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Dissecting Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s take on Windows 8

Sections: Features, Operating Systems, Opinions and Editorials, Windows

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In his personal blog, Microsoft founding co-partner Paul Allen has posted a thoroughgoing analysis of Windows 8, which he says represents a significant evolutionary milestone in Windows development, particularly in expanding hardware support to mobile devices in the interest of providing a more unified user experience across all the platforms Microsoft supports with Windows: PC, tablet, and smartphone.

After a brush with cancer in 1982, Paul Allen, who is credited with coining the name “Micro-Soft,” never returned to the company full-time. He officially resigned from his Microsoft board membership in November 2000 but has subsequently consulted as a senior strategy advisor to the company’s executives, and still reportedly owns some 138 million shares of Microsoft stock.

Windows 8

Allen categorizes the new tablet features in Windows 8 as “particularly bold and innovative,” using the term “bimodal interface” in reference to Microsoft’s decision to simultaneously support both desktop and tablet use with the same operating system rather than offering distinct desktop and mobile OSs as Apple does with OS X and the iOS.

However, Allen concedes that he has encountered some “puzzling aspects of Windows 8,” and notes that the “bimodal user experience” can introduce confusion, especially when two versions of the same application—such as Internet Explorer—can be opened and run simultaneously. Files can likewise be opened in either of the two available modes.

Microsoft’s tilt toward touch input and control appears clear. The Windows 8 touchscreen user interface theme (formerly known as Metro UI having been redubbed “Windows 8 Style”) having much in common with Apple’s iOS UI, with apps that typically occupy the full screen, are bereft of traditional menus, and provide a more limited collection of commands than you would expect from a full desktop application.

A major distinction is that unlike with the iOS, traditional Windows desktop applications with familiar menus and commands can also be run in Windows 8 from a user-optional Desktop view, which largely resembles the traditional Desktop from recent versions of Windows.

Allen observes that one of the single biggest changes in Windows 8 is its lack of the familiar Windows Start menu by default, in favor of a Start screen conceptually similar to Apple’s OS X Launcher in versions 10.7.and 10.8, but styled with a scrollable collection of tiles representing apps. However, users can always return to the Start screen by pressing the WINDOWS key.

He also points out that building hierarchies on the Start screen is unsupported, and tiles can only be arranged in a single flat scrollable “layer.” So, if you have hundreds of tiles, you may need to perform lots of scrolling to find the tile you’re looking for, noting that both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android offer hierarchical functionality on their mobile devices in the form of folders.

Other user interface angularities highlighted by Allen include:

  • Difficult to scroll in Desktop view on a tablet
  • No clock on the Start screen
  • On-screen keyboard doesn’t appear automatically in Desktop view

Allen concedes that Windows 8 certainly requires an adjustment period before users will become familiar and comfortable with the new bimodal operating system, but says he’s particularly excited about the prospects for Windows 8 on tablets, praising the Windows 8 Style tablet interface elegant, responsive, and comparing favorably with other tablet UIs. And with its as-yet unique capability to optionally switch to Desktop view on a tablet, Windows 8 extends to mobile users the flexibility to run traditional applications in a more more efficient productivity environment while on the go.

The operative conundrum is, of course, how experienced Windows users perceive the new user interface experience, which is a far more radical departure from Windows 7, Vista, and XP than anything Apple has attempted with OS X. There is certainly an argument to be made in favor of the dual-mode (“bimodal”) UI in theory, and it appeals to me in the sense of making multiple open windows, real multitasking, mouse-driven input, and access to the file system available on tablet computers, which at least potentially should make Windows 8 tablets (especially ones packing full X86 CPU muscle) much better platforms for production-oriented and content creator users than, say, Apple’s application-centric, full screen only, mouse-free, no file system access iOS user environment.

However, Windows 8 adds more, rather than fewer, layers of complexity to the user experience, and Windows users have historically tended to be a conservative crowd, especially the large enterprise Windows-user cohort. A salient case in point is that 12-year-old Windows XP only finally dropped below a 50 percent share of the overall desktop OS market earlier this year, and remains above 40 percent in the most recent NetMarketShare data. Windows 7 has finally begun to substantially displace users’ stubborn affinity for XP, but are they ready to embrace yet another change, especially such a radical one as Windows 8 presents, complete with the significant “adjustment period” learning curve Paul Allen refers to?

Nor are many Windows power-users, who might be expected to embrace the concept of an optional desktop user interface on tablets, effusively enthusiastic about the Windows 8 UI, so Microsoft appears to be taking a roll-of-the-dice risk of alienating most everyone.

You can read Paul Allen’s Windows 8 blog at paulallen.com.

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