Windows 8 frightens me, and here's why


— 9:43 PM on May 17, 2012

Some people just hate change. It can't be helped. Those people cling to old versions of their favorite software as long as they can. When support cycles end and upgrades are forced upon them, they work tirelessly to customize new releases to look just like the old ones. When that fails, they take to Internet message boards and complain endlessly. "Why did they move such and such?" they ask. "Why did they merge this menu and that one? Why does it ask for my permission when I try to do this? Why, why, why?"

Those people are the bane of developers and web designers everywhere. When they're spoon-fed improvements with shiny silverware, they purse their lips and shake their heads and cry and moan until whatever they were offered splatters on the floor. They don't care if things change for the better, and they can't conceive that learning something anew might save them time in the long run. They want things exactly as they are now—forever.

I'm not one of those people; or at least, I like to think I'm not. For the most part, I love change. I seek out new software versions regularly, because I get bored with stagnant user interfaces and unchanging feature sets. I used to run beta apps a lot, but I cut back to keep my main work machine stable. Unlike some people I know, I tend to stick to the default settings in most applications I use. Not only does it save me a lot of frustration when customizations disappear or I have to change PCs, but it also gives me front-row seats to whatever new goodies developers add. I try to enjoy software the way its designers intended, not the way I think it ought to be used.

So, I love change, and I love trying new things. I should be ecstatic about Windows 8. It's going to be new. It's going to be very different, and it's going to make me learn new things and sample new behaviors. Upgrading to Windows 8 will mean a few days, maybe weeks, of experimentation and discovery, and my computing habits might change for the better because of it.

The thing is, I'm not excited. I'm terrified. It's like I'm a hot tub enthusiast, complete with a mustache and chest hair and 1970s hairdo, and Microsoft is about to toss me into a steaming hot spring at the bottom of a volcano. And the hot spring is full of sharks. And the sharks also have mustaches and chest hair. Windows 8 just feels like too much change all at once—too much change that's too fundamental. And I'm not convinced that change will be for the better.

Yes, I've tried the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, and it's an improvement over last year's Developer Preview, no doubt about it. Everything works more smoothly. Everything seems to make just a little bit more sense. There's a growing library of Metro apps, so it's easier to get a feel for how the final product will behave on a day-to-day basis. And heck, some of those Metro apps look pretty good—here's looking at you, NewsRepublic.

The problem is, Windows 8 still has that ugly schism between Metro and Desktop. You keep waltzing from one to the other and then back again, whether it's to open an application, to move documents around the file system, or to perform any other task that isn't neatly contained within a single interface. So far, it seems like Metro apps are geared solely toward content consumption, while all the productivity work still has to happen in the Desktop. And it's terribly awkward.

That's probably going to change, of course. I expect the library of Metro apps to grow once Windows 8 hits stores, and once that happens, we'll likely see some productivity software designed for the new interface. But as new Metro apps start to supplant old Desktop ones, I'm going to have to deal with another big, big problem. And I fear it might be a dealbreaker.

Right now, my main PC has two 24" displays sitting side by side. I usually have a web browser, text editor, and Office applications on my left monitor, and my IRC client, IM contacts list, IM windows, and music player on my right monitor. Things move around from time to time, naturally. Sometimes, I'll be running Excel on my left monitor with a browser window on the right. Other times, I'll have a browser on each display. Maybe one will be for reading TR, and maybe the other will have a YouTube music video playing. Today, for example, I've had I Want a New Drug by Huey Lewis and the News looping at my right.

I could do all of those things in Windows 8, but I'd have to do them in the Desktop interface. Metro, with its modal design and huge buttons and giant text, is almost comically ill-suited for heavy multitasking. Basic app-to-app switching is clunky and slow. Windowed multitasking is off the menu. The best you can do is run two apps side-by-side, with one squeezed along the edge of the display, and that's a poor consolation prize.

Now, what happens when Metro gets all the cool new software, and Desktop gets relegated to legacy status? And what if Desktop and Metro continue to co-exist with equal attention from developers; where does that leave me? In either case, my multitasking experience is going to take a bullet in the leg. Unless I want to snub Metro software forever, I'll have to dedicate one display to Metro, with one or two apps running concurrently, and the other display to the Desktop UI, with everything else I want to use. Things might end up stuck that way for the foreseeable future. Or, if developers choose to focus their efforts on Metro, I might have to abandon the Desktop—and multi-window multitasking—for good.

Both of those options would suck. They wouldn't just suck; they would hobble my productivity. I wouldn't be able to keep my eye on a whole suite of different apps at once, and juggling between more than a handful of programs would become a nightmare. As hard as I might try to accept change and to adopt Microsoft's prescribed usage model, I doubt it would do any good.

"Ah, well," you might say. "If you don't like Windows 8, Cyril, you should just stick with Windows 7. Nobody's going to force you to upgrade."

That's true. Sort of. Sticking with an obsolete operating system always starts off great, but then you begin to miss out on new things. After a few years, Microsoft pulls the plug, and you're on your own with no software patches and no security updates. The sad thing is, I don't want to keep using Windows 7 forever. As nice an operating system as it is, it's not perfect, and many of Windows 8's Desktop improvements actually seem awfully compelling. However, I won't be able to enjoy them without dealing with all those Metro-related hassles.

In short, I'm going to be faced with an ugly compromise no matter what I do. And that's why Windows 8 frightens me.

   
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