A week ago, Microsoft delivered the Windows 8 Release Preview, the final pre-release of the platform before the forthcoming operating system hits the release-to-manufacturing stage. OEMs get their hands on the final code at this stage, which is followed by Windows 8's general availability, where it's available to us all.
I've been following Windows 8 closely over the past few months, spending a lot of time not only with the official releases but also with a number of leaked builds, and I've had the chance to install the operating system on a variety of hardware platforms, both old and new. However, since my primary working platform is a desktop system, this is where I've had the chance to spend the most time with Microsoft's new operating system.
I'm now ready to sum up my Windows 8 experience with a single word: awful.
I could have chosen a number of other words -- terrible, horrible, painful and execrable all spring to mind -- but it doesn't matter, the sentiment is the same.
And I don't say this lightly. I want to like Windows 8. I really do. From a performance point of view, I've no complaints since it's just as snappy and responsive as Windows 7, and will likely get a little better as drivers mature. Hardware support is also excellent; the platform able to handle effortlessly everything I threw at it.
Windows 8 is also very robust and reliable. I did experience a shower of error messages on one occasion when trying to install it on a notebook, but on restarting the installation everything seemed to work just fine the second time around. Apart from this single incident, I've not experienced another crash or lockup while using the Windows 8 Release Preview.
And if nothing else, I want to like Windows 8 because I know that I'll be spending a lot of time using it over the coming years.
But despite being rock-solid, snappy and responsive, as a platform to do real-world work on, Windows 8 feels utterly unusable, and that's down to one thing -- the "Metro UI" user interface.
I'm going to avoid commenting on Metro on touch-based systems for now because Windows 8 is too far off in the future to know what the hardware is going to be like. Instead, I'm going to limit my discussion to using the operating system on desktop and notebook systems.
On the face of it, the Metro UI looks good. It's new and shiny and refreshing, and it looks like it could actually be quite usable. If you've used Windows Phone then the interface feel familiar. Things feel good.
And then you start to use it.
The first problem comes when you try to find the application you want to run. Every version of Windows since Windows 95 has trained us to scroll through a vertical list looking for the applications we want to launch, but with Windows 8, Microsoft has thrown away this concept and instead adopted a system called the Start Screen where the links to all your apps are spread across the screen.
As a result, rather than keeping your attention focused on a small part of the screen, you've now got to scan over the entire screen. The larger the screen, the more area you have to scan. It turns the process of finding the app you want to run into a game of "Where's Waldo?" -- and I detest playing that game or puzzle, or whatever it is.
The last thing I want is for my PC to force me into playing "hunt the app" every time I want to get something done.
Microsoft has offered users an escape chute, given that you're not going to be able to find anything, and added a search feature that allows you to filter the apps by typing the name of what you're looking for. This works, but it's clumsy and makes a mockery of having all the icons displayed on screen in the first place. Every time I'm forced to use it, it's another failure for the Microsoft design team.
Another annoyance with the Metro Start Screen is that all roads lead to it. Almost everything you do ends up throwing you into the Start Screen. I find it utterly crazy that I can go from clicking on a tile on the Start Screen and then be unceremoniously dumped into things like a Classic Control Panel applet or Windows Explorer. Then, to do the next thing, you're back to the Start Screen again.
Bolting on a new user interface is one thing, but when that user interface is incomplete, it makes you question the value of having it in the first place.
But it gets worse.
Not only did someone at Microsoft think that it was a good idea to make Metro the primary user interface in Windows 8, but they also decided to destroy the 'classic' user interface experience too by also 'Ribbonizing' most of the applications. These Ribbon toolbars are packed with small user elements and are fiddly to use with a mouse, and even more fiddly -- at times bordering on impossible to use -- when driven with a finger.
The Ribbon toolbars, which we first saw in Office 2007, weren't developed with touch in mind, but it appears that Microsoft has decided to adopt them as a cheap alternative to spreading the Metro user interface across the whole of Windows 8. Not only do they not work well on touch systems, they're also terribly cluttered and confusing.
Another problem is what's called 'mystery meat navigation' where you're really not sure what anything is or what it does. While Microsoft has moved stuff about and added a whole raft of features, there's nothing that gives the user any clue that these new features exist, or how to find them. Unless users are guided to these new additions, the only way they are going to figure things out is through trial and error.
How many users have the patience for that, particularly in a productivity-centric environment?
There are too many hidden and invisible user interface elements in Windows 8. Take your mouse to the bottom-left of the screen and you get poor replacement to the Start Menu. Take the cursor to the top-left and you get tiles showing apps that are open. Take the cursor to the right of the screen and a charms Ribbon pops out. How is this any better or more intuitive than everything on a single taskbar?
In some areas, Microsoft has added a lot more user interface clutter to some areas of Windows with Ribbon toolbars, and in others it has taken away all visible user interface elements and left people to guess where to point and click.
I just can't shake the feeling that Windows 8 would be better off as two separate operating systems. A 'classic' Windows 8 for regular desktop and notebook systems - which would feel more like a service pack for Windows 7 than a full release -- and a separate 'Metro' version for touch-enabled hardware.
Even at this late stage in the game, it still feels to me like Windows 8 is two operating systems unceremoniously bolted together.
An example I've used previously is that the Windows 8 user interface feels like something out of the mind of a child asked to draw a futuristic car. They'd give you the general car shape and then bolt on something like wings or rockets. Rather than ending up with something new and usable, you end up being presented with a Frankenstein's monster of cobbled together parts that are clumsy and impractical.
And that's how Windows 8 feels to me: clumsy and impractical.
You may think that after a while you will become immune to these annoyances the more you use Windows 8. I don't know. All I can say is that I haven't come to that point yet, and the depressing thing is that I don't think I will.
I'd honestly expected that Microsoft would have refined the user interface experience by the time the operating system got to the Release Preview stage, but it hasn't happened. While Microsoft continues to make concessions to keyboard and mouse jockeys, they don't feel integrated with the operating system as a whole. I can't believe that the user interface was designed from the ground up to work for touch, and the mouse and keyboard. It's all feels far too haphazard and disjointed.
Windows 8 wasn't born out of a need or demand; it was born out of a desire on Microsoft's part to exert its will on the PC industry and decide to shape it in a direction -- touch and tablets -- that allows it to compete against, and remain relevant in the face of Apple's iPad. After a decade of attempting to carve out a market for Windows-powered tablets, there's still no proven market for these devices.
It's not just a massive gamble --- it's too much of a gamble.
The bottom line
There's a palpable fear that Windows 8 will stumble out of the door. I'm hearing this from people within Microsoft, from the OEMs and vendors, and from others in and around the industry. The OEMs and vendors feel especially vulnerable, and if Windows 8 does become 'another Vista' then there will be an industry-wide bloodbath. Analysts are already cutting price targets on Dell and HP, and Windows 8 is still a few months away.
My predictions are that after the initial fanfare following the release, things will play out as follows:
Enterprise will continue to demand Windows 7, because to roll out Windows 8 'properly' the costs will rocket due to mass purchase of touch-enabled hardware and additional user interface training;
OEMs will sell Windows 7 PCs alongside Windows 8 systems because they will find it almost impossible to present the benefits of Windows 8 on desktop systems;
Microsoft will once again find itself in a position where it has to offer longer-term support for the older operating system;
Windows 9 will look significantly different to Windows 8, and likely switch back to the 'traditional' Windows interface;
Depending on how Windows RT tablets sell, Metro could well be on life-support come Windows 9.