The Windows 8 ecosystem: 5 best and 5 worst features

The Bad

Friendly compromises that were never made

To construct a user experience that works fairly seamlessly across desktops, tablets, and smartphones, Microsoft had to make some compromises, and these trade-offs are affecting desktop users the most. Although it’s relatively easy to operate a touchscreen-oriented interface on a device with an actual touchscreen, it’s not so easy to translate touch gestures to the world of mice and keyboards. Power users aren’t happy with Microsoft’s new Windows 8 mouse gestures, so you can only imagine how well they’ll be received by the enterprise market, and by all of our grandparents.

In some cases Microsoft didn’t even have to make compromises, but still opted to restrict the user’s ability to navigate Windows in a familiar, friendly way. The company had ample opportunity to give users choice and freedom in its construction of Windows 8, but decided not to.

Want a Start menu? We won’t show it by default, but you can enable it if you really need to. Don’t like the Start screen? That’s totally cool. We’ll make it so that you can still access it, but we won’t force you to deal with it up front each time you start the OS. Don’t need a lock screen since you’re on a desktop computer instead of a tablet? Great. We won’t force you to “reveal” your password prompt. Or at least, we won’t bury the option that lets you eliminate this.

That’s how Microsoft’s internal dialogue could have sounded. But in the real world, Microsoft chose differently. In creating a common ecosystem for Windows 8, Microsoft has shifted portions of its new user interface into places where they don’t need to be.

Common interface, uncommon apps

The scariest part of the Windows 8 ecosystem is the fact that Microsoft has put a good chunk of the potential success of its OS—across PCs, tablets, and smartphones—in the hands of third-party developers. Even though it’s premature to declare Windows 8 a complete dud in terms of available apps, we have to be concerned about the critical dearth of apps that one would otherwise expect to find on a major new platform. Windows 8 has no official Facebook app, no official Twitter app, and no Instagram. And those are just three of the most obvious omissions.

Windows Phone 8 devices bear a similar interface to Windows 8, but they can't run Windows 8 apps.

The app situation could very well change in a few months, so I won’t quibble about specifics. After all, Microsoft execs have stated that they hope to have 100,000 apps in the Windows Store within 90 days of the Windows 8 launch.

What’s worse for Microsoft is the way that it has decided to treat the Windows Stores on smartphones, tablets, and desktops, walling them off in separate silos instead of unifying all of the environments. How cool would it be to buy a copy of Microsoft Office, and receive a version geared for your Windows 8 smartphone and for your Windows 8 desktop or tablet? Or, for that matter, wouldn’t it be nice to purchase rights to run your favorite Windows 8 smartphone game on your tablet?

But, no, that’s not happening.

A Windows 8 tablet or hybrid is the functional equivalent of a laptop, which shares the same Windows Store as your desktop PC (unless you’re running a Windows RT-based tablet; I'll get into that below). In contrast, a Windows Phone device—whose interface inspired Windows 8 and exhibits many of the same behaviors and features of Windows 8—taps into a completely different software store. Phone apps share a common code with tablet and PC apps, but they can’t directly transfer over to your tablets and PCs.

The sins of Windows RT

If you thought the Windows 8 ecosystem was confusing enough in terms of app support, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Windows 8 RT has entered the fray, too. If the Windows 8 ecosystem of desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones were a great land mass, then Windows 8 RT would be an island off the coast. It’s under the mother country's protection, and it likely enjoys much of the same climate and vegetation, but it’s still separated enough to be its own little, self-contained world.

The desktop in Windows RT is little more than a home base for Microsoft Word and file management.

Microsoft representatives have had trouble explaining the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT in the months leading up to Windows 8’s big launch. And if they can’t get it right, how is an average consumer supposed to understand that Windows RT is a stripped-down OS version that won’t run desktop applications, save the ones that come preinstalled? In a nutshell, the Windows RT desktop runs a junior edition of Microsoft Office and a motley crew of legacy utilities. That’s it, along with providing the basic file-management functions of any Windows desktop OS.

Microsoft might gain some depth-of-ecosystem advantages by opening Windows 8 to inexpensive (and energy-efficient) ARM processors; in fact, the move to support ARM extends the reach of the new Windows platform. But Windows RT also has the potential to create serious confusion for people expecting to jump between all Windows 8 devices without issues.

It’s commercial time

Never before has Microsoft been so unapologetic about tying its commercial interests so closely with the raw mechanics of its OS ecosystem. Although you’re free to set up your own default applications in Windows 8, or to install other apps to manage the multimedia as you see fit, there’s no question that Microsoft would prefer that you use its branded, tiled apps to watch or listen to content. And, oh, while you’re there, perhaps you might like to rent or purchase a movie or two from one of the tiles advertised on your screen.

The Games app mostly feels like a storefront for, well, games, including those designed for the Xbox 360.

It’s bad, folks. The Music app isn’t so much a media player as a storefront for Xbox Music. The Games app isn’t so much a portal for installed games as a platform for buying Windows 8 games—and even Xbox 360 games. And the same conceit holds true for the Video app. These are sales tools, not user-focused programs, and the sales pitch persists throughout the Windows ecosystem.

Android—and even iTunes, to a lesser extent—separates commercialization from content to such a degree that it’s there if you want it, and you know how to reach it, but it isn't in your face, atop a lackluster multimedia player (or games browser). But in the new Windows ecosystem, no matter what you’ve paid for your device or for your subscription content, advertising is now a part of the norm. That’s not fun.

Region migration?

Although this issue won’t affect the mainstay of Microsoft’s Windows 8 user base, one of the problems Microsoft has now created in unifying its ecosystem under a common account—the Microsoft Account—is that transferring your account between regions is about two degrees short of impossible. In other words, if you’ve done a lot with your old Live ID in Europe, for instance, and are about to move to the States, you’re in for a bit of a shock: Your new Microsoft Account will remain tied to the country where you created it.

Unfortunately, at the moment you can't just open a drop-down menu in some options panel and change over from, say, England to the United States. Without the ability to make such a switch, users lose the capability to pay for the very services Microsoft offers—apps, Xbox Live points, and the like—in addition to losing access to any region-locked apps, games, services, or subscriptions they’ve already ponied up for.

What would have been an annoying issue in previous years is even worse now that Microsoft is tying a number of Windows 8’s more compelling features to a user’s online account. Microsoft’s standard solution—create a new Microsoft Account—just doesn’t cut it anymore, not when the goal is to have a single sign-on for the entirety of the Windows 8 ecosystem.

The real solution is twofold. First, Microsoft should give its users the opportunity to switch their billing country without hassle. And second, those people who already took Microsoft up on its advice to create multiple accounts need the ability to merge multiple accounts into one.

Microsoft, however, would just prefer that you “hold tight” for now.

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