Last week Windows 8 finally hit the beta stage for consumers. Ever since it landed there have been reviews popping up left and right, and while I read many of them with respectful amusement I found most of them lacking. Not because they were badly written or were overly dramatic (though some of them clearly are), but because they missed long-term vision. Rather than write my own review though, let me explain how I believe Windows 8 should be judged.
Those first hours ...
Sure enough, expect to feel lost when you're first sitting down in front of Windows 8. Everybody has been talking about the new Metro interface and getting acquainted with all the changes will take some time. Since the Metro interface is where you start when you first enter the Windows 8 environment you'll be immediately drawn to it, which can be confusing at first. It's also a little exciting though, after 15 years of boring Win95 upgrades there's finally a new OS that feels worth exploring.
One thing that's immediately clear is how smooth Windows 8 is running. Both Metro and classic interfaces run much faster than before, even on my old machine I'm getting a much better performance (for the record: I upgraded from Vista, I run Windows 7 at work). From all the clean Windows installs I've witnessed so far (and that goes all the way back to Windows 95), Windows 8 is truly the smoothest experience yet. Of course, only time well tell how quickly this will deteriorate (it always does).
Anyway, many reviewers apparently didn't get beyond this stage in the process before they started writing their reviews, because once you actually start using Windows 8 (meaning you're not looking for hidden features and new apps), you'll quickly fall back to the classic interface. While the classic interface too received a decent upgrade, is pretty much provides the same experience as Windows 7 (except that the start button is missing) and waves of familiarity will wash over you.
So after only a couple of days of using Windows 8, I'm only working in Metro 5% of the time. If at all. I actually switched back to Metro this morning to see if it was still there. Depending on your MS dependencies though (do you use Outlook or Thunderbird, IE or FireFox,..) you might need to switch back and forth a bit more often than me. So does this mean that Metro is a failure? Well, not quite.
Metro: a newborn
Even though Microsoft is heavily promoting their Metro interface, I'm sure they realize that it's too premature to be a true, fully functional OS interface. Sure it works perfectly well on heavily handicapped devices like phones and tablets, but on a desktop it just doesn't suffice. Metro only supports full-screen applications and while this may be an acceptable drawback on mobile devices, it's unthinkable on a desktop.
But Metro is there though, and it can still be useful in certain situations (apart from using it to configure your OS). Some apps do work fine in full-screen mode and over time I'm sure Microsoft expects people to slowly switch to Metro in favor of the classic interface. Even when there is a 5% Metro - 95% classic imbalance now, this will slowly change over time in favor of Metro.
I'm well aware that this is not a certainty, Microsoft will need to work very hard to improve the Metro interface. Finding a way to integrate multiple window support is probably the most obvious challenge, but there are other quirks that need ironing out before Metro can transform into a true OS interface. This is no reason to bash the current Metro interface though, just as you don't bash newborn babies because they aren't able to run, spell or drive cars yet. Nurturing a baby into an independent and dependable adult takes time and dedication, hopefully Microsoft will rise to this challenge.
That leaves us with one important question: do we actually need Metro if the classic interface still suits us best? Well, this is clearly speculation, but I do believe that Microsoft is right when they're betting on the single OS running on multiple devices strategy. To accomplish that, you need a single interface that works on all devices, which is what Metro should become if Microsoft handles it right (this is also another reason why I think most Windows 8 reviews are still way too preliminary, as the OS is only supposed to show its true strength once the Microsoft lock-in is truly in place - meaning Windows 8 phones and tablets).
Then allow me to take a peek at an even more distant future (= more speculation). I myself am not a tablet owner, hell, I don't even own a smartphone (I do have an iPad at work , but I only use it for testing purposes and displaying live GA stats). These devices are clearly growing in popularity, but while many people these days are throwing away their money on devices that more or less accomplishing the same thing, I cannot image that in three or four years time (when the hype has worn off) those same people will still find the time and patience to keep all these separate devices up to date and in sync.
Currently technology is definitely not there yet (still a long way to go), but apart from limiting processing specs I see no show-stopping reasons why in the future we shouldn't just buy one single processing device and have that as our only "computer", then extend that unit with modular expansions to change our context. If processing power would allow it, why have a separate OS on your tablet? Just hook up/insert your phone and you're good to go. Attach your tablet to a keyboard/standard and you have a notebook. Hook up your phone to a 27" screen and you have a desktop experience. If needed, these modular expansions could hold their own processing upgrades to provide better and faster experiences.
I just can't image a future where people are willing to manage several different devices just because of screen size. I pray for a future where there will be one single processing device and a lot of modular "add-ons" allowing for different contexts. To turn such a future into a reality though, you need an OS that can run on different screen sizes, an OS that can adapt to its context. A responsive OS, just as we are building responsive websites today. And Apple's half-arsed attempt to try and match different OS to each other clearly isn't getting us there. Metro, in whatever form, will.
Clearly I'm over-simplifying things, but people are known to overcome difficult issues in order to turn visions into reality and I really don't see any big issues that can't be tackled or fixed if needed.
It's hard to predict if Metro is going to succeed. While I applaud Microsoft's longterm vision, there are still many hurdles to take and many instances where Metro might fail. One thing is certain though, people need to think about how to make an OS responsive, because nobody likes to manage multiple OSes and the way things are going computing devices will only grow more and more important in our everyday lives.
So is Metro a finished product? Hell no. In its current form it's little more than a glossy layer that hides the smaller print of the classic Windows interface. But that's okay really, because Metro represents a vision and lays out a solid base to bring that vision to fruition. Now it only needs time and careful nurturing from its parents, which will decide its ultimate victory or failure.
Which is why all those reviews of wannabe user experience gurus and self-conscious OS experts detailing the integration of the Metro and classic interfaces are clearly missing the point.