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Of Lion and Windows 8

The media’s theme this week is that Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows 8 will be a game changer, as they attempt to deliver basically the same user experience on mobile and desktop computers. Well, more or less. All this joy will be inflicted on Windows users some time in 2012.

Now to be fair to Microsoft, the versions demonstrated to the media this week are works in progress, not fully formed and hence things might change, hopefully for the better. So any observations I make based on what I’ve studied and seen might be regarded as preliminary and perhaps wrong. Understand that I did not physically touch the OS; I’m relying media reports and screen captures that appear to be consistent from publication to publication.

So when you boot into Windows 8, you’ll be facing a new Start screen fashioned after Windows Phone 7. The interface, dubbed Metro (and don’t get me started about what that name signifies) consists of flat tiles, or rectangular widgets that have no dimensionality or shading whatever. From a designer’s standpoint, I suppose the retro look might be akin to something out of the 1980s. Unfortunately, some of the worst excesses of poor Web design are in evidence, such as putting white lettering against colored backgrounds. This forces you to actually strain to read the labels, a poor decision that works against discoverability. To me it’s butt ugly, but I assume Microsoft somehow hopes to make it easy for users to figure out the way things work in Windows 8 without having to succumb to severe retraining, which would hurt adoption by business. Or perhaps they’ll turn off that miserable overlay and revert to the traditional Windows Start menu and desktop.

Another new feature of Windows 8 is the alleged rapid boot time, said to be less than eight seconds on the tablets handed out to the media. But those tablets aren’t running the traditional ARM chips found on the iPad and its direct competitors, even though Windows 8 is supposed to operate on that chip too. Instead, the hardware consists of PC note-books without keyboards, running standard Intel chips and solid state drives. No wonder they seem to run relatively fast. At the same time some journalists are reporting that the systems run hot, with the fans operating at full tilt. Clearly Microsoft has lots of work to do.

In scaling down Windows 8 to run on an ARM chip, it appears that you won’t be able to use your regular Windows apps, even in emulation, though I might be wrong about that. Instead, there will be a new family of Web-based apps that will work on both the ARM and x86 processors. This appears to be similar to what Apple tried to do early on with the iOS in 2007, when there was no iPhone SDK or App Store. Developers weren’t interested, although Microsoft’s sheer size and market share might compel a reasonable number of developers to get with the program. There will also be an app store that will somehow differentiate apps that run on the various Windows 8 platforms, or list them as compatible with all.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to run the standard Office and other productivity apps on ARM-based tablets. Indeed, it’s not at all certain how well Windows 8 will run in such restricted environments, since we’re talking about computers with processor power that compares closely to what you might have achieved seven or eight years ago on a regular PC. That the iOS and Android OS seem so fast is that they are reduced-function systems that are specially optimized for such mobile hardware. It remains a huge question how well Microsoft’s melding of the two will succeed in the real world when push comes to shove.

Again, these are just preliminary thoughts.

Yes, it’s true that Apple has grafted some elements of the iOS in Mac OS X Lion. However, those additions are relatively minor in the scheme of things, and don’t hit you right in the face. You don’t need to run Launchpad, and the reverse scrolling and the ability to run on-demand scrollbars can be repaired by clicking a couple of checkboxes in the appropriate System Preferences pane. Lion, therefore, isn’t in your face.

When it comes to Lion’s enhanced gestures, again you don’t need to use them, ever. The usual commands are available from the menu bar, keyboard and mouse, just as they’ve always been. Apple has also opted not to disappear the menu bar in place of an enhanced toolbar, as Microsoft is doing with their infamous ribbon.

I understand Microsoft might chafe at having Windows constantly being compared to Mac OS X in look and feel. The famous crack, “Redmond, start your copying machines” might have cut deeply. At the same time, change for change’s sake isn’t a good thing either. If the user interface must be modified, I hope Microsoft is making some effort to determine whether customers will be empowered rather than confused by the wealth of changes. If the latter, why bother? Just to look different?

It’s also true that Microsoft hasn’t done so well in the mobile space. Although it has gotten some favorable reviews, Windows Phone 7 simply hasn’t caught on. So, in effect, Microsoft is taking a failed idea and grafting it onto its most profitable product.

Sure, it’s quite possible Windows 8 might prove to be reasonably successful when it comes out next year. But right now, it comes across as an incoherent mess.