Windows 8 represents a huge change, not just for Microsoft, but for everyone who uses a computer. Microsoft is pushing Windows to new heights in terms of design. In the process, it’s created a hybrid operating system that fuses speed and mobility with serious productivity. Sure, it may take some getting used to, but Microsoft stumbled (or planned to stumble) on the future of computing. With Windows 8, you no longer have to spread your life across devices. Instead, your laptop can be your tablet and your tablet can be your desktop (with an external display) and so on and so forth forever and ever.
It will definitely take some getting used to — the hands-on nature of the OS already requires a bit of a brain rewire — but change should be exciting. This is the first time in a long time that Microsoft has drastically overhauled the aesthetics in Windows and it should be celebrated for it. Yes, it has its limitations and annoyances, but Microsoft is steadily rolling out updates and responding to customer feedback. There’s nowhere to go but up.
Earlier this week we published a list outlining five really annoying attributes of Windows 8 and they still stand true. But we did say it wasn’t all bad and this is why.
Windows 8 and Windows RT
Introducing two very distinct version of Windows (RT and 8) and not properly explaining them is, admittedly, ill-advised. It’s confusing to customers but the two versions are a necessary evil to drive the success of Windows 8. To put it plainly, Microsoft needed to compete with the iPad. It was do or die.
For those of you who still don’t know the difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT (it’s not your fault), Windows 8 is the full version complete with support of legacy apps and access to the classic desktop environment. It runs on x86 devices, which can be powered by Intel or AMD chips with an estimated battery life of 8 hours. RT, on the other hand, is the mobile version of Windows 8. Apps can only be downloaded through the Windows Store (third-party software is not compatible) and it runs on ARM chips that boast up to 20 hours of battery. There is technically a desktop mode, but it only exists to run Microsoft Office and a desktop version of Internet Explorer.
Windows 8 is a fantastic platform for users who need a proper desktop and can’t lose their favorite Windows 7 apps, but people in the market for an iPad replacement don’t need a high-powered device and certainly won’t be wooed by promises of 8-hour battery life. For the average consumer looking for a tablet, a streamlined version of Windows is the best fit. It’s optimized for touch, installing apps is quick and painless, push notifications are supported, and battery life undergoes a significant jump. Right now the Windows Store is a bit bare, but more and more apps will be made available in the coming months. Both Google and Mozilla already have beta versions of Chrome and Firefox optimized for Windows 8-style UI. It may take a while for your favorite apps to catch up with the new requirements, but the basics are already available.
The bottom line is that without Windows RT to offer superior battery life and cheaper prices, Microsoft wouldn’t stand a chance at competing against iOS and Android in the tablet market.
It’s two operating systems gently molded together
Windows 8 has received a whole lot of criticism for plastering a mobile OS on top of a desktop environment and calling it “revolutionary”, but the truth is that most people will rarely leave the Start Screen. For most common tasks (ie: web browsing, email, music, social media, video, etc.) the Windows 8-style interface will do just fine. For web browsing, you have IE10, which is surprisingly not horrible, the Mail app is acceptable, and social media is built into the People app. However, as we all know, mobile apps aren’t always the most productive pieces of software and that’s where the traditional desktop is crucial for power users.
It’s the inclusion of the desktop environment that proves although Microsoft is ready to move forward with Windows, it wants to take existing users by the hand and give them time to adjust. Rather than shoehorn mobile elements into its desktop OS (much like Apple seems to be doing with OSX), Microsoft chose to make its mobile elements very much distinct from the traditional desktop. What may seem like an odd design choice at first, is actually a powerful tool. The PC is split into two software modes: consumer and producer. In the desktop mode, you’ll primarily be creating new content, while in the Windows 8-style UI, you’ll be consuming content. It’s a nice separation that can keep you focused while performing various tasks. Having both the mobile and classic sides of Windows on the same device has more perks as well, like using the same device for web browsing before bed that you use to work on your kick-ass career (or hobby).
It’s a fresh design
There’s no denying that — for better or worse — Windows 8 brings something fresh and exciting to personal computing. While Apple seems to only be interested in coasting along on its established reputation for reliable hardware and software, Microsoft is the one pushing traditional computers into the future. Like any new design, the Windows 8-style UI won’t appeal to everyone, but it would be foolish to attack Microsoft for forcing us to confront a new type of interface.
Of course, design goes deeper than aesthetics, but Windows 8 has that covered as well. Live Tiles are by far the most obvious innovation here. They work great on a smartphone or a tablet, offering quick updates from your most-used applications. No more sifting through programs and webpages to catch up on what’s new because the same thing can be accomplished with a swipe across the revamped Start screen. It’s information at a glance and it saves a whole lot of time and effort, which should be the goal of new consumer technology.
This is also the first time Windows has had its own distinct and compelling “look”, with a focus on design. Its bold colors, crisp lines, and silky animations, a computer running Windows 8 cannot be ignored.
It’s built to be touched
With Windows 8, Microsoft has made old hardware obsolete to usher in a new era of computing where touch devices are the norm. In the past, Microsoft tried to make everyone happy by sticking with a familiar OS design and loading it on touch hardware but we all know how that turned out. It was awful.
Thankfully, that’s all changed. Windows has been rebuilt, revamped, and revitalized to be touch-friendly, borrowing heavily from its smartphone equivalent, Windows Phone 8. It’s an interface that practically begs you to touch it, and once you give into temptation, it’s satisfying as hell. Touch commands feel intuitive and natural after only a few brief moments of use and in the end you feel completely in control. In response to the touch-first nature of Windows 8, PC-makers have generated their most ambitious devices yet. So far we’ve seen sliding tablets, keyboard docks, touchscreen laptops, dual-screens, and a 20-inch tabletop device. Most devices arriving in the next few months have managed to successfully combing the tablet and PC one super-computer-of-the-future.
Take Samsung’s ATIV Smart PC as an example, it packs the internals and profile of an ultrabook but can be removed from its keyboard dock to function as a traditional tablet. Toshiba’s Satellite U925t is a tablet complete with a slide-out keyboard. ASUS brings the world its first dual-screen laptop, placing a second display on the lid of the device. It may not be in everyone’s budget to immediately upgrade their PC, but there’s no question that the future of computing is here and it’s ready to be tested.
It’s the Internet
Windows 8 brings the internet to you with built-in apps. No longer is interaction with the Web available solely through your web browser of choice, now it’s right there to greet you once you boot up — something Windows 8 is really quick at by the way.
I covered Live Tiles earlier, but it’s really amazing to witness how connected they are. For instance, the People tile shows you recent status updates and profile photos of your contacts, the Weather tile displays the current forecast, and the Mail tile keeps an updated unread message count and previews the most recent subject line. There are also tiles that display stocks, sports updates, and news headlines. As the collection of Windows 8 apps grow, the capability of tiles will grow as well, further reducing the time spent in a browser. Windows 8 doesn’t just give you access to the internet, it is the internet, and that’s a very powerful thing.
I’m ready for it
To conclude my love letter to Windows 8, I must admit our excitement and amusement in watching a technology giant like Microsoft learning to lead once again. Microsoft is a company that (up until recently) was basically written off as a boring, stuffy, enterprise-obsessed, mindless, corporate machine. However, it’s that label that has made this current transformation so captivating to watch. Of course, there will be missteps along the way but that doesn’t make it any less fun to follow along. Based on the anticipation that surrounded the release of the Surface tablet, the world is ready to embrace something new. We may not be ready to let go of our beloved desktops, but Microsoft is helping us take the first step.