Windows 8: One OS to Rule Them All?

Windows 8 is on the horizon. Microsoft has designed the next-generation flagship operating system with a split personality that straddles the line between the familiar Windows 7 desktop, and the flashy Metro interface used with Windows Phone 7. Can Microsoft successfully tackle desktop and mobile with one OS?

Microsoft is not new to mobile devices. It had a smartphone before the Apple iPhone revolution came along, and it was pushing tablet PCs before the Apple iPad made it cool. But, as long as Microsoft’s history with mobile devices is, so is its stubborn desire to make everything about its Windows OS.

Windows 8 is built for tablets, but may not sway desktop users to upgrade.
The original Windows Mobile was--as much as it could be--Windows ported onto a much smaller form factor. Windows tablets were more or less Windows laptops, but with the physical keyboard removed and replaced by a stylus for input.

What Microsoft failed to realize, and what Apple and Google have since proven, is that the mobile experience is different than the desktop experience. But, Apple has been moving in a direction to converge iOS and Mac OS X in some ways, and Google seems to blur the line some with Android and its Chrome OS--so Microsoft apparently wants to double down with an OS that can simultaneously run desktops and tablets.

Fair enough. The Windows 8 developer preview version I have now is pretty rough around the edges, but it has some pizazz, and definitely shows some promise. It still seems sort of “Jekyll and Hyde”, though--it can either be a flashy Metro UI tablet, or it can be a Windows 7 desktop.

The allure of having one cross-platform OS is the applications. It is more efficient for developers to be able to write one application that works on both desktops and tablets, it is more cost effective for companies to purchase software that works in both environments, and it is more convenient for users to be able to use the same tools on both platforms rather than swimming upstream to find ways to integrate and sync the two.

The problem comes back to the fact that mobile devices serve different roles than PCs, and writing a single application that can meet the needs of both environments is tricky--if its possible at all. Microsoft is working hard to entice developers and users alike with its upcoming Windows 8 app store, but where the proverbial rubber meets the road Windows 8 is still two separate operating systems.

Traditional Windows software developed for an x86 architecture will not work with the ARM processors that power most tablets. In fact, according to Microsoft the traditional desktop mode won’t even be an option on ARM-based tablets. Even if the hardware itself weren’t an issue, though, applications developed for the Windows desktop OS won’t just magically work in the Metro UI.

The fact that the Metro UI will be the only choice for ARM tablets, and also live alongside the traditional Windows OS on desktops means that developers will have to focus on applications targeting the Metro interface in order to capture both markets. On a traditional desktop or laptop, though, the Metro interface loses some of its appeal.

Metro is great, but it is built for a touchscreen interface. It works--in the technical sense--on a PC with a mouse, keyboard, and standard monitor, but I find myself flipping frequently to desktop mode because those just work better given today’s desktop hardware.

IDC analysts predict that Windows 8 will be a bit of a dud. I am not as pessimistic about the prospects of Windows 8 tablets as the IDC report suggests, but I agree that there seems to be little compelling reason for a user or company that has already made the switch to Windows 7 to go out and upgrade to Windows 8…on current hardware.

I love Windows Phone 7 “Mango”, and I do believe Microsoft is capable of providing a solid mobile experience for tablets. But desktop and laptop hardware need to evolve and adapt more to incorporate the touchscreen, tapping and swiping interface before the Metro UI or Windows 8 will be attractive as an upgrade option.

Don’t ever count Microsoft out, though. Microsoft is playing the long game, and it has enough influence to bend the hardware and software markets to fit its vision as long as it holds up its end of the bargain and delivers a worthwhile OS.

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