Now that Microsoft has officially released the Consumer Preview of Window 8, anyone can download the beta software and get a good look at the software giant’s biggest change to Windows in years.
It’s still unclear exactly when the finished version of Windows 8 will be available, but short of any glitches during the Consumer Preview rollout and feedback, we should see plenty of new Windows 8 devices this fall.
Microsoft is betting big that Windows 8 and its new Metro interface will help it bounce back in tablets to compete with Apple’s iPad and the growing number of Android devices.
Don Norman, the well known design expert, says a new approach was overdue. Norman is a former Apple executive who later did consulting work for Microsoft related to its early Windows Tablet PC efforts.
“Microsoft got complacement. They were a dominant player in everything and they lost it. They were out early with tablets, but they were horrible,” says Norman, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group consulting firm. Norman says the big mistake Microsoft made with tablets and its its software for smartphones was that it tried to squeeze the desktop PC, specifically Windows, into those small devices.
But Norman says Windows 8 shows Microsoft has evolved as a company that’s more open to new ideas and approaches that are far more innovative than Apple’s other big competitor, Google’s Android.
“You look at Android and the iPhone and it’s really the same thing. It’s not just that it’s a ripoff, people do that all the time, but the real problem is that it shows a lack of creativity,” says Norman.
By contrast, Norman says Microsoft looked at how people interact with different form factors and how gesture interfaces work without copying Apple. “That’s what so brilliant,” he said.
“I have criticized the gesture interfaces on Android and Apple which can be confusing because you don’t know whether to swipe left or right, up or down, or double tap or triple tap,” said Norman. “Android at least has menus; Apple doesn’t seem to believe in menus anymore."
Metro and tiles an innovative advance
As for Metro and its use of tiles, Norman says it does a better job than either Android or Apple’s iOS at giving users more information. “Metro shows, if you are going to swipe, a little bit of what will be up there so you have hints of what direction to move. The previews in the tiles are brilliant because sometimes you get enough information that you don’t have to open them -- you can get see the weather on a weather tile or a stock price on a stock tile right there.”
Analyst Jack Gold agrees Metro is innovative, but says the clock is ticking and Microsoft can't afford any delays in WIndows 8’s release, especially with Apple apparently set to release the iPad 3 next month.
“I think of Metro as old hat now, it’s been out over a year if you look at what’s under the covers in Windows Phone 7,” says Gold, principal analyst with J.Gold & Associates.
“Microsoft took a big game with Windows Phone 7, some love it, some hate it, it’s really very different than either the iPhone or Android with its use of tiles,” he said. “Now we’re going to see what people think of Windows 8.”
Part of that experience he says will be using a new generation of Ultrabooks coming later this year that offer both conventional keyboard/mouse and touchscreen interfaces, as well as new Windows 8-powered tablets that also offer input with a stylus for drawing and applications that require more precision.
Gold says another area of distinction from Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 that will likely carryover to Windows 8 is the emphasis on helping people stay connected on their device to friends and colleagues on social networks like Facebook.
“Basically it’s unified communications on steroids,” says Gold. It’s proven to be very popular so you see everyone copying that idea, including Apple.”