Windows 8.1: Good Strategy But Flawed Execution

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Windows 8.1 is here and this is what Windows 8.0 should have been. Like its lead in tablets and mobile phones in the the late 1990’s and 2000’s, Microsoft may be squandering in the expanded world of mobile computing a great overall Windows OS  lead and new version  strategy to a flawed  execution.

Meanwhile all  the usual IT reviewers are out on the day of the Windows 8.1 launch and they are cautiously optimistic.
Gizmodo says – Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference
TheVerge says – It’s take two for Microsoft’s ambitious operating system.
PCWorld says – Windows 8.1 – The great compromise
Engadget says – Its Windows 8.1 preview from June 31st is good enough – and they have little to say at launch
Supersite is more diplomatic – Windows 8.1 is a meaningful and welcome upgrade to Windows 8
InfoWorld, in contrast, pulls no punches – With Windows 8.1 now generally available, focus shifts to fixing the mess Steve Sinofsky left behind.
NYTimes David Pogue says – Windows 8 Finally Starts to Reconcile Its 2 Worlds

This reviewer gives David Pogue the last word because he comes closest to hitting the Windows 8 nail on the head. Windows 8.1 offers a number of notable and welcome improvements to the Metro Apps but Redmond is left with two OS with little integration between them [integration is so poor David recommends splitting and selling 2 versions of the OS]. In sum, the Windows 8.1 apps finally show-off the Metro-style interface in a good light. But there are still problems integrating with the 4 millions programs that run in the Desktop interface.

This is the point that David makes – there are really two and nearly separate operating systems in Windows 8.1 – the vastly improved set of Windows 8.1 apps and the Desktop environ and programs that have been given more room to co-exist with the Metro OS. But essentially these are two separate OS with very few points of integration.  More about this crucial point shortly.

Nonetheless, every Windows 8.0 metro App has been improved:
Weather tile can expand to show 3 cities at once and 3 days of forecasts.
Calendar can provide all of your days events in tile, with improvements in detailed layout.
New Help+Tips app provides Metro interface tips and navigation aids finally.
People has new features + customizations but loses direct Flickr and Facebook links in favor of their own apps.
New Health+Fitness app  has a number of diet and exercise aids and tips.
Bing takes advantage of its smart search capabilities to display a full screen of images, text and videos on a topic.
Mail has much improved layout and better Outlook integration.
New Alarm app is a clever alarm clock service.
Windows Store  is completely revised with more customizable options and live updated info.
Games, Camera, Music and Video apps have both layout and feature improvements.

As well there are key improvements to Skydrive, Skype, and Snap View. First, Skype replaces the old Messaging App with more phone oriented features plus an easier accessed video call interface. SkyDrive integration lets you sync more content such as Internet Explorer tabs and your full Metro app library between PCs. You can also save all your Camera pictures and all your files to SkyDrive automatically. But perhaps most important, Skydrive not only knows what is on your local drive but can also display it. This becomes the Metro version of Windows Explorer.

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Snap View – Most important new feature in Windows 8.1

Finally Snap View now allows as many as 4 concurrent Metro apps to run on screen depending on screen-size. More importantly users can slide the grid dividers between apps by mouse or touch screen operation. But Desktop programs are not allowed to appear in Snap View. This is a fundamental problem addressed below.

Metro Interface Gets Out of the Way of Desktop UI

Perhaps just as important, the Metro interface now gets out of the way of the Desktop. For example much is made of the fact that the Start Button is back on the Desktop appbar. But clicking on that just takes you to the Metro Start screen. The real convenience is the fact that users can customize settings so that Windows 8.1 logon takes users directly to the Desktop. And that is just the start of available customizations. The corner Metro Charms can be turned off. The new Apps view can have Desktop program  icons placed in front of  Metro Apps.

But Windows Desktop  users see that Metro Apps still have a higher priority than the Desktop – yet it is Desktop programs, 4 million strong, that make Windows such a major player. Why have all the major improvements in Windows 8.1 been lavished on the Metro interface ? Why has so little been done to integrate the two interfaces. Why is David Pogue right – even after the second take, these are two separate interfaces almost two different parallel but never well synced interfaces and learning experiences. Obviously, Steve Ballmer never told his users  and developers why – and a new CEO will get to try to resolve this critical issue.

But right now, even after the Windows 8.1 upgrade,  note how poorly the two Windows 8.1 interfaces are integrated. First the improved Snap View only allows only Metro Apps in its Windows panels – not Desktop Programs. This makes copy and paste operations between Metro app and Desktop program [or vice versa] an awkward  operation. And just forget drag and drop operations between the two interfaces despite the natural touch screen operations and the ease of use benefits of drag and drop.

And how do you exchange information programmatically between a Metro App and a Desktop program in a live and direct operation? Not so easy. Okay, how about firing up a Metro app  or changing  a Metro Tile from a Desktop program or vice versa – again these are  programming operations not for the faint of heart.  And there are really no great examples of Metro App and Desktop program integration in the existing Microsoft apps and programs.

It is almost as if the Metro Apps without their menus and icons have eschewed the navigation richness of Desktop programs to the detriment of both. Yet clearly Metro apps have great business potential because they  resemble so closely the portfolio panels and business portals of many critical online and  business tracking programs. But for some reason, Microsoft, the masters of BI and Business programs,  Sharepoint and other data sharing+displaying  technologies apparently see no reason to integrate the Metro and Desktop interfaces. So this leads to a Business accounting.

Windows 8.1 and the Business Ledger

There is no doubt that Windows great strength is its paramount position in enterprises. But Computerworld  recently describes how Windows 8 remains a tough sell in Business. And Techradar tracks why Microsoft has to watch that BYOD and new iPad 5 rumored features from Apple doesn’t accelerate the trend away from PCs to smartphones and non-PC tablets in both business and consumer computing. Given these dangers,  how does Windows 8 measure up? Here are some tracking points.

1)Windows 8 is much faster on bootup, shutdown and even programmatic operation given the same PC hardware configuration than Windows 7 PCs.
2)From our own experience on 6 PCs,  Windows 8 PCs are much more reliable  than Windows 7 with no crashes whatsoever in a year of operations versus a crash once every 2-3 months in the case of Windows 7 PCs. And the same programs like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, MySQL, LAMP,  Adobe Dreamweaver,TechSmith Snagit and  half adozen other frequentlyused programs also crash less often on Windows 8.
3)Security on Windows 8 is just as good as on Windows 7 but that may be due to our use of the Chrome and Firefox browsers over IE and Apache Server over IIS on both Windows 7 and 8.
4)The new Intel  Haswell and Atom chips now extend the battery life into the 8-12 hour best tablet performance range  while matching weight and  exceeding performance speed in the case of Haswell powered laptops. PCs not only have a huge number of apps advantage over iOS and Android but also a distinct computing power and range of  available peripherals lead as well in the case of Haswell powered PCs.
5)Meanwhile Atom based hybrids are matching or challenging  device  costs versus tablets in the case of  PCs while offering the business productivity advantage of keyboard and mouse. This gives  not just a performance advantage over both Android and iOS tablets  and other devices but also a compatible apps/programs advantage with the common X86 instruction set.  This is no small deal  for both developers who are  using a familiar code base and users who are seeing familiar UI and program interfaces.
6)PCs now have a distinct touchscreen advantage over Macs and even iOS and Android devices. With the new Wacom Bamboo stylus available on some ultrabooks, touchscreen operations  are faster and more accurate. Thus, spreadsheets, database/data-entry applications, plus  most graphic design and BI programs and appss are so much more productive – like 30-60% faster  task completion. This is a large work productivity improvement waiting to be capitalized upon.

So given these Windows 8  factors  it remains a mystery to this observer why there is not a Redmond priority to integrate Metro Apps with Windows programs. Let users and developers choose which interface is to be used first – Metro’s graphically rich styles but navigation poor opportunities versus Desktop programs sometime baroque and Rococo menus and iconbar driven intense interface. Integration has been done reasonably well with the Cloud and Skydrive  to both Metro and Desktop interfaces. And Skype in messaging is starting to follow the same integrated path. And Windows Phone 8 is making a programmatic integration with Windows 8 . So why not link in the wealth of  Desktop programs which remain vital and improving by integrating  them well with Windows Metro apps?

In sum, integration between Metro Apps and Desktop programs is the crucial missing ingredient in Windows 8.1. If you are a Windows 8.0 user [10% of Windows users are] then the free upgrade to Win 8.1 is a no-brainer except for the mamoth download. Meanwhile,  the tenor of the new Microsoft CEO will be measured by his/her response to this 2 separate OS challenge. It will tell volumes about that person’s ability to get the diverse Redmond design and developer communities to row in the same direction and work well together. And in turn, Microsoft’s success in the broader Apple vs Google vs Microsoft IT supremacy tussle will turn in no small part in how well Windows 8 Metro and Desktop interfaces are reconciled.

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