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Windows 8 and Metro show true multiplatform OS promise

Updated: March 23, 2012 2:22PM

I’ve been using the developer preview edition of Windows 8 on a multitouch tablet for a few months, and now I’ve been using the new consumer preview for a little less than a day. My overall opinion is so high that it has to be stated right here in the first paragraph: Microsoft has really cracked something here. With the Metro user interface, they’ve created a simple and beautiful design language that’s relevant to a broad range of devices and to the ways that people use computers in the second decade of the 21st century.

The conventional Windows 7-style interface is still there and its familiar language of menus and overlapping windows appears to be almost completely unchanged. Rest assured that your conventional apps continue to run just fine. If you install the Consumer Preview, you won’t even need to reinstall any of your software or data. Follow this link grab a free copy.

But Windows 8 is truly The Metro Show. Gone forever is the “Start” button. In its place is a whole new Start screen that acts as the central hub of the whole experience. The applications that you pin to the Start screen appear as clean, colored tiles that launch the app with a click or a tap.

The tile is far more than a launch button. It’s a live object that the App can constantly update with information. One glance at this mosaic -- which is the first thing you see when you start your PC -- gives you a dashboard overview of your whole world. It’s a rich presentation. Here’s the weather. There’s the photo from your niece’s hockey game that she posted to Facebook. Here’s the author and subject of the latest email to hit your Inbox.

And here’s the brilliance: it’s a rich platter of information, but it’s never overwhelming. Even when it’s filling a 27” desktop display, it’s crystal-clear and easy to navigate. It’s a lovely concept. Even when you’re not actively using your PC, it can still deliver useful, up-to-the-minute information about your world.

The Start Screen is just your first exposure to Microsoft’s new Metro user interface. Windows 8 features a whole second category of Metro-based apps.

Metro is all about reducing the screen to the absolute minimum of visual noise necessary to do the thing the user has chosen to do at a given moment. There’s no overlapping windows and no menus or toolbars. When you launch a Metro-based word processor, your document occupies the whole screen.

Where’s the menu bar? It doesn’t appear until you ask for it (by gesturing down from the top of the screen, or using a keyboard equivalent). And it’s a gentle strip of well-chosen buttons, not a yardarm of fluttering menus.

Where are the controls that let me interact with the OS and the other apps? It’s waiting for you off in the wings, beyond the right edge of the screen. If you want to jump back to the Start screen or choose a different WiFi connection, another gesture reveals them inside a vertical ribbon of charms.

Neither those ribbons nor any other UI element hangs around to take your focus off the document you’re writing. When a developer rises to Microsoft’s challenge, a Metro app can transcend simplicity and appears somewhat . . . serene. You might have launched your word processor so you can compose an angry letter to your cable company, but it’ll feel like you’re slowly raking concentric patterns into sand.

The Metro app interface is so free of white noise that when I launch a conventional Windows app and return to the world of menus and icons and overlapping windows, it’s jarring. I feel like I’ve switched the channel and landed in an episode of “Hoarders.” A psychologist who focuses on OCD is sitting down with the engineers who built that app. He’s forcing them to confront the fact that their application has become so densely packed with controls and buttons and other needless UI clutter that their users can’t even move around through it freely. Is this any way for these engineers to live? Do you realize that just in the first two hours of this cleanout, we’ve discovered the desiccated bodies of seven Clippys who got trapped under piles of menus and controls, and slowly starved to death?

(Et cetera.)

Comparing to iPad and the Mac

Even an iPad screen can often look cluttered next to Metro. I spent a couple of days in deep-soak mode with Windows 8 on a developer tablet, to learn as much as I could. Then it was time to pick up my iPad and return to my usual daily work. My eyes were drawn to all of the user elements and controls that stuck to the screen long before and long after I used them. I found myself wondering why they don’t just take they bows and then move offstage, like they do in Metro. For the first time in two years, my iPad seemed . . . well, not clumsy, not even nearly. But yes, definitely a little bit old-fashioned.

And the same thing extends to the Mac OS. Since OS X 10.7, the Mac has endorsed and supported a formal alternative fullscreen mode for every app. It’s nice, but it’s just a mode. It’s not a fully fleshed-out design philosophy for Clear Computing, which is the ambition of Metro.

Good: let’s trademark that phrase. Clear Computing is the comprehension that the can have thousands of files and hundreds of apps on my PC, but at any given moment he or she is only focused on a couple of apps and a few active files. Metro sharpens the user’s focus on his or her immediate task without compressing a PC’s full spectrum of abilities down to just black and white.

Look at the way Metro handles multiple apps. It’s easy enough to switch from one app to another. Windows 8 supports simple gestures (via touch, mouse, or keyboard) that are quite similar to app switching on iOS and Mac OS.

But Windows 8 doesn’t quarantine separate apps into rigid dividers, either. Right now, I’m focused on this column but if my mail app, or my Twitter client, or my web browser can help me get this job done faster, I can “pin” that app to the side of the screen. A mobile-style version of that second app occupies a column of screen space next to the document area.

I can’t do that in the Mac’s fullscreen mode. And if I’m fact-checking a column with my iPad and I need to use the web, I take out my iPhone and use it to open that same document, so I can type in my edits. True story.

Metro also affords a certain level of intimacy between the functions of different apps. Select a photo, open up a charm from the side of the screen, and Windows will show you a list of installed apps that can do something useful with that kind of content and then hand it off to the app you’ve chosen. This feature goes beyond a simple “Open this file with . . . ” contextual menu and it’s far slicker than copy-paste. It feels like you’re telling your Twitter client “See this picture? You know what to do with it.”

An OS for all devices

I’ve had a chance to try Metro on a wide range of devices. I’m impressed by its elegance and I’m impressed by its feature list. It wasn’t until yesterday that I came to appreciate how flexible the Metro design scheme is.

Which is a key part of Microsoft’s strategy. Apple’s strategy is to deploy a distinct OS for each different kind of computing: iOS for phones and tablets, Mac OS for desktops and notebooks. They’re certainly not wrong. Microsoft, however, has cracked the problem of building an OS that feels right on just about any device you try it on.

That’s key, given the insane variety of computing devices. It’s no longer even just a world of desktops, notebooks, and tablets any more. Intel is trying to lead the PC industry to create a class of super-compact Windows machines inspired by Apple’s successful 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Airs.

These are neat, ultraportable notebooks. But how well does an OS translate to a tiny screen? Mac OS is perfectly functional as-is on an 11-inch screen. It’s a little cramped, but fine.

Metro works about as well on a 10-inch compact screen as it does on a full desktop. Conventional Windows 7-style apps still come across like a week’s worth of clothes packed into an overnight bag, but Metro apps and the Start screen translate just fine without any hitches whatsoever.

It’ll be interesting to see how well this basic philosophy translates across product lines. One advantage of Microsoft’s approach over Apple’s is that it makes it possible to use the same group of apps with every computer in your stable. Assume that a future version of Office can run as either a Metro or a classic Windows-style app. This would mean that you could take your $399 iPad-style Windows 8 device to lunch with you to do a little work on a report, then return to your office and (thanks to Dropbox or SkyDrive) pick up right where you left off on your desktop or your notebook, using the exact same file with the exact same app.

One hitch: certain kinds of ultra-small, ultra-cheap Windows 8 devices (the kinds that are built around mobile-style CPUs instead of notebook-grade silicon) will only run Metro apps.

Even an $899 Windows 8 tablet based on the latest Intel CPUs is intriguing. It’s clear that tablets and notebooks are used in fundamentally-different ways. I can read a book on a notebook, but it’s clumsy; ditto for the tablet which forces me to constantly take my hands off the keyboard to tap the screen. A new Windows tablet could flawlessly behave like either kind of machine, with the only drawback being the need to carry a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse for when you need the thing to act like a notebook computer and run desktop-style software.

The Metro interface works well on a TV screen, too. I spent an hour or two on my sofa with a wireless keyboard on my lap, sitting ten feet away from the Windows 8 notebook plugged into my big HDTV. I can’t think of a TV PC UI that’s nearly as functional as this.

Windows 8 is no less usable with a keyboard and a mouse than it is on a touchscreen. But some of the mouse gestures and keyboard commands are still alien. Eventually, muscle memory will take over, and hitting Windows-C to open the Charms ribbon will become as second nature as Windows-Tabbing to move between apps.

What’s wrong with it?

Negatives? Well, Metro apps and the Start screen work extremely well on tablets, small notebooks, and big TVs. But Metro could probably stand some tweaks to take full advantage of desktop-sized screens. There’s certainly enough pixels in a 20-inch or 24-inch display to allow two apps to run in portrait-style mode side by side without overlapping.

Also, a PC running Windows 8 feels like two entirely separate machines that share the same screen and keyboard via a KVM switch. I feel like I’m in Metro World and make occasional commutes to Conventional Windows World, or vice-versa. I’d like to see a smoother integration.

Finally, as much as I like Metro, its success or failure is out of Microsoft’s hands. Metro will only work if the Windows developer community jumps on board. The worst-case scenario is that the vast majority continues to develop apps exclusively for the classic Windows environment and Metro languishes.

But I don’t see that happening. Even on the first day of the Consumer Preview, there’s plenty of apps in the new Windows Store and word from developers is that they are, by and large, excited about what they can do with Metro. IE, make lots of money with it.

Oh, right: Metro apps will be available exclusively through Microsoft’s new curated app store. That’s a much more important step for Microsoft than it was for Apple. The Windows software marketplace is huge and many of the corners are darkly-lit and have sticky floors. A single, central location to find safe, trusted apps is a significant value-add.

Windows 8 isn’t flawless. That’s OK: it isn’t finished yet. Microsoft won’t ship it for real until the fall at the very soonest. I hope and expect that they’ll continue to refine it in response to feedback from ordinary Human users.

Today, when we’re all at least six months away from the release of Windows 8, at least it’s clear that Microsoft is on the right track. They’re on the right track and they’re picking up considerable steam.

As a vocal fan of the Mac and the iPad, I couldn’t be happier about this turn of events. Competition is the opposing force that strengthens the muscles of innovation and invention. I’ve always said that I have no loyalty whatsoever to Apple and that if someone ever came along with a desktop or mobile OS that was more valuable to me and my productivity than Mac OS or iOS, I’d jump ship in a heartbeat.

I’m kind of sorry I said that. Can you blame me? When I said that, I barely bothered to consider the possibility that such an OS might ever arrive. Now I’m thinking about the new notebook I’ll probably need to buy in 2013 or 2014, after this one wears out. For the first time in my life, I can picture at least an alternate reality in which I might buy a Windows machine.

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