The Microsoft Approach
Not wanting to feel left out of the OS update game, Microsoft recently unveiled a Consumer Preview of Windows 8, the next version of its operating system. Microsoft’s objective with this upgrade, was to create an operating system that could function equally well on both a tablet environment that tends to rely on a touch interface as well as a traditional computer that uses a keyboard and mouse. Microsoft has actually promised a full powered version of it new OS that would work well on both types of devices.
Apple on the other hand has expanded iOS, it’s phone OS so that it works well in a tablet environment, which isn’t much of a stretch given that both of these devices function with a touch UI. It should be added that the next version of desktop operating system, Mountain Lion, will be borrowing many features from it popular mobile operating system, iOS. Therefore it seems that the hugely popular touch interface that is being used on today’s smart phones and tablets are starting to exert its influence on the operating system and user interface on desktop computers.
Windows 8, slated to be released in the fall of this year, marks the most revolutionary change to the Windows UI since the introduction of Windows 95. Microsoft has touted this as the operating system that will serve both tablet and desktop users, definitely not an easy task to pull off. How do you combine a touch friendly OS with that of a mouse and keyboard focused OS? Microsoft’s approach has been to start with the Metro style interface that was designed for touch screen input on Windows phones and modify it to allow for interaction with traditional desktop input devices.
The Metro Style
If you are familiar with the Metro style interface found on Windows phones you will be right at home with version 8 of the new OS. For desktop users this will be the biggest change that you will be confronted with in Windows 8. In earlier desktop versions of the OS, most tasks and applications were clearly visible, buttons were either raised or windows were highlighted. In Windows 8 most of its functionality is hidden so you will have to know your way around a bit, certainly making it a less intuitive UI. To make up for this lack of visible indicators there are a lot gestures that allow one to access applications, it will therefore be necessary to learn them in order to harness the power of the OS.
The start-up screen consists of a series of brightly colored rectangular “live tiles” to which various apps and functions are pinned, these are launched by simply taping on the tiles. Since these tiles are “live” they will be able to display information about the application to which they are pinned, for example an email tile could display the number of unread messages. On a touch screen, you simply touch a tile to start an application, a swipe down takes you back to the start screen while a swipe from left to right switches applications. With a mouse and keyboard, you click on the tiles to open them and can return to the start menu by pressing the Windows key or by clicking on lower left hand corner. Hidden off to the right of the screen are a set of so-called charms, which are basically system commands such as search, share, start and setting. Charms can be accessed with a swipe in from the right side in a touch environment or by pointing the cursor to the upper right-hand corner with the mouse.
The left bezel will be the location you will be accessing if you are multitasking. If you drag in from the left, your last app which will appear in a small window, dragging it all the way over brings it into the full screen. If you drag it over part of the way, it gets locked into the left quarter of the display. Using a mouse, start in the upper left and you’ll get a list of your recent apps, drag down from there and the list of other apps appears which you can access simply by clicking on it. To access an “all apps” screen you swipe up from the bottom of the screen or with a mouse right click on the start screen. This brings up a listing of all of your applications in a screen that is reminiscent of the old Windows Start screen.
What turned out to be a controversial addition, or I should say deletion from the latest consumers preview of Windows 8 has been the removal of the Start button. This button has been in lower left hand corner of the screen in every version of the OS since Windows 95. To get this same functionality it is necessary to drag the cursor to the lower left of the screen, where the button used to be and click. You can also access the Start menu by hitting the “Windows logo key” on the keyboard. If you have a Windows 8 tablet this will not be an issue since it will have a physical Start button.
Despite all of the UI changes that have been made, Microsoft has retained a number of keyboard shortcuts. Some of the more useful ones are:
- Windows + arrow keys: In combination with the left and right arrows this will move Metro apps into their left or right docked positions. For desktop apps this moves them to the left of right of the screen. As in Windows 7, in combination with a down arrow minimizes the app, while in combination with an up maximizes it.
- Windows + C: This combination will bring up the charms bar. In combination with C, I, K or H, this will bring up the Settings, Connect or Share Charms.
- Windows + Tab: This will toggle between applications.
- Alt + Tab: This will bring up all of your applications and let you toggle through them.
To take advantage of the tremendous success it has with Xbox, Microsoft has decided to integrate it more closely with the new version of Windows. In fact, Xbox Live is one of the most prominent tiles in the new Start Menu. When clicked, you will be asked to sign in to your account. Once signed in, your screen will be transformed into something that looks quite similiar to that of the gaming console. You will be able to check your gaming habits and even launch your recently played games and apps. The experience on the computer will be somewhat limited in that you are restricted to up/down/left/right movements. You are also limited to the game that has been downloaded to your Xbox or that is on a disk inside the console. Despite the limitations, the functionality will no doubt improve over time.
The Xbox team has also been responsible for the Music and Video applications that launch when audio and video files are opened in Windows 8. The interface is in fact very similiar in appearance to that experienced in the Xbox ecosystem.
Internet Explorer 10
Of course, the browser has been redesigned with a Metro-styled interface that uses up the entire page to display content. As with other applications, swiping actions in various places of the page are required to bring up the controls with which you are familiar. In what seems to be a concession to people who just can’t bear to live without the old interface, Microsoft has added a second browser that looks the same as the Explorer 9 version. Although a welcome addition by some, it may leave others just confused.
Windows 8 tries to be all things to all people. Since it was optimized for tablets, it seems to succeed in providing a good user experience for touch environments, although it seems a little less intuitive than Apple’s mobile OS. Most critics seem to agree that the interface will provide the biggest learning curve for those who are used to a desktop environment, a segment that makes up the largest share of Windows users. Only time will tell if this gamble by Microsoft will pay off.
If you are interested in trying out this latest offering from Microsoft the Consumer Preview is available at their website free of charge.