A quaint marriage of the old and new
If you’ve only just got used to the superior looks, performance and stability of the Windows 7 operating system, you’re in for some disappointing news. Microsoft announced the availability of a “developer preview” to its next generation operating system, Windows 8.
And, refreshingly, it’s quite a departure from the polished, slicked-up look that Windows 7 sports today.
For those who aren’t familiar with the software world, a developer preview is an early version of a piece of software that developers can use for compatibility testing.
The process of updating an application’s compatibility and taking advantage of new features in any operating system is, generally speaking, quite laborious.
With Windows 8, however, there’s much more work on the table for developers than before.
The new Windows 8 user interface is called Metro.
The biggest changes are that icons have largely been replaced with tiles that, instead of remaining static, allow applications to communicate status information or content snippets to their users, without them having to physically launch the application.
A perfect example would be an email tile, which at a glance would give users a read-out of how many unread emails they have in their inbox and, depending on available screen real estate, also the subject lines of some of the most recent messages.
The benefit of this is that users launch the application only when there’s something that piques their interest and not every 10 minutes to check for new content.
The best logical place to start
All of the tiles are arranged across a dashboard-type home screen that Microsoft calls the “Start” screen.
It’s a technique that’s taken directly from the smartphone and tablet computing worlds.
That’s why Microsoft is also touch-enabling the entire Metro environment and allowing users to scroll across a number of tiles, arranged on a wide Start screen, with nothing more than a flick of the finger.
Similar to how users would launch an application on a smartphone or tablet, they’ll touch the tile related to the application they want to use.
The Start screen can be customised, allowing users to group and arrange the applications they make most use of. Users can remove applications they don’t make use of from the Start screen and pin new Metro-style applications downloaded from the internet to the dashboard view.
Microsoft will launch an online application store—much like those available for smartphones, tablets and Apple’s Mac OS X operating system—allowing software developers to market and sell their wares.
The desktop’s not dead
With all of this going on, you might wonder what this means for the more traditional applications such as Word processors, spreadsheets and graphics manipulation tools users tend to use most at work.
The answer is that these kinds of applications will make a transition into the Metro environment. In time.
But right now it seems that change is going to take many years to come about.
So, in the interim, the desktop environment currently used by Windows 7 will remain a strong part of the new operating system. Users will, however, be able to launch applications that live in the desktop environment from the Start screen.
An added bonus is that users can arrange the active windows of the “old-school” applications alongside the Metro tiles on the Start screen and, in doing so, they can multitask between applications with ease. It’s a quaint marriage of the old and new worlds.
No pressure to switch
What I find surprising is the lack of pressure Microsoft is putting on its developers to make the transition to Metro with their existing applications.
Microsoft claims the old-style applications cannot function all that effectively in the Metro world—mainly because there’s a level of precision input, governed by the keyboard and mouse, that touchscreens just don’t cope all that well with.
But it’s something I just don’t buy.
Metro supports the use of keyboard and mouse input. In fact, there’s a slew of mouse gestures and keyboard shortcuts designed to get users around Metro with ease.
It’s my opinion that Microsoft should at this point be doing a little more to get its developers concentrating on embracing the new environment with their existing applications.
Microsoft has done a sterling job with Windows 8 and for the first time in a long time it looks as though the company is taking the lead on the innovation front again.
Brett Haggard is the publisher of Connect Magazine and Microsoft paid for him to attend the Build Conference in Los Angeles