Microsoft's unanswered Windows 8 challenge - Legacy applications

Microsoft has begun given us the first official 'sneak peek' at it's upcoming Windows 8 operating system, and what we're being shown is a Windows operating system like none we've seen before.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft has begun given us the first official 'sneak peek' at it's upcoming Windows 8 operating system, and what we're being shown is a Windows operating system like none we've seen before.

What we're seeing for the first time from Microsoft is a version of Windows that isn't specifically targeted to the desktop, instead the Redmond giant seems to be gambling on making changes to the operating system that are tablet specific. The touch interface looks very different to what we expect of Windows. In fact, it looks more like Windows Phone than Windows.

Tiles, tiles everywhere!

Here's a touch-optimized Internet Explorer 10 in action.

Here's a thumb-operated keyboard that's designed to make tablet use easier.

Here are new Windows 8 apps coexisting with legacy applications:

The Ribbon UI, previously seen in Office applications, makes its way to Windows 8:

Here's a Twitter client with on-screen keyboard:

Here's the gist of what Windows 8 brings:

  • Fast launching of apps from a tile-based Start screen
  • Tiles feature live notifications
  • Fast switching between apps
  • Easy snap/resize ability to allow for multiple apps to be on the screen at one time
  • An app store
  • Touch-optimized browsing

The problems -->

Here's the problem I see though. One of the major complaints leveled at tablets such as the iPad and Android-powered tablets is that there's no legacy support. You're having to invest not only in new applications but also it takes time to get up to speed and get the workflow right. Microsoft fans have trumpeted the Windows tablet as a solution to this problem because Windows would offer legacy support on tablets and so you'd be able to take desktop apps with you.

A good idea in theory. But ...

Let's take a closer look at one of those screenshots.

Here we have Windows 8 and in the background Microsoft Word 2010.  Here's my question about Windows 8 and the whole touch support thing ... how will all this touch support work when it comes to legacy apps?

Take Office 2010 for example. It has the Ribbon UI which, on the face of things, will be great for touch. But the problem is that the Ribbon UI is only a veneer over a a very complicated program. If you want access to something that has not been made available on the ribbon then you have to start digging. And this involves clicking on little stuff.


And this isn't just a Word 2010 problem, or an Office 2010 problem, or down to any specific applications. It's a problem across the board, from standalone applications to web apps powered by Flash or Sliverlight and so on. Microsoft might be able to make Windows work with touch (and I still say 'might' given how little we've seen so far) but this does nothing to make all the legacy stuff that we would be moving to Windows 8 work any better with touch.

Now, a possible counter to this point is that new apps are inbound. Surely Office 2012 or whatever it will be called will be designed with touch in mind (let's assume that all the complexity of say the Office suite can be distilled in such a way as to allow it to be entirely touch driven), so that will solve things. Well, maybe, but you're having to buy new applications and train people to use them to make it work, which was the exact reason for wanting a Windows tablet as opposed to an iPad or Android tablet in the first place. At its heart Windows and Office (along with pretty much all the applications out there) are desktop centric and are designed to be driven with a keyboard and mouse and not a pudgy finger.

The problem once again is that Microsoft wants Windows to be everywhere ... on the desktop, on notebooks, and now on tablets. But tablets are a different animal to traditional desktops and notebooks, and the idea of trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach baffles me.

The tabletification of a desktop operating system and the issues surrounding legacy apps aren't the only issues I'm trying to get my head around with Windows 8. There's the whole issue of Windows being a desktop OS, and desktops have a lot more power at their disposal than tablets do. While we can rely on Moore's law to take up some of the slack, I worry that it's not enough. Low-power, ultra-mobile systems are a different animal to desktops and notebooks, and I'm far from sold on the idea that they seed the same operating system.

I know that the ARM version of Windows 8 doesn't have legacy support, and as such will eliminate some of these problems, but if you're dumping legacy support, where's the advantage of going with Windows? This alone almost by itself negates the need for tablets to be running the same Windows as desktops and notebooks. It's almost as though Microsoft, at its core, knows desktops and tablets need a different operating system, but that it lacked the confidence to separate the two. After all, Microsoft's fortune is based on selling Windows.  It doesn't know how to do anything else.

Another issue I have is that the problem with the tabletification of a desktop operating system is that it will push touch into devices that don't need it. Touch is nowhere near as effective as the keyboard and mouse. Touch on a desktop system is not something that most people want or need, yet is seems that we're being forced into a touch paradigm because of Microsoft's current obsession with tablets.

Finally, and it pains me to say this, but Windows 8 looks absolutely awful. I mean, seriously, purple!

I'm assuming that this is some kind of joke or one person's perverted color preference. I really hope so, because that's not something I want to be looking at all day. What if I want to see more than 10 things on my screen (because that seems like a pretty big waste of a 24-inch screen to me)? Why do I want to be looking at that huge 'Store' button? Sheesh, why not pre-click it for me ...

It's far too early to say whether Windows 8 will be a success or a failure. A lot hangs on real-world usability, pricing, devices, compatibility and so on. But one thing that is clear is that Microsoft can ill-afford another Vista-style disaster. It's clear how threatened Microsoft is by the success of Apple's iPad and Androidtablets and how desperately it's trying to remain relevant in a fast changing world. But after looking at the first official showcase of Windows 8 yesterday I'm left wondering just how much of this is being driven by Microsoft's need to compete/copy with Apple rather than being based on what people actually want from Windows.

The sad fact is that we could end up with a Windows that works on every platform, but that doesn't work well on any platform.

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