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Early Windows 8 Reviews: Understating the Obvious

I suppose you can regard Walt Mossberg, of the Wall Street Journal, as the “dean of tech journalists,” since he has been in the business for years. He also hosts the AllThingsD conferences that have featured the movers and shakers of the tech industry, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Tim Cook. So what he says clearly commands respect, and when he severely understates the obvious or falls down on the job entirely in his product reviews, you have to wonder if he hasn’t just lost his edge. Or maybe it’s time to cede the job to someone else.

Take Mossberg’s review of Windows 8, which was posted Wednesday morning. Clearly Mossberg’s impressed by Microsoft’s daringly different approach to their venerable operating system. The Modern UI, formerly known as Metro, is especially impressive. Mossberg says, “It feels natural, especially on a touch screen, and brings Windows into the tablet era.”

Well, I won’t dispute the fact that the Modern UI looks nice, and runs smoothly. But Mossberg is still mindful of the landmines: “By adopting the dual-environment strategy, Microsoft risks confusing traditional PC users, who will be jumping back and forth between two ways of doing things.”

You think?

The schizophrenic nature of Windows 8 is so glaring that it’s strange that Microsoft doesn’t understand the havoc they wrought. This situation is quite different from the Classic Mac OS to OS X transition. Even when you ran Classic in its own app window under OS X, it still functioned like a Mac. Yes, OS X had notable differences in fit and polish, but the Mac fundamentals were still present and accounted for. Even though Lion and Mountain Lion incorporate features and apps derived from the iOS, the interface and usability changes are minimal in the scheme of things. Very little relearning is required.

Here’s a telling example of where Mossberg apparently overlooks serious problems. He says “the new Mail app was disappointing.” Yes, especially if you have email accounts from services other than Microsoft and Google. On the preview versions, I could see no way to add other IMAP accounts from Polaris Mail, a business email hosting service, nor from other services to which I subscribe. There may be a secret handshake, or perhaps it was a limitation of the prerelease version, but it wasn’t there, and Mossberg says nothing about the problem.

The other day, I attacked Microsoft’s decision to make such basic functions as printing more difficult. As with search, settings, and devices, the print function is buried in Charms, the Windows 8 control panel replacement that appears when you swipe in from the right edge, or click the hot spot in the upper right corner. Let me tell you it’s an awkward jump. Mossberg seems to love Charms.

The other huge problem with Windows 8 is the emphasis on touch. If you have one of hundreds of millions of regular PCs with mouse and keyboard, you’ll discover that, “If you don’t have a touchscreen, Windows 8 will still work, but more clumsily.”

So what’s the point?

Understand that Microsoft’s earns a hefty portion of their profits from the enterprise. When businesses buy truckloads of PCs, Microsoft gets an OEM license fee for Windows on each and every sale. But the chance that most IT people would touch Windows 8 with a ten foot poll is slim to none. When Mossberg says that “Microsoft risks confusing traditional PC users,” he is understating the obvious. When a company has to retrain employees without any proven benefit to productivity, they will usually consider a less expensive alternative, or just do nothing. If the company is using Windows XP, the upgrade will be to Windows 7.

For Windows 8 to succeed beyond the consumer market, Microsoft has to make the case for going all or mostly touch on a regular PC. It is definitely not the same as using the touchscreen on an iOS or Android mobile computer. Far from it. Having to jump from keyboard to screen on a traditional personal computer is not just an awkward process, it frankly doesn’t make much sense. That explains why tablets that were essentially convertible note-books have failed in the marketplace.

Microsoft doesn’t get it. You’ll notice that even Microsoft’s Surface tablet emphasizes the use of a PC-style keyboard and putting the unit on a desk using the kickstand rather than just holding it on your hand, or on your lap.

Mossberg’s effort to be a little too fair and balanced is best exemplified in the concluding paragraph of his review: “Microsoft deserves credit for giving Windows a new, modern, face. And the company will surely please existing users by maintaining the old one and the ability to run older apps. But the combination will require re-learning the most familiar computing system on the planet.”

But the danger signs are obvious. Yes, loud and boisterous Windows 8 and Surface ads may attract a reasonable number of consumers. But for those who actually want to get real work done, productivity will just go out the window.

So should we start talking about Windows 9 yet?