Windows Without Windows

Microsoft takes on Apple with the radically redesigned Windows 8.

Screengrab of Windows 8.

Microsoft’s new version of Windows is fantastic, jarring, and risky at the same time. Fantastic because it marks the clearest sign yet that Microsoft is embracing the future, shifting from the device that defined the company—the personal computer—to the new era of mobile machines. Windows 8, which is being released on Wednesday as an unfinished “consumer preview” (download yours here!), is an excellent touchscreen operating system. A few days ago Microsoft loaned me a prototype Samsung tablet running the new OS, and I’ve found the interface to be just as good as—and in some ways even better than—the iPad’s OS. If hardware companies begin making decent tablets to run Windows 8, the new operating system could make for the first worthy rival to Apple’s unstoppable machine.

What’s jarring, though, is Windows 8’s split personality. While it is optimized for touchscreens, the new OS is also meant to run on the billions of laptops and desktops that have long been Microsoft’s bread and butter. The company has tried to make the system work in both places by giving Windows two completely different interfaces that you can use side by side. First, there’s the Windows you grew up with, called the Desktop in Windows 8. In the Desktop, Windows lives up to its name—all your programs run in windows that you can position anywhere on your screen. When you run any program designed for today’s Windows in the new OS, it will show up in the Desktop interface.

But the Desktop isn’t how Windows 8 greets you. When you turn a Windows 8 PC on for the first time, you’ll see a Start page that’s composed of a series of brightly colored program tiles. These tiles are the gateway to Windows’ new interface, known as Metro, which was inspired by Microsoft’s wonderful Windows Phone. I found the Metro interface easy to get the hang of, and for the most part I enjoyed using it. But make no mistake: Metro is the most radical transformation in Windows’ history, an interface so novel that I’ll likely need a few weeks to feel comfortable with it. I bet this will be true for many people, especially those of us who’ll be using it on a big-screen PC rather than a tablet (meaning almost everyone). Hence the risk: Metro may represent a much-needed upgrade to an aging OS, but will Windows’ adherents consider it too much change, too fast?

The new interface offers several advantages over the traditional Windows model that will prove especially useful for touchscreen devices. As with Apple’s tablet, you won’t be able to download Metro programs from just anywhere on the Web—a change that’s certain to flummox longtime Windows users. The new interface can only run specially designed apps, which are only available through Microsoft’s built-in Windows Store. By limiting apps to those you download from a centralized store, and by strictly governing the level of access that those apps get to your computer’s resources, programs will be easier to install and malware will become less pervasive. (You can still download traditional Windows programs, though they’ll run in the Desktop view.)

Metro also disposes with windows. Yes, really. By default, all Metro programs take up the full screen. And the maximum number of Metro programs you can display on your screen at the same time is two—and even then, one window occupies almost the full screen, with the second program squeezed to a narrow band on the side. In the shot below, for instance, I’ve got a PDF displayed on the right side while the Finance app is scrunched on the left.

It’s not quite right to say that Windows 8 kills windows, because as Microsoft takes pains to point out, most Windows 8 machines will still be able to run every Windows program ever written. (The exception will be a new breed of Windows tablets that use mobile-friendly ARM processors—those will be able to run all Metro apps, but very few traditional programs.) Still, it’s clear that Microsoft believes Metro is the future of Windows. You get the sense that the company is keeping the Desktop interface around in the same way that it included a command prompt in Windows 95—as a way to keep the old guard placated until they adjusted to the new way of doing things.

Is getting rid of windows so bad for Windows? It depends. On a touchscreen, the Metro interface is just about perfect. Although I sometimes noticed a few hiccups in performance—sometimes my swipe gestures didn’t work and sometimes scrolling and switching between apps was jerky—I chalked those up to the imperfect hardware and the fact that the OS is still in beta mode. Still, I noticed several design advances over Apple’s mobile OS. Windows 8 allows you to switch between applications with a single swipe from the edge of the screen. Apple recently added a four-finger swipe to let you switch between apps on the iPad, but I find that two-step move more cumbersome than the Windows 8 app-switching gesture.*

I also like how Windows 8 displays one skinny app and one wide app on the screen at the same time. That’s another improvement on the iPad, in which every app occupies the full screen. On Windows 8, I can keep an eye on my inbox in the small pane while I browse the Web in the large one, an extremely handy touch. Finally, I’m a big fan of “live tiles,” a feature that Windows 8 borrowed from Windows phone. The Start screen’s tiles constantly surface new information without you opening them up: The email tile shows you new messages, for example, while the calendar tile displays your upcoming appointments. It’s an advance I wish Apple would copy.

When you run Windows 8 on a desktop computer, though, the Metro interface is tougher to bear. For a few hours on Tuesday, I plugged the Samsung tablet into my 24-inch display, attached a keyboard and mouse, and tried to write this column using Metro apps. Microsoft hasn’t put out a Metro version of Word, so instead I opened up Microsoft’s online Word app in the Metro version of Internet Explorer. It loaded perfectly, but I nevertheless had a problem: The 24-inch screen was just too large for a single word-processing task. When I write, I like to have my notes and Web browser open on the screen as well. Metro, though, wouldn’t allow me to look at all of that stuff at the same time, and I had to keep switching back and forth. I felt like I was wasting a lot of my display.

There were other problems, too. When Microsoft released a “developer preview” of Windows 8 last year, some critics said that it sacrificed the capabilities of the mouse and keyboard in favor of touchscreen gestures. Over the last few months, the company greatly improved how Windows 8 handles the mouse and keyboard—all Windows 7 keyboard shortcuts now work in the new version, Microsoft says. Still, there were some commands that seemed intuitive when I was using a touchscreen that were totally confusing when I used a mouse. To open a new browser tab in touchscreen mode, you just swipe your finger down from the top of the screen. How do you do it with a mouse? Click and hold the pointer down from the top of the screen? That seemed intuitive to me, but that didn’t work. After some trial and error, I found the solution: You click the right mouse button.

There’s a lot of trial and error in learning to use Metro. That’s partly because there are few on-screen prompts to let you know how to get a particular task done. Metro does away with most nested menus, and no explanatory text shows up when you hold your mouse cursor over a button (that’s because there’s no touchscreen analogue to “hovering” your mouse). If you’re stuck, you’ve just got to guess which button or touch gesture will get you out of a jam. Fortunately, most of the built-in apps are well designed. When a horde of third-party programs come along, however, I wonder whether people will get sick of all the guessing.

None of this is to diminish Microsoft’s achievement in developing Windows 8. I think it could institute a few relatively small fixes to address many of the problems I found; I’d especially recommend that on desktop machines with large displays, the OS should allow for multiple, side-by-side windows. In general, though, Windows 8 is a good solution to a devilish problem—Microsoft needs to embrace the tablet age without abandoning PCs, from which it makes most of its money. I’ve long worried that Microsoft would be too timid in joining the future. I never dreamed that it would do something this risky. If Windows 8 fails, at least it won’t be for lack of trying.

Correction, Feb. 29, 2012
: This piece originally stated that you have to press the Home button to switch apps on the iPad. You can also switch apps using a four-finger swipe gesture. (Return to the original sentence.)