Consumer reviews have been at best mixed towards Windows 8. Should your school be considering upgrading to Windows 8?
The subjugation of the desktop in favour of Microsoft’s platform spanning Metro interface is controversial. Is an upgrade to Windows 8 something you should be considering in your organisation, or is the change in the operating system too much for many users to handle with little benefit over Windows 7?
The Desktop -A litany of contradictions
Let’s deal with the issue of touchscreen versus mouse and keyboard first, bearing in my that desktop refresh cycles are unlikely to include touch screens for a number of years.
What is clear is that Windows 8 is a touchscreen operating system first, mouse and keyboard are an after-thought. Whatever you think of the new Metro interface it’s clear that for Microsoft traditional forms of input were a necessary, but secondary consideration to touch and it shows.
Navigating with a mouse is jerky, unreliable, and inconsistent. Where Microsoft has attempted to facilitate the gestures of the touchscreen on a laptop trackpad it results in incorrect and unintuitive user input. Move the mouse cursor too close to the top right corner — to close a Windows, for example — and the Charms bar activates. Move to the top or bottom left and icons quickly flash up allowing you to navigate to various apps.
Microsoft’s message is clear, they don’t want you using a mouse and keyboard with Windows 8.
Windows 8 Start Screen
When you login to Windows 8 the first screen you are presented with is the new Metro tiles interface. Gone — or at least hidden — is the familiar desktop of Windows past.
My first issue with the Metro interface is that familiar paradigms, evolved across iterations of operating systems and multiple platforms, are simply discarded. Windows 8 rightly does away with the 3D flair, glass effects, and unnecessarily detailed HD icons of Windows 7, but has replaced it with flat two dimensional minimalist graphics which are difficult to differentiate from one another.
Take as an example the humble button, a user interface standard present even on the iPad. In Windows 8 buttons do not exist, making it impossible to identify which areas of the screen have function. For example, the word “Start” appears at the top left of the screen, pressing it, however, unlike in all previous versions of Window does nothing. On the top right of the screen your login name is displayed in the, same font and same colour at the word “Start”, but does allow you to interact with it. There’s no way to differentiate between functional and non-functional aspects of the UI.
Here’s another example — swipe in from the right of the screen and the setti….sorry, Charms bar, appears. The text is the same as both the Start and logon name and they do have function but display a different type of menu from the logon name. It’s inconsistent.
Form Over Function
Microsoft has mistaken accessibility and simplicity for “hiding things from the user” — an unforgivable crime. Google did this with the old Menu button in Android. Once upon a time (pre-Android 4.0) rarely used features were tucked away in Android’s Menu button — a physical key on the phone which stored options like “Settings”, “Share”, and “Help”. Now as part of Android’s design developers are recommended to display on screen analogs for these functions or get rid of them altogether.
Windows 8 takes the opposite route and simple hides common functions. Open Internet Explorer 10 and you’ll find nothing but a full screen webpage. No back or forward navigation, no bookmarks, no address bar, no tabs or windows, nothing. Windows 8 takes the theory of accessibility and fails atrociously to implement it.
Once Internet Explorer is opened there is literally nothing on screen to suggest to the user what they should be doing. How do I go back? How do I open a new tab? How do I access my bookmarks. It’s only by swiping the side of the screen do these things appear, and they do so in odd ways.
While Apple limits choice and funnels users in specific ways, Windows 8 has taken the opposite approach. With Windows 8 there are simply too many ways to do the same thing. Take scrolling — yes, scrolling a page — as an example. To scroll to the right on the Windows 8 home screen you can do the following:
- Swipe to the left on the touch screen
- Push your mouse cursor to the right
- Drag the horizontal scroll bar at the bottom of the screen
- Scroll the mouse wheel down
- Gesture with two fingers to the left on the trackpad
Hope you’re remembering all this, because there’s nothing on screen to remind you. Oh, and then there’re the corner swipes as well. Bottom left last applications, bottom right…..oh I give up.
What this means for the average user used to the iPad is when they open an application there is no obvious means to exit, or any direction at all of the functionality of the app.
With iPad, Apple has done is take an easy to use operating system from iPhone and scaled it up to the iPad. They’re now in the process of incorporating some of the most successful features into their desktop operating system. Microsoft has gone the opposite route, they’ve built a full desktop operating system and are in the process of trying to shrink it down and simplify it for a consumer tablet.
Windows 8 falls neatly between the cracks of productivity and accessibility. It makes day to day tasks, that with Windows 7 I can carry out with ease, difficult and makes accessing anything other than a web browser close to impossible. Microsoft has taken all of the worst bits of the iPad — the closed ecosystem, the lack of customisation, the disorder as order — and placed it on a Windows shell.
From an enterprise perspective rolling out Windows 8 to end users is not something I relish. In education we have the fortune to be fairly flexible about the speed in which we upgrade our OSs — usually faster than in business. This is the first time I have considered the possibility of simply not upgrading to the latest Microsoft operating system. Let me put it bluntly. At the current time I can see no reason to upgrade passed Windows 7.
[pullquote]This is the first time I have considered the possibility of simply not upgrading to the latest Microsoft operating system[/pullquote]
This has happened at the worst possible time for Microsoft. As a school we are actively experimenting with non-Windows operating systems. iOS, Android, Chrome OS, Mac OS, Linux — we have all of these operating systems running within the school in various numbers. We’re still running Windows 7 on 99% of our machines but if the current trend keeps up this won’t be the case much longer. I can easily see Windows dropping to 50% within a period of only five years.
In Windows 8 Microsoft has taken the network technician’s Swiss Army Knife, blunted all the blades, pulled out the little toothpick, and added twelve different handles.
Windows 8 was (past tense!) an attempt to bridge the gap between desktop, portable, and mobile computing and what Microsoft has produced is a one-size-fits-none product. Windows 8 is not fit for home users or enterprise rolls outs, the second of which is Microsoft’s real strength. The influence of the end user is now simply too strong for Microsoft to be annoying Network Managers as well as end users.
The only hope for Microsoft is that its Windows 8.1 update resolves these issues.
In simplicity Microsoft has created confusion.
I’m a Microsoft certified Network Administrator with fifteen years experience with Windows operating systems. If I struggle to get to grips with Windows 8 it is completely unreasonable for me to expect my users to.
What is your opinion of Windows 8? Let me know in the comments.