Jeff Gelles: Microsoft takes risk with Windows 8

Microsoft has taken a bold risk with its new Windows 8 features by replacing its original style with modern touch gestures to execute commands.
Microsoft has taken a bold risk with its new Windows 8 features by replacing its original style with modern touch gestures to execute commands. (DAVID PAUL MORRIS / Bloomberg)
Posted: February 22, 2013

For years, Microsoft drew flak as being stodgy, risk-averse, and anything but innovative. No longer. You can find things to criticize in its latest high-profile projects - Windows 8, the Surface tablets, and this week's new Outlook.com. But you can't say Microsoft won't roll the dice.

For traditionalists, Windows 8 and its tablet-specific cousin, Windows RT, can come as a shock. The familiar desktop is pushed to the side in favor of Microsoft's "live tiles" innovation: a home screen full of large icons that display continually updating data (your latest e-mails, next calendar appointment, news updates). They can prompt you to click to an underlying app or spare you the trouble.

Some clearly find the change jarring. In a piece for MIT Technology Review, one respected scientist and tech writer, Simson Garfinkel, called Windows 8 "a computer science masterpiece trapped inside a user interface kerfuffle." A key complaint: While he found the touch-optimized interface "a pleasure to use on phones and tablets," it fell short on desktops.

Garfinkel is right to see risk in Microsoft's decision to unify its user experiences - from cell phones to tablets to desktops - based on live tiles. Microsoft is, after all, king of the corporate desktop and laptop. And it's hardly reassuring that the company can't seem to settle on a name for the interface, which it first called "Metro" and now, at least internally, refers to as "Modern."

But if you think of Microsoft as newly bold and creative - come on, give it a try - maybe it's just more evidence of a company willing to gamble. At the least, it's worth weighing Windows 8's features on their own terms. Together, they add up to an impressive package:

The start screen. The missing Start button is plainly the most jarring change for anyone comfortable with older versions of Windows, though the home screen may comfort those familiar with the app-based interfaces of iPhones, iPads, or Androids. Tap a tile to launch a program. Visit the Store to look for new tools, games, or entertainment.

How do you cope if your workday is full of, well, work? In fairness, the familiar Windows desktop is actually just one click away. In fact, the key change is really just a conceptual shift, said Jay Paulus, director of Windows small-business marketing.

"We took the start button and we replaced that with a full screen - a start screen rather than a start button," Paulus said.

And the Windows desktop? Click on a tile labeled "Desktop," and voilà! "The way we think about it is that this thing is still here, but it's like an app," he said.

Full-screen apps. Because it's meant for devices of any size, using the whole screen is one of Windows 8's design principles, Paulus said. "Windows gets out of your way."

To make that work, Windows 8 and its tablet-only cousin, RT, use touch gestures - chiefly, swiping the screen's various edges - to execute commands. For example, swiping from the right unveils key controls called "Charms," including Search, Share, Devices, and Settings. Swiping from the bottom reveals in-app controls, or allows you to pin something to the Start screen.

For example, I can use Windows 8's well-designed Mail program to track almost all my e-mail - unfortunately, it doesn't support the old-fashioned POP protocol still favored by Comcast, my home Internet provider. If I want to prioritize work e-mail received via Microsoft Exchange Server, all I need to do is pin that inbox to the Start screen.

And for that pesky Comcast mail? I can use Outlook, the familiar e-mail program that comes as part of Office 2013, and pin that to the home screen.

Touch vs. mouse. To make the interface work on any device, Microsoft established mouse analogues for every kind of touch. For example, swiping from the left shows every active app or program. With a mouse, you hover in the upper-left corner, then pull down a column of active windows.

An easy shortcut - the familiar Windows key plus the X - brings up a "power user" menu, with major system controls. Want to start a program in a flash? Hit Windows and start typing. Typing "ex" gives you a quick choice among File Explorer, Internet Explorer, and Excel.

Compatibility. Windows 8 was designed to run virtually any Windows 7 program. So far, "we're just not finding any compatibility issues," Paulus said.

Security. A key advance with Windows 8 is designed to forestall so-called "rootkit" malware. Before it loads code into memory, it makes sure it's been digitally signed and hasn't been tampered with, Paulus said. "It eliminates a whole line of attack."


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

 

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