Windows 8: Paradigm Shift

When Microsoft released Windows 7, mobile computing hadn’t yet reached its current level of dominance – or form factor. That OS came on the scene while Apple’s original iPad was still six months away from release. Windows 8 meets the changes iPad brought to the way users compute with a shift almost as significant as the change from DOS to Windows.

You’ve probably heard a lot about the loss of the Start button in Windows 8. While it isn’t completely lost – you can still get to it via a convoluted path – its disappearance is merely a sign of the rethinking that went into the operating system’s creation. Window 8’s designers made certain assumptions while building the new system:

  1. Users will interact with the operating system predominantly through a touch interface.

  2. Users will do their computing on mobile devices, and may in fact use several different devices for the same purposes. They may even want to get work done on devices they do not own, and will thus need a way to easily access data from any device.

  3. Users will never turn their computers completely off; instead, the devices will simply go to “sleep.”

  4. Users will want to access lots of programs very quickly, perhaps not even wishing to wait for them to turn on.

  5. Users are comfortable with the idea of storing data “in the cloud.”

What kind of operating system do you end up with based on these assumptions? For openers, your “start” page looks completely different. You can get something that resembles Windows 7 on Windows 8, but that’s not the way it’s designed to work. Your start area on your local system (I’ll get into why I’m specifying “local system” in a minute) features a mosaic of “tiles.” These tiles each represent an open program that effectively runs in the background. By touching a tile, you can instantly maximize the program. You’ll also see the information changing even when the tile isn’t maximized – so you can tell right away when you get a new e-mail message, for instance.

The tiles are an intriguing idea, in that not all of them have to be applications. I don’t tend to think of a web page as an app, and yet you can keep one open as a tile. It’s a new way to think about how we work, and I can see how it makes sense from Microsoft’s point of view. For instance, when I’m working, I’ll usually have several tabs open on my browser: two web e-mail addresses, some Developer Shed websites, and research material. With Windows 8, I’d be able to maintain some of those as tiles rather than separate tabs in my browser.

I mentioned your local system above. You can have more than one kind of account on your computer now. One account is for your local machine, but you can also have a Microsoft account. The data and programs for this account reside in a Microsoft data center. This is your cloud connection. Microsoft allows you to use only programs from its own store on this account. Depending on what applications you choose, the programs you have on your local system and your Microsoft account could be completely different.

Now if you really hate the tiles, you can go back to a regular desktop, sort of. It’s like having a virtual version of Windows 7 in Windows 8. The “Desktop” is an app, but it still won’t get you a Start button. For that, you need to go to the Charms menu, by touching or mousing over to the middle right of your screen. Remember the Sidebar that the earliest versions of Vista came with, and we all hastened to get rid of as quickly as possible? The Charms menu is like that, though it thankfully tucks out of sight automatically whenever you’re not using it. It includes Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings icons.

I mentioned that you could “mouse over” to the middle right of your screen to get to the Charms menu. While the Windows 8 interface really shines with touch, Microsoft made sure it accommodates touch, keyboard, and mouse. You’ll interact slightly differently with the interface depending on which one you’re using. For example, with the tiles you may find yourself doing a bit of horizontal scrolling; you can go “back” by swiping your finger across the screen or moving your mouse to the top left of the screen. You can touch or mouse to a tile to expand it, or even start typing its name; all three methods will maximize the tile just fine.

Matt Egan at PC World notes the biggest advantage of Windows 8: “For the price of getting used to some new interface tricks, you get to run all of your new apps across all kinds of Windows 8 devices, including PCs and laptops, but also ARM tablets and smartphones – in an interface that looks the same and has all your settings regardless of which device you are using.”

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but the way Windows 8 is meant to be used raises a few little red flags for me. Your system is on all the time, as are all of those tiles. What’s the power consumption like? Also, how private – and secure – is Microsoft’s cloud? If I were doing any online banking, for example, I’d probably want to make sure I was doing it from my local system screen and not my Microsoft account. Still, this version of Windows comes with both Microsoft Security Essentials and a software firewall in Security Center; I have to wonder, though, if users will feel as if this is enough protection, given how many hackers go after every Microsoft operating system.

On the other hand, Windows 8 may be the first new operating system from Microsoft to use LESS memory than the one that came before. Bill Karagounis, Principal Group Program Manager for the Windows 8 Fundamentals Team, ran a demonstration in which Windows 7 used 389 MB of system memory, while Windows 8 only used 330 MB. Perhaps it truly is a step forward.

As for me, I’ll be looking for a really good Windows 7 machine; I should be able to find one at a discount once Windows 8 comes out. I’m not quite ready to upgrade just yet. Then again, I figure I have time. Microsoft will be supporting Windows 7 until 2020. That’s plenty of time to get ready for the new interface. 

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