full laptop or desktop mode depending on where you are. Sitting on top of this will be Windows 8 – an operating system that’s as much at home on a tablet as it is a desktop or laptop.
Imagine working on a document at 5:30pm, it’s time to go home but you want to keep working – you undock your tablet from its docking station, detaching it from its ‘desktop dock’ which provides an x86 processor, 8GB RAM, keyboard, mouse, and dual 22” monitors. It switches back to ARM mode, flicking from a Windows desktop that requires keyboard and mouse to the tablet-oriented Metro UI, retaining all your data and the document you’ve been working on, just presenting it in a different way. On the tube journey home you continue working away, with the convenience of a tablet enabling you to be productive despite lack of space. You get home and plug the tablet into your home desktop dock, adding new hardware capabilities to it, linking it to your home storage and changing it to Windows Media Center mode. Or gaming mode. Or another work configuration. The choice becomes yours, how you want your machine to behave is in your hands.
Underpinning this whole idea is the concept that you no longer have multiple machines. A tablet is no longer an add-on device to enhance your desktop and laptop capabilities, your tablet /is/ your device. One device, one operating system, vast and varied capabilities.
If Microsoft can bring this to fruition, and there’s no reason they can’t, for me it’s a game changer. In one swift move they’ll have sewn up the tablet, laptop and desktop market, both for home and business users. Devices like the iPad will look dated and irrelevant in a world where they’re static and unchanging, unable to adapt to varying needs depending on where you are.
I need this device in my life, and to make it work well, it needs Windows 8.