Preview: Windows 8 All About the Metro

Windows 8 Preview Metro UI Start screenWhether or not you’ve got the Windows 8 Developer Preview and whether or not you’ve managed to install it for yourself, there’s enough of a buzz around the Interweb about the latest version to come out of Redmond and plenty of write-ups and screencasts to tell you that this one is going to be a little different.

Despite the lack of penetration of the Windows Phone 7 operating system, people have been impressed by the Live Tiles presentation of the home screen. Microsoft is now bringing a Metro-style (note the language from Steven Sinofsky) interface to Windows 8.

Windows 8 Lock-screenThis is intended to be a unifying interface style across phones, tablets, laptops and desktops for the mass of non-technical users who, thanks to smart-phones, know how to load up a home screen with apps, widgets and gadgets. Which is just as well as the traditional Start Menu has been abolished. It’s not there natively in Windows 8 and while you can deploy work-rounds to bring it back, Microsoft is categorically telling you not to: it’s all about the Metro, a slimmed down but highly functional interface of tiles and menu-less full-screen apps. Reverting to classic Windows effectively means Windows 7, losing the distinctive selling point of Windows 8.

This time, it’s less Windows-like than any previous release. It’s all about the Live Tiles, displaying actual data within the large icons and full-screen Metro apps without any Windows-chrome whatsoever. The good news is, the installer is a breeze, Metro looks stunning, it’s stable and the Metro paradigm is working well on its own terms. The Gadgets behave and so far, don’t crash and the networking is good with minimal configuration. However…

Not one to be original, I have to point out a couple of things that have been widely noted already:

  • Windows 8 conventional desktopMetro on Windows 8 is still a shallow layer. While we have Internet Explorer 10 and a Metro Control Panel, dig any deeper or reach for the desktop and you are back in Windows 7 territory; only without a conventional Start Menu and therefore a long and tortuous path to find familiar programs. If it doesn’t have a Live Tile, you have to revert to Search.
  • Legacy applications – and that includes the entire MS-Office suite, email and a more functionally rich Internet Explorer desktop version – will have to revert to a conventional Windows desktop. Which means that millions of Microsoft’s corporate and small business customers will have to be provided with some means to deploy a standard menu system or heavily customise the Metro UI in order to load custom tiles. Another adventure in the land of Group Policy, anyone?
  • Training: you might think this is a big reduction in training requirements for Windows 8, but only if you stick to the simplified Metro-style interface. Back in corporate-land, the worst training scenario is to have both Metro and conventional desktops in use. If the employees and interns can get confused, forget which way to do a given task, or generally screw it up, they will.
  • Deployment: according to the Microsoft support specialists, it won’t matter whether a business deploys Windows 7 or 8, the deployment tools and infrastructure remains the same. Given what we’ve just said, I don’t see how it can possibly be that straightforward.
  • Task switching in Metro is currently a broken concept and you can only close Metro apps by reverting to the Desktop and seeking out the new Task Manager. I’m not alone in thinking this is an issue. More on this in a future post.

Next instalment: a walk-through of the technical and UI-triumph that is the Windows 8 Preview installer, possibly the simplest operating system install around. When did we last say that about a Microsoft product? AJS

Considerations for Installing Windows 8
The Developer Preview is fairly tolerant of the hardware it will install onto, within certain limits.

  • Processor: it really does need a Core-2-Duo or better processor, alternatively a 1GHz Atom if run natively.
  • Memory: less than 1Gb gives it a serious performance hit. More is better.
  • Virtualised: Windows 8 will run in Virtual Box and VMWare Server 8 (version 7 is hit and miss, mostly miss). You can still get VMWare Server free for personal use. Windows 8 will not run in VMWare Player or on MS Virtual-PC 2007 at all or in Virtual PC on Windows 7 unless you have Hypervisor-V installed. Windows 7 Starter edition won’t play ball with Virtual PC at all (unless someone wants to correct me or has work-arounds).

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