Windows 8: My Initial Response

Microsoft’s cash cow, the Windows operating system, has been for the better part of 20 years the dominant platform in the computing industry. But PC sales have been anemic in the consumer market, although business needs continue to drive sales. Consumers are not replacing aging PC’s with newer PC’s – this is being seen on all desktop and laptop platforms regardless of brand and operating system. Rather, consumers are opting for media tablets are they can perform many of the functions a PC can, but generally cost less. Businesses have been slow to adopt tablets but they are having to accommodate tablets because of pressures from executives and employees wanting to use tablets for business purposes – Microsoft’s bread and butter. With these growing pressures, Microsoft seems to have an ace up its sleeve with Windows 8, which is poised to satisfy the growing tablet market and the traditional PC market in one fell swoop.

I was curious about Windows 8, so I downloaded a developer preview of Windows 8 a couple of months ago and started reading about it and tinkering with it. While what I am using is a developer preview and not the final release, my initial reactions to Windows 8 has been somewhat one of mixed feelings. I’ll start with the bad:

  • Metro: The new style that Windows 8 is sporting is a step backwards. The preview version of Windows 8 came with some demo applications, and most of these looked and felt like glorified DOS applications. Maybe this is because what I am running is an early preview and the bundled applications are as polished as they could be. Or maybe I’m old fashion, and I don’t like it when Microsoft redoes the look ’n’ feel of one of their major products. If I recall, I didn’t care too much for the ribbon in Office 2007 or the Start Menu in Windows 95, but after some time, I got used to them. I suppose the same thing will happen with Window 8.
  • Market Forces: I fear that Microsoft may be a day late and a dollar short on Windows 8. Windows 8 is rumored to be available in June of 2012. Windows 8 certainly is poised to be a serious contender in the foray that is the tablet market, but the market is already saturated with iOS and Android devices. Even so, Microsoft’s previous attempts to create tablets came much earlier than the competition but were never able to get mainstream appeal. Likewise, Microsoft has been around in the smart phone area longer than Android and Apple. Yet in all this, Microsoft never managed to capture much more than one or two percent of the mobile market. To put it simply, mobility is not Microsoft’s métier. With these factors working against Microsoft, they certainly have an uphill battle to fight on their hands. Perhaps they are attempting to use the Windows juggernaut to simply bulldoze the competition. In any case though, Microsoft Windows will probably still remain the dominant platform for desktop and laptop computers so long as such devices exist.

So what’s so great about Windows 8? Here are a few things:

  • More of the same: Microsoft has gone through a painstaking effort to ensure large degree of backwards compatibility with previous generations of its operating systems. Right off the bat, I wanted to know if some of my older applications would work, so I installed a few to test compatibility. They all installed without a hitch and ran without crashing—even on an early release. While Windows 8 will start on the “Metro” styled “Start” screen (a replacement for the Start menu), one can switch to a traditional “desktop” and access many of the familiar features available in Windows.
  • ARM Processor Support: Every CPU (essentially, the “brain” of the computer) has what is called an “instruction set”, which is a set commands that can be used to perform different computational tasks. More instructions mean more transistors and thus more power to run. ARM processors are part of a family of processors known as “RISC” processors. RISC stands for “Reduced Instruction Set Computing”. RISC processors implement fewer commands and thereby use less power than other non-RISC processors. This is huge for several reasons.
  1. More than 90% of the tablet market runs ARM-based processors. Whether or not one will be able to migrate tablets from other operating systems to Windows is a yet-to-be answered question, but in any case tablet manufacturers will be able to offer ARM based tablets running Windows.
  2. This could create a class of low cost, low powered Windows based devices. This has been done to some extent with low-powered x86 processors, but ARM support has the potential to take this to a whole new level because ARM processors are simpler, cost less, and use less power than x86 processors do.
  3. Third, this could potentially open up Windows applications to the tablet market like never before. There are a few tablet PC’s on the market, but these are not mainstream like ARM based tablets are.
  • WinRT: WinRT is short for Windows Runtime. WinRT is the new programming model implemented in Windows 8. This model is supposed to unify HTML5/Javascript, C, C++, .NET  and other programming APIs to make integration between these environments seamless. I haven’t written any applications yet, but in theory this sounds good for developers. As a general rule, developing for Windows is a much more hassle-free experience than other platforms. While Microsoft isn’t perfect, they generally do deliver when it comes to promises made to developers, and for this reason I’m optimistic about what WinRT can do in terms of API integration. While Metro is probably the most touted component of WinRT, it is not necessarily synonymous with WinRT. It will be interesting to see if one can write applications using WinRT less Metro.

Windows 8, despite some of its UI quirks, has the potential to be a solid product in Microsoft’s portfolio and a worthy successor to Windows 7. At the same time, it also has the potential to reinvigorate Microsoft as a technology company in general if it can indeed capture a large portion of the tablet market. I doubt I will be one of the door-busters anxious to get my hand on one of the first Windows 8 devices, but will be watching it closely to see how it performs in a technology market that is topsy-turvy.

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