Windows 8 officially goes on sale this fall, but Microsoft has made its next-generation operating system available online for anyone who wants a sneak peek at the future of Windows. With a slick new interface of touchable, customizable tiles, the new Metro interface is built to help Microsoft compete in the fast growing tablet market. Apple's tablet hegemony is indisputable at this point, but it doesn't owe anything to the iOS's endless field of icons. In this play for tablet relevancy, however, Microsoft risks alienating its traditional base of desktop and laptop users. Because, as cool as Metro is, it kind of sucks without a touch screen.
Here in our labs, we have loaded the pre-release version of Windows 8 on laptops, desktops, convertible tablets, and all-in-ones. Just for fun, we even loaded it on a MacBook Air. It is remarkably stable, although as you would expect, it is short on drivers and you hit the occasional beta glitch. My only frustration is that using a mouse and keyboard seems awkward.
There are ways to open up an interface that is close to the Windows 7 experience, yet Microsoft doesn't make it easy to find. The software is months away from release and there are already dozens of online tutorials on "How to get the Classic Start Menu in Windows 8." Not a good sign.
If your system doesn't have a touch screen, Microsoft hopes you will use your laptop touchpad to swipe through the Metro interface. The drivers for this are still being worked on, but it doesn't seem like an ideal interface to me. It also doesn't solve the problem for traditional desktop users who will still use a keyboard and mouse.
Obviously, Microsoft wants PC vendors to build as many touch-sensitive laptops and desktops as possible. In the desktop space, you can already see the trend; all-in-ones are among the fastest growing segments. But do we really want touch-sensitive laptops? I can see a market for a convertible laptop/tablet hybrids, but I don't want a touch screen on my laptop. The ergonomics are all off.
The Old Look at the Touch of a Button
The solution here is simple: give users one-button access to the existing Windows 7 desktop. Make Metro the default, but let users hit a button to get back to the interface Microsoft has spent the last 10 years training us to use. That way, Windows 8 could be presented as an upgrade that takes nothing away from existing Windows 7 users. Users would have an easy way to get back to an interface that was optimized for the keyboard and mouse.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like Microsoft is going to do that. The company is betting everything on Metro and seems to believe that users need to be forced into the new paradigm—whether they have a tablet, laptop, or traditional desktop. It doesn't want Windows 8 to be an incremental upgrade; it wants to push past the desktop interface altogether and create something that can span a smartphone, tablet, laptop, and even the TV via an Xbox 360. For that, it needs to be bold.
And Microsoft may be right. I can't imagine Apple would ever hedge and give users access to an older interface just to make them more comfortable. Apple forces its users to adopt new interfaces all the time and users love the company for it.
Then again, Apple still has very different interfaces for its touch-screen and non-touch-screen devices. And at the moment, it hasn't put a touch screen on any of its MacBooks or iMacs.