Somewhat lost in the news about the build up to the arrival of the next iPad is the fact that Microsoft has also released a “Consumer Preview” of Windows 8. Now Windows 8, in case you’ve tuned in late, is Microsoft’s latest and greatest effort to somehow seem relevant in a world where Apple Inc., the former beleaguered tech company, is now worth more than Poland.
The Face of Windows 8 is Metro, a tiled-based overlay that’s meant to replace the venerable Start menu with something more catchy. Those of you who are familiar with the Zune music player and Windows Phone will find the interface familiar. Similar to Apple’s move to graft iOS elements into OS X, Microsoft is also adding loads and loads of gestures, which is the reasoning behind the “slide, swipe, and zoom” concept that is supposed to have a deep meaning to bored PC users.
Now the Night Owl tried out the first prerelease version, which became available last year, but wasn’t very impressed. My biggest complaint about the interface then, and now, is that there are too many tiles with thin white lettering embedded on tiles with too many muted colors that tend towards the darker side of the spectrum, making those labels hard to read unless you look real close. On the Internet, this is bad Web design, but Microsoft’s OS developers clearly haven’t been clued in.
True, Microsoft’s decision to use small, thin letting with stick figure style artwork might be a clumsy stab at conveying minimalist and elegant intentions, thus being more business-like, against Apple’s shaded and photorealistic icons and backgrounds in OS X.
But I want to be fair and balanced here, although that’s a phrase that’s become more of an ad slogan than a statement of ethics. It may well be that Microsoft’s attempt to put a new face on Windows 8 will catch fire even though the Metro interface has so far failed to gain traction.
The real question is what Windows 8 will offer once you’ve clicked past Metro, and it doesn’t seem like a whole lot. Sure, there will be a version for ARM-based processors — something that Intel isn’t going to like — but that doesn’t mean your regular Windows apps will run on the new generation of tablets using that mobile processor. They’d have to be reworked. This is the sort of thing Mac developers encountered when Apple went through processor transitions, such as the 2006 switch to Intel.
The other features I’ve read about don’t seem compelling enough to mention, except in passing, such as the ability to boot the OS from a USB stick. In turn, Apple has touted over 200 new features in Lion, and another 100 for Mountain Lion. I also expect you’ll see Mac based Metro-styled launching docks, which, in full screen mode, will make your Mac resemble Windows 8, if you truly care. But beneath Metro on a PC box, it’s still just Windows.
In any case, yes, I did install the latest Windows 8 prerelease, and ran into the usual Microsoft clumsiness and complications. Using the latest Parallels Desktop, which supposedly will work reasonably well with a Windows 8 prerelease, I opened a disc image version, or ISO file, downloaded from Microsoft. Shortly into the installation process, which, aside from some passing Metro-based interface artifacts, doesn’t seem much different from Windows 7, I encountered a request for a product key.
A product key?
Why on earth should you need a product key for a free product that, ultimately, must expire after the final release of Windows 8? Well, it seems that, if you download the tiny setup file instead, which, in turn, downloads a full installer as part of the process, you don’t need to concern yourself about such trifles. But since I went straight to the ISO file, I had to poke around Microsoft’s site for some answers. I found one, buried in an FAQ, where a standard 25-character product key was provided.
But as I said, this is a public beta, available for anyone to install if their PC meets the basic system requirements. Besides, the product key I saw is the same one anyone gets, so having one in the first place seems an exercise in foolishness. Yes, it makes sense for Microsoft to want to serialize the retail version of Windows 8, but requiring a single product key for a public beta that you have to jump a hoop or two to locate doesn’t seem terribly logical.
But that’s Microsoft for you. I would have also hoped they’d do more to make the installation user friendly. Why first download a tiny setup file, when all it’s going to do is retrieve the full installer online, or from a network? Why not one file, period? Microsoft is the sort of company that seems to believe that forcing you to follow 20 steps is better than 10.
This doesn’t mean that I think Windows 8 is destined to fail. Once Windows 8 is out, new PCs will be preloaded with the OS. But the real problem for Microsoft is whether millions of business owners will prefer to buy PCs with Windows 7 or — perish forbid — Windows XP instead. Consumers might take to Metro, but businesses may very well pass it by.