Is there a Plan B if Windows 8's Metro fails?

Is there a Plan B if Windows 8's Metro fails?

Summary: There's a certain Wile E. Coyote aspect to the Metro UI in Windows 8.


Over the last two weeks, the Windows 8 Consumer Preview has been dissected by the technology press at large, and the general consensus about the new Metro start screen UI has been one of befuddlement.

It's like Wile E. Coyote took over the UI development team at Microsoft because he's obsessed with chasing the iPad Road Runner.

I find this a bit disconcerting because this befuddlement is largely coming from people who hail from actual technology backgrounds themselves.

This is not the new media "I only play a technologist on TV" armchair technology reporting crowd we're talking about here, this is people that get down and dirty with tech and suck on the teat of software and operating systems like it is mother's milk.

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I have an admission to make, and that is I haven't spent enough quality time with the Consumer Preview to really gauge day-to-day usability.

My exposure to Windows 8 over the last two weeks has been strongly enterprise focused, because that is the space I usually play in professionaly, and my general impression is that Server 8 will be a serious change agent, and in a very positive way.

Windows Server 8 -- assuming the network operating system will even be called that -- is going to be a really big hit. My money is for the product to go to market as "Windows Server 2013" but we can worry about collecting on that bet later.

However, that being said, I have some very serious concerns about the new Consumer version of Windows.

What seems to be a consistent theme among the many technologists who I have talked to that have been using the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is that the experience is schizophrenic. In essence, with the Metro UI Start Screen and the classic Desktop, you have two separate OS experiences clashing with each other.

The words "disjointed", "unfinished", "unintuitive" and "half-baked" seem to pop up quite a bit.

Not only that, but it seems like the entire OS was really not designed for desktop computing. If you don't have a PC that is touch UI enabled or has human interface devices that are touch-optimized, most of you are not really going to get a ton of value from running Windows 8.

I say most because while Windows 8 has some interesting and genuinely useful technology that goes beyond simply the Metro UI, such as the built-in Hyper-V which gives you best of class virtualization on your desktop, many of those features are going to be lost on the average end-user.

I'm not going to sugar coat this. The learning curve and frustration level with this new OS, even when "finished", is going to be significant.

Now, I know I bitched and complained about this when Windows 7 was in beta, but Windows 8 is no comparison. If veteran technologists can be completely befuddled about the way this OS works and can't easily figure out how to be productive with it, imagine what the average end-user is going to have to deal with. It's going to be an utter nightmare.

This afternoon I spoke to our resident Windows maven, Ed Bott about how I was going to start delving into the Consumer Preview a bit more and actually start the process of "dogfooding" the OS. I asked him about what I should do to make my life easier during the accommodation process.

Ed has a lot of ways to test Windows 8 in his home lab, but his preferred way of doing it is to use a PC with two monitors.

Why does he use two monitors? Because when you set up a secondary monitor, it gets dedicated to the traditional Windows Desktop, and the context switching problem of flipping back and forth between UIs is far less painful.

In this wacky configuration that looks like something penned on one of Wile E's drafting boards, you use the Metro screen for Metro-centric apps like full-screen Internet Explorer and another screen for the old-school Desktop with your productivity suite and legacy apps, et cetera.

In other words, a Do it Yourself ACME rocket-powered OS with two screens.

[From Ed Bott: "For the record, my multi-monitor setup is not the only way I prefer to work. I just happen to be testing it here now because I am researching on article on dual-monitor setups in Windows 8. I’ve been switching between multiple configurations (notebooks, midsize monitor, 24- and 27-inch monitors"]

Now, this is fine for power users like Ed and myself, but I just don't see your average end-user going out and buying a dedicated secondary screen just so that the Desktop is always in full view.

Complete technology lunatics like myself that absolutely have to run the latest and greatest OS will go out and buy Lenovo Thinkvision USB Displaylink screens for their laptops like I did so they don't completely lose their mind, but will the majority of the computing population do this? No, I don't think so.

Ed told me that as with Windows 7, end-users will simply adapt and learn the new Metro way of doing things, much like he himself is adapting to. Once you use the damn thing long enough, you finally just get it.

I'm not sure he actually and truly believes this, but hey, he's a Windows guy, and he has to put on a good face and I don't blame him for doing it.

I think there is a very real possibility that as a desktop OS, Metro and Windows 8 on x86 could end up being largely rejected by consumers and the enterprise. If that happens, then Microsoft has a really big problem on its hands.

The obvious solution is for people to go back to using Windows 7, and that's very likely what is going to happen, much like what happened with Vista. There will inevitably be "downgrade" coupons and such for shipping x86 systems and the ability to order Windows 8-certified hardware with Windows 7 instead.

How long Microsoft will permit this is anyone's guess, but I suspect that because Windows 7 and Windows 8 share a common technology foundation for device drivers and such, it will be considerably longer than the XP downgrade period that was established for Vista for OEMs. Perhaps as much as two years.

And in that two years, Microsoft is going to need to develop a "Plan B." I'm actually hoping that they have developed one already, because if they haven't, the far-reaching implications for the company could be devastating.

The biggest problem is that Microsoft really does need to go forward and move to a new UI and programmatic model. WinRT, the successor to Win32 that provides the foundation for developing software that runs in the Metro environment, is definitely modern, streamlined and componentized software technology that is ready for the future of Cloud and hybridized rapid application development.

Win32 is 20 years old and the UX plumbing of Windows absolutely had to be replaced. No question about it.

Unfortunately, WinRT does not currently support windowed apps. Suffice it to say, it takes the "Windows" out of Windows. It gives you a single pane of glass, optimized for smaller screens and tablets.

That doesn't cut it for the desktop, however. Desktop users need multiple windows running on their screens and the ability to multitask. "Post-PC" may very well work for the majority of consumers within a few years, but for the business user, viewing enterprise productivity exclusively through a tablet-centric, full-screen app world is neither realistic nor practical.

I am including both iPad and Android in with that statement, not just Windows 8's Metro.

So "Plan B" is almost certainly Windows 9, which will appear in the 2014 or 2015 timeframe. I expect to see an evolution of Metro for desktop use which allows for windowed applications of some form and a smoother way to transition back and forth from legacy Win32 apps without a jarring context switch.

At the same time, Windows on ARM will continue to evolve, and the legacy "Desktop" environment will give way to fully native WinRT apps, as Microsoft migrates its own legacy code base for Office to the new APIs.

Of course, the real challenge is keeping 3rd-party software developers actually interested in developing and transitioning their existing applications over to native WinRT apps for full-screen Metro in Windows 8 while Windows 9 is presumably on Wile E's drawing boards.

By the way, migrating legacy code from Win32 over to WinRT isn't a coyote picnic either. But I'll leave that in the weeds discussion for another post.

That's going to be a very long two years for Microsoft if they don't get substantial developer buy-in on the Windows Store and we see continued focus outside Redmond on maintaining and writing Win32 legacy apps.

Does Microsoft need a Plan B? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Microsoft, Software, Windows


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Yep

    EDIT: I was answering his question "Does Microsoft need a Plan B?" Yes Microsoft does! ... haters! They need plan B at the same time Microsoft releases "Windows Touch" (this is what I call win8). Or planB is to rename it to "Windows Touch"... would work for me.
    • All MS eggs are in the one basket

      MS has put all of its eggs in the one basket. I doubt very much that there is a Plan B.

      As one example, consider the ribbon in MS Office - loved by some and hated by many. It is still there!
      • MS has a lot going for it

        MS Office is still hugely profitable and shows no signs of stopping--no other office suite even comes close.

        Likewise, Xbox is doing quite well too. And let's no forget the money coming in from licensing. Who knows, maybe even Win Phone will become profitable.
      • I think you mean...

        ...the ribbon in MS Office - loved by many and hated by some, given the fact that Office 2007 and 2010 are making more money for MS than any other division, including Windows. I've been using the Consumer Preview since release. After about 10 minutes of customizing my start screen, I have used it everyday and absolutely love it, even on a large screen with a keyboard and mouse.

        MS does need a required tutorial on mouse/touch behaviors the first time someone logs in so that people don't have to discover all the behaviors, but many (not all) are intuitive, and the desktop's keyboard interactions still work. MS should create a gamified tutorial for mouse, touch, how to use MS cloud services such as skydrive, etc., and give Xbox live achievements for succesful completion. I think this would really help get buy-in to the strategy and platform for Win 8.
        • From what I've personally seen

          He had it right. Office's ribbon is loves by some, and hated by many. Most of the people I know have been using office for more than a decade, and hate the stupid ribbon. Why because the simple menu system is familiar, while having o search for a function is a PITA!

          The only two groups that love it are:
          A) people who's first exposure to Office is Office 2007 (or Office 2010)
          B) diehard Microsoft fanboys, this group will defend the hive at all cost.

          Which one are you?
          Jumpin Jack Flash
      • Re: Xbox is doing quite well too

        If you only count units shipped, which include warranty replacements.If Microsoft used the more accurate numbers, they could avoid some of their problems. Sure, when no one want the product (WP7), you artificially inflate the numbers hoping you will eventually sell enough to break even. Microsoft is also known for "Channel stuffing". They count licenses sold to the OEM, the same as licenses sold tpo retailers, and directly to end users all the same, even though OEM licenses cost 1/5th of the retail cost.
        Jumpin Jack Flash
      • Office rocks

        check out the sales curve of office since the ribbon went in and then realize that people who use office heavily are thrilled. We do Excel decision cubes straight out of the SQL database. Our commercial product has a read-only user just for VBA and VSTO access.
    • LOL

      I was answering his question sorry next time I'll be more clear. I actually read the full article, and at the end he asks "Does Microsoft need a Plan B?" and the answer is YES.

      I'll update my original post to clarify for those who skim the article
    • LoseDoze 8

      If you bypass the most advanced, the most secure Operating System (O/S) on the planet, you are missing out on all of the INNOVATION and INTELLECTUAL property that Micr0$uck$ has to offer. Like installing the internet and browsing the web and pointing and clicking and cutting and pasting and multitasking and all of the things that so insanely DIFFICULT if not outright IMPOSSIBLE to do with any other O/S (e.g Linux, Ios). Why do you think Linux REQUIRES licensing from M$? Because they had to STEAL the technology that they have.
      • Good joke dude

      • I like Windows

        and I agree that up to a point it is the easiest and quickest to use and mostly it works very well. I think calling it the most secure OS on the planet is a bit of a stretch and your comment that Linux requires licensing from MS and contains stolen technology is an outright lie. Linux is not as mature as Windows and not as easy to use, even yet. BUT as a free operating system it is extremely capable and has many MANY features that Windows does not.
      • @LoseDoze 8

        Are you trying to make yourself feel good by this nutsy posting? It is amazing what the MS haters can conjur up...

        Most advanced, most secure - by what standard? You have never tried a real OS like VMS, have you?
      • Licensing

        Really. Linux REQUIRES licensing from microslop?? A bit of FYI a rumor was circulated about Bill Gates STEALING the code for windows 95. Im sure that that is as much BS as this claim. I think I smell a QUACK ALERT coming.
    • Do you have a plan b?

      To the writer of this article. Do you have a plan b should you be fired? Think about it. I am geting tired of your apple tilt articles. negative for all apple competitors.
  • MS doesn't need a plan-B

    Huge behemoths like MS don't need a Plan B. When vista flopped, they still kept going till Win 7 because 95% of our enterprise is wedded to MS platforms and it would be incredibly expensive, time consuming and difficult to change to (say) Linux or Mac at the drop of a hat. Also, in my company, there's plenty of legacy software that will only work on an MS system, so they 're safe for now.
    • When Vista flopped......

      Why do people keep saying Vista was a flop!!! 200 million copies and 3rd most used OS ever and yet you and everyone calls it a flop! I bet every company out there wish they had a flop like that!!!!
      • How many...

        How many, of those 200million copies were "downgraded" to xp? Or were these 200million just how many AOL disks of Vista they made? I did buy vista though, SP1 fixed the issues I had... but was happy to move to win7, as it was vista refined.
      • Because most became XP licences

        As x21x explains, MS sold Vista with the ability to downgrade (some might suggest upgrade) to an XP licence. So, although 200 million copies of Vista might well have been sold, a very large proportion of those only used the XP licence.

        You might also note that the vast majority tech writers saw Vista as a poor OS. Many consider it to be the second worst OS ever introduced (second only to Windows ME).
        • Proof?

          We sold stacks of Vista loaded PC and only a few were downgraded and they were all sold to small business who needed backward compatibility.
          Most were sold to people who wouldn't know how to downgrade to XP so I think this is a claim with no proof.
      • Nevermind

        the reasons why there were 200 million copies and 3rd most used OS was because of the number of PCs sold with that bloated steaming pile of beta crapware Vista installed - hell I personally bought 2 of them and downgraded both to XP and then upgraded both to 7... I also supported a small office of 7 PC that came with Vista and made the business case to upgrade all of them to 7 simply by bringing in my laptop that formerly ran Vista to display Windows 7 - 5 minutes later I got the go ahead to upgrade all 7 PCs ASAP.

        Then there was the whole Mojave Experiment which was a pig with lipstick... there WAS a reason why many people downgraded to XP and why OEMs offered the downgrades. Long story short Vista was a huge flop and a bad joke at Microsoft's expense... I hate to see it repeated with Windows 8 after the success of Windows 7.