Could Windows 8 and the Surface Make Microsoft… Cool?

Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division, is joined by excited Chinese students on stage
Steve Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows Division, is joined by Chinese students on stage during the Windows 8 launch celebration in Shanghai on Oct. 22.

KeLei Zhang / Microsoft

Let me stipulate upfront that, at 30, I am too old to even claim to know what’s cool anymore. But as I futzed around with Microsoft’s new Surface tablet and Windows 8 operating system at the company’s big launch event in New York City on Thursday, it struck me that my 12-year-old nephew would totally dig this stuff. Although he would probably laugh at me for using the phrase “totally dig.” Unless that’s, like, back in.

As my colleague Farhad Manjoo has pointed out, the main effect of Windows 8 in the short-term will be to flummox and exasperate millions of lifelong Windows users. Sure, you can still use it in old-school “desktop” mode if you’re a fuddy-duddy. But with its heavy emphasis on the blocky, graphically oriented Metro interface, Microsoft is clearly pushing us all into the touchscreen age.

Most of us will go kicking and whining. Having tried out Windows 8 on a multitude of machines (and Windows RT on the Surface), I can vouch that its operation is not immediately intuitive to anyone raised on previous Windows or Apple operating systems—or even most other mobile operating systems, such as iOS and Android. And there’s not a lot of handholding. You figure things out by trial and error, like a kid playing with legos for the first time. After trying unsuccessfully to get back to the “start” screen from a video app for a good three minutes, I almost—almost—caught myself wishing for the return of Clippy.

But once you get it, you get it. And preteens and teenagers will get this quickly, mobile natives that they are. Because Windows 8 and Windows RT (the tablet version) are fully of-the-moment in the way they sort information: not according to antiquated file-type categories like “apps,” “browsers,” “documents,” and “Web pages,” but thematically, as in “sports,” “music,” “people,” “travel,” and “games.” Forget the mouse and the click—you do everything by touch, tap, and swipe. Of course, all that is true on the iPad too, but Apple’s desktops and laptops have yet to make this leap. And its tablets so far are not quite the hybrids that many Windows devices are, especially those built with Windows 8 in mind.

Apple, of course, seeks and gets a lot of press for its products’ appeal to youngsters—Apple’s Tim Cook went heavy on the “iPads in schools” theme at Tuesday’s iPad mini launch event. But Windows RT looks still younger and fresher than iOS, at least to these semi-wizened eyes. Or maybe it’s just more confusing to old folks, which is a selling point for adolescents in its own right. My grandmother loves her iPad. I can’t see her fiddling with a Surface.

With schools across the country apparently buying into the iPad hype, I can imagine a scenario in which kids put up with the old folks’ Apples during the day—then go home at night and pull out their Surfaces.