Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Do you ever long for the days when they just called them “Betas” and only a select few could get at them?

Anyway, like most of the Microsoft Geek world, I pulled down the Windows 8 Consumer Preview that became available yesterday, and since I had one of those spiffy Samsung Slates that Microsoft handed out at the //build conference last year, I decided to update my Win8 build there with the new one.

Frankly, although I admit that I read my buddy Brian Randell’s post on how to update the //build tablet with Win8 first, I probably didn’t need to—it was incredibly trivial to do. Pulling down Visual Studio 11 was also pretty easy to do, though I’m still (about 90 minutes later) still waiting for all the help file indexes to merge. (I like having documentation offline, because I spend so much time on a plane and it’s so frustrating to not be able to figure out why something’s not working because I can’t get F1 to tell me what the expected ins-and-outs of a given method are, or the name of that stupid class that I just can’t remember.)

DevExpress captured my thoughts on Windows 8 while we were all down there in LA for the //build conference last year, and I can summarize them thusly:

  • Microsoft needs to hit a base hit with this release. They need to show the world that they are, in fact, capable of innovating and changing the rules of the game back to favor their team, rather than just letting Apple continue to churn out consumer devices without viable competition and complete their domination of that market.
  • Clearly the consumer market world is all about tablets and slates (or oversized phones, whatever you want to call them). Touch-ready devices are pretty obviously a big thing for the consumer world, over and above the traditional keyboard-and-mouse device, at least all the way up until you have somebody who has to type for a living (such as *ahem* all those authors and programmers out there).
  • Having said that, though, despite what Microsoft said in their keynote (“Any monitor out there that isn’t touch-capable is broken”), very very few consumers own touch-based monitors, and won’t, for a long time, particularly if the touch-capable tablet/slate continues to make such strong inroads into the traditional PC market. Think about it this way: aside from the traditional hard-core gamer, what does the average American need a keyboard/mouse/mini-tower/monitor for? More specifically, what do they need that setup for that can’t be done using a tablet/slate? Frankly, I’m at a loss. I consider my mother, a grade-school principal, a pretty average consumer of technical devices (no offense, Mom!), and honestly I can’t see that there’s anything she does that isn’t well-served by a tablet/slate.

So here’s my litmus test for Microsoft, if Windows is going to remain relevant into the next decade:

  • They must continue to have a worthy successor to Windows for all those keyboard/mouse/monitor PCs out there, and…
  • They must release a great touch-capable OS for all the tablet/slate devices that are going to eventually replace those keyboard/mouse/monitor PCs out there.

Notice that I didn’t say this had to be the same operating system. Therein lies my concern: I’m not sure it can be one operating system that covers both niches. There is an old saying that says that “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24, for anybody who’s trying to keep me intellectually honest here.) This is where I think Windows 8 is primed to fail: I think by trying to serve both the keyboard/mouse/monitor master, their existing consumer base, at the same time they try to serve the tablet/slate market that they hope will become their new consumer base, they run the risk of sacrificing one in favor of the other.

At //build, they seemed to favor the Metro look over the “classic” desktop look, and certainly a lot of the negative reviews I heard about Win8 during that time seemed to come from the folks that tried to use Metro on a keyboard/mouse/monitor setup. Those of us who had the tablets/slates seemed to find Metro pretty intuitive. But then we flip the situation around, and trying to use “classic” desktop mode on the tablet/slate is a royal PITA, where of course the keyboard/mouse/monitor set is completely comfortable with it (particularly since it looks exactly like Windows 7 does).

This most recent release doesn’t really change my opinions much one way or another: trying to use the Bluetooth keyboard to write code is awkward. Using the stylus is necessary, because the icons and buttons and scrollbars and such in classic desktop applications are just too small for my fat fingertips. Not a lot of Metro-ized applications are out there besides the “easy” ones to build (like Twitter clients and such), so it’s hard to feel what Metro would be like on a tablet. (Metro on a phone works out pretty well, so I hold out hope.)

Microsoft, if you’re listening, I *really* urge you to consider a simple Windows split: WIndows 8 Desktop Edition, and Windows 8 Slate Edition. Optimize each in terms of how people will use it. There’s too much riding on this release for you to gamble on the dual goals.