The Problem and Promise of Windows 8
Ideally, the way Windows 8 should work is to shift user interfaces when the user wants to shift from mouse-and-keyboard input to touch input. This means if you didn't have touch you wouldn't get a touch-optimized interface, and if you did, you would only get the touch interface. Instead, and this is because it is far easier to do, Windows 8 switches between interfaces based on the product you are using.
Windows 8 is a make-or-break platform for Microsoft and likely the most complex operating system launch ever attempted. It comes at a time when Microsoft is losing share on both operating systems and browsers, when Apple has once again replaced Microsoft at the top of the tech heap, and many would argue Google is on a fast path to second place. Microsoft is bringing out its big guns, but it is far from the user-focused company it was when it rose to dominance. Still, it has far more resources.
TechEd, which opens Monday, begins the final major phase of the operating system launch, and this is where professional buyers of this product get trained to deploy, repair, manage and use the platform.
I'll be asking the same questions the other professionals in attendance are asking about where the value is and whether known problems with the beta have been fixed, as well as assessing how well prepared Microsoft is this round.
Windows 7 went pretty well, but it was also vastly easier, and I'm currently wondering if it is even possible to successfully launch a product as complex as Windows 8.
I'll close with my product of the week, an 18-inch convertible -- all-in-one/tablet -- product that showcases both the problem and the promise and of Windows 8.
The Core Problem
At the core of every product release is a problem or set of problems that the product is designed to address. Fixing those problems are the benefits the offering provides. The iPad, for instance, was designed to address the problem of smartphone screens being too small and laptops being too large for in-hand entertainment, reading, Web browsing and light communications.
Apple products tend to address a second problem -- low status -- and they are marketed to provide status to the people who buy them, much like luxury cars clothing do. For a product to be successful, the buyer has to want the problem solved and see the solution as a high value way to solve it. Apple isn't the cheapest, but people still see the products as high value because of the status they impart and the perceived reliability and ease of use for the Apple solution.
It's generally best to focus on solving the customer's problems, but the actual problem that Windows 8 is designed to fix is a Microsoft problem. Apple was kicking its butt. This is similar to the core issue that created Zune. In that case, instead of focusing on the customer and addressing what Apple then couldn't do -- which would have resulted in a Zune phone before the iPhone -- Zune was designed to kill the iPod.
This is the same reason Google is struggling with tablets (targeting Apple), and the ChromeOS (targeting Windows). In both cases, it is focusing too much on the competition and not enough on us.
It takes a special skill set to really focus on user needs. Intel recognized this when it elevated Genevieve Bell to research fellow and gave her a lab because of her understanding of this specific part of a solution. (Recently Bell was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame.)
EMC has turned its massive big data analytics engine on this problem at the other end of the market, as both companies move aggressively to avoid this historic mistake.
Windows 8 Experience
Because Microsoft focused on Apple and not the customer, the result was a key design aspect to be both a tablet and a PC, but not the requirement to make the switch on customer demand. When a vendor focuses on another vendor, it will meet the spec but tend to do it in a way most convenient for the manufacturer -- not in a way the user would likely prefer.
Ideally, the way Windows 8 should work, given it is designed to be used in a convertible product -- one that changes from tablet to either laptop or all-in-one -- is to shift user interfaces when the user wants to shift from mouse-and-keyboard input to touch input. This means if you didn't have touch you wouldn't get a touch-optimized interface, and if you did, you would only get the touch interface.
Instead, and this is because it is far easier to do, Windows 8 switches between interfaces based on the product you are using. If it is a newer product, you get Metro; with an older product, you get the Windows 7 non-touch interface regardless of whether you have touch or not.
This is the core problem that will need to be mitigated before Windows 8 launches, and it exists because Microsoft -- and this is far from uncommon with any vendor -- didn't focus tightly on the customer but instead focused on the iPad. I'm hoping this will be a teachable moment.
Windows 8 on Touch - Windows RT Advantage
Now having said that, Windows 7 with touch isn't really that bad, and Metro is arguably better than either iOS or Android -- and it should be, as it was designed to address the icon insanity of both of those early touch user interfaces. The advantage of coming last is you don't have a ton of legacy touch stuff you have to work around and you can learn from the complaints the first movers are getting.
Increasingly, you'll be able to live in Metro as the legacy apps die out, and that means both that the user experience will improve and that Windows 8 on a non-touch product will be something you may want to avoid.
It also suggests that Windows RT may be the best Windows platform, because you don't have either the older interface nor the switching problems I've highlighted. It is a Metro pure play and completely steps away from the older, non-touch, interface.
What is interesting about Windows 8 is this is the first version of Windows that really will only work well on the hardware that releases with it. I don't mean best, I mean well. Without touch, at least in its current form, most will likely prefer to stay with Windows 7 and, ideally, they would likely want to lock down on the older interface if they were given the option.
I'm still thinking Windows RT, depending on the hardware, may be your best early choice if you can live without an older application or game and want a clean single interface. Then again, perhaps by the time Windows 8 has shipped, Microsoft will have significantly improved the user experience on non-touch hardware, making these comments obsolete.
I should have a sense of that shortly.
One other thought is a blend of Windows 7 and Windows RT on a dual boot tablet. This would give you the experience I'm suggesting, and there is one product I've seen that would make this work. It is the product of the week below.
The iPad-Crushing Product of the Week: the Amazing Asus Transformer AiO
I have more fun with the crushing part, because an 18-inch tablet likely weighs two or three times what an iPad weighs. But there are some unique advantages. Web pages and digital magazines and comic books should lay up better, video will be more immersive (bigger is better with TV and movies), and more screen real estate is great for productivity.
Granted, the weight could get a bit old if you are standing and using it, but most people use tablets (according to surveys) in bed or on their couch where this shouldn't be as much of a problem. This may make the Asus Transformer AiO an ideal showcase for what I was talking about above, because it is designed to switch from Windows 8 to Google Android.
No, that isn't the load I would suggest -- Microsoft and Google don't exactly get along, and a solution using both vendor's competing OSes might not be ideal. But what if you made this instead a product that shifted from Windows 8 to Windows RT?
You see, this PC doesn't go from laptop to tablet like most convertibles. It goes from all-in-one to tablet, meaning in Windows 8 mode you'll have keyboard, mouse, and touch. Regardless of the interface, you'll have the ideal tools to use it. In tablet mode, it could instead use Windows RT, giving you both a pure play Metro experience and access to fully compatible Office Metro apps.
I actually think this is the way to fix the usability problem I noted above. Going to an ARM-based platform for the tablet configuration lowers weight, increases battery life, and optimizes on touch. Going to regular Windows 8 in all-in-one form gives you your legacy access and a performance boost for things like games.
So the Transformer AiO is one baby step from being what could be the perfect Windows 8/RT showcase, and I'm making it product of the week to pass that suggestion on to Asus and Microsoft this week.