In less than a week, Microsoft will unveil the Windows 8 Consumer Preview at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain. The preview should give us a fairly good idea of what the final version of Windows 8 will look like. But after using the Developer Preview, which was released a few months back, it’s obvious that there are some areas of 8 that still need work. Here are the top five things we’d love to see Microsoft improve or add to Windows 8 in the days or months ahead.
A decent apps list
With Windows 8, Microsoft is attempting to bridge the gap between newer, simpler smartphone operating systems and Windows. One of the biggest parts of this is the concept of apps. Like iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and even Mac OS X Lion, Windows 8 will have an app store where you’ll be able to purchase and download apps for your Windows device. Oddly, however, in the Developer Preview, Microsoft had not yet implemented an app list. More strange is that no executives have hinted that they will. Currently, to find Metro apps (that’s what the new apps are called) on Windows 8, you have to search for them. There’s no easily accessible screen that shows everything you have installed. It’s clumsy and awkward.
Being that an app list is a key feature of Windows Phone, it’s an odd omission. That said, Windows 8 is being developed by a completely separate team, so it’s possible that Microsoft is removing it intentionally. It needs to come back. We’re really hoping there is an easier way to find and manage apps on your machine in Windows 8. If the Start Screen is supposed to replace the Start Menu, it needs to include a list of installed software.
In addition, Microsoft has another problem. Since Windows 8 also has a full copy of Windows 7 embedded into it (or maybe it’s the other way around), there needs to be a good way to manage classic desktop applications as well. Optimally, Microsoft will find a way to unify these screens so you don’t have to go to two different places to see what you have installed on your machine. Also, it would be nice if the company found a way to make installation and uninstallation of non-Metro apps a less painful process. If there’s one thing smartphones have done well, it’s making software easy to add and remove from your device.
Microsoft has introduced some very cool multitasking ideas with Windows 8. For the first time on a tablet device, you’ll be able to drag a second application and pin it to the left or right side of anything you’re currently running. In addition to this, you can swap between open apps by swiping in from the left edge of the screen. These additions are fantastic and will really make swapping between and using multiple apps better. Unfortunately, these are currently the only ways to swap between applications. If you had 15 apps open, you’d have to swipe through all 15 to get to the one you want — and that’s if you don’t accidentally swipe one too many times. Windows 8 needs a way to easily switch between any apps on the fly without having to flick through all of them to do it.
With the added ability for Windows 8 to freeze apps in place like Android, Windows Phone, and iOS, it would also be nice if it had a bit of the BlackBerry PlayBook in it as well. The PlayBook keeps apps running completely as they’re minimized, which is helpful in some cases. This could be a feature the new version of Windows 8 is already capable of. We hope it is.
A cleaner Classic Desktop
Including the classic Windows 7 desktop alongside the new Metro Start Screen is one of the biggest gambles Microsoft has ever made. Arguing for or against it is irrelevant at this point because we’re getting both, but it would really be nice if Microsoft made some effort to make Windows 7 blend in better with the new design. At the very least, the windows could be altered to be flatter and look more Metro-esque instead of using the same Aero glass effect we’ve seen on Vista and Windows 7. From a visual standpoint, seeing the old UI and the new UI butt up against each other is awkward and jarring.
To use the two systems side-by-side is just as jarring and quite annoying. In the Developer Preview, it’s almost impossible to know what settings and functions are accessible in the new Metro interface, and which ones require you to swap over to the old desktop. In a past artice, I compared the classic desktop to a dumping ground for Microsoft to shove features they don’t have the time for, or plan to add into Metro later. It’s the software equivalent of hiding all of your junk in the basement. Want to change the clock? Head over to the classic desktop. Want to access settings? Well, you can try the Metro Settings, but the old Control Panel is still in Windows 8 and comes complete with thousands of strange little options.
The problem with this approach is that it’s unclear if Windows 8 could ever function well for all users if it didn’t have the classic desktop. By admitting that the old desktop is needed and promoting it this much, it makes it hard to know just what Microsoft’s long-term plans are. It looks like things are moving toward Metro, but is the new simplistic style capable of running sophisticated software like Photoshop or Maya? We’ll find out soon enough. One good sign is that Microsoft has already created a touch-friendly version of its core Office apps. They are still Classic Desktop applications, but supposedly they work better with touchscreen devices. If Office can make the transition, there might be hope for other professional software.
Live Tile customization and deep linking
This is a strange request: One of the best things about the new Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) update was the ability for users to create homescreen Live Tiles not just for apps, but for different pages and sections within apps. This means that, for example, if you were looking for a flight in an application, you could actually create a homescreen Live Tile for your specific flight and attach a reminder to it. These kinds of features have been hinted at in Windows 8, but we haven’t seen them in action.
It’s also not clear exactly how easily, or how much, users will be able to modify the look of the start screen. It would be great if every app would let you create Live Tiles of any size, shape, and color. Your Start Screen could be a Tetris of your own design, with some Tiles that are a quarter of the current smallest size and some that could be as large as you wish, or come in stranger geometric shapes. Keyboards have always played with button sizes, why must they be so rigidly locked down in Windows 8? In Windows Phone, the ability to customize the size of tiles is not yet officially available (though some homescreen modifying apps make it possible), but hopefully it will be added as well. Better bundling and categorizing would also be helpful. The more Microsoft can do to make the Start Screen warmer and more customize-able, the better.
A willingness to still be a PC, and be open
From what we’ve heard so far, Microsoft is going to take an Apple approach to Windows 8 apps buy controlling all app distribution for Metro-style apps. This makes for a very safe app ecosystem, but also one without freedom of choice. What will this do to services like Steam, which sell games? There are many good reasons to have a secure system for purchasing apps, but shouldn’t we be able to purchase software from multiple vendors? What if Microsoft decides that it doesn’t want to sell a particular app? Shouldn’t there be the possibility that the software could be obtained from other services? Why can’t Amazon sell apps? I guarantee they’d have lower prices and nice deals. There must be a smart way to integrate third-party app distribution into Windows 8, and every other mobile OS.
There is a lot of fragmentation in the world of computing today, but Windows PCs have always been the one place where you can get the important software that helps you manage the many services you have across all of your devices. Windows PCs (and Macs, sort of) are the one platform that can run everything, in one way or another. In the smartphone world, iTunes is only available on the iPhone and iPad, but if you’re a PC user that’s okay because it’s also available for PCs — you’re not completely shut out. The same goes for services from Amazon, Google, Facebook and all of the major tech companies. These guys are fighting like crazy in the mobile space, but all of them realize the need to support PCs. What’s scary is that this could change in the future. The Wild West may come to your primary computer.
In theory, I don’t disagree with the “no compromises” approach Windows 8 has taken, but it will come at a cost. By focusing on touch, and closing off installation of Metro-style apps unless they’re downloaded from Microsoft’s app store, Microsoft is bringing its flagship OS into the massive operating system and app ecosystem war that’s being waged on mobile. The PC is becoming a battleground again, for the first time in a long time. One might argue that it’s already under attack from Android, OS X Mountain Lion, or the iPad, but now Microsoft is signaling that it’s ready to fight. Will this mean the loss of some apps from Windows or Microsoft ending the porting of Microsoft software to non-Windows platforms? There are plenty of questions. Times, they are changing.
Turn and face the strain
Soon, there will no longer be one platform that has such a huge market share that everything is on it. As popular as Windows may be, the sun is setting on its era of dominance. We really are entering a post-PC age. Windows will likely be an important part of the computing world, but it won’t be the only big game in town anymore. The battle for the PC industry will truly begin with Windows 8, and the swords come out with the Consumer Preview, which we look forward to checking out when it’s released on February 29.