I have been a Microsoft defender for decades. “No, MS-DOS 4.0 isn’t really that bad,” I pleaded to friends almost 25 years ago. “Give Windows 98 a chance” I begged ten or 11 years later. Heck, I extolled the virtues of Vista (which I did believe in, by the way) to anyone willing to listen. But in the wake of last week’s introduction of the Consumer Preview edition of Windows 8, I can say only this: Microsoft, you’re on your own.
Never — and I’m going to repeat this for additional emphasis, never – have I been as horrified by one of the company’s products as I am by this one. (Yes, I used Microsoft Bob.) Every choice seems to have been made for a sketchy reason, and the full collection of them bears the haphazard feel of the morning after a particularly raucous college party. Scratch that: Even at my most inebriated, I’m pretty sure I would never conceive of something like Windows 8.
Don’t say I haven’t given it a chance. I have. I first used it last year, when the Developer Preview was unveiled. I was less than impressed at that point, but I assumed that Microsoft would get with the game and fix the most brazen mistakes, undo (or at least downplay) some of the more questionable “improvements,” and not dare to put it before the public again until it was in presentable shape. How wrong I was. This incarnation of Windows 8 is, if anything, even worse than the previous one — because it suggests this is what Microsoft actually intends to release.
Based on its current form, Windows 8 represents an unconscionable, and barely comprehensible, rejection of the values Microsoft has spent the last 26 years perfecting in its visual operating system. It doesn’t make computers easier to navigate and understand, it makes them more difficult, paradoxically by making the interface so brain-dead simple that it can’t do anything someone with a brain might actually want. Want to close an application without using Alt-F4? Forget it. Want the menus and settings intelligently organized? No chance. Want to just display two windows on the screen at the same time? Good luck with that.
Yes, Microsoft has released a product it’s calling Windows that doesn’t use windows as part of its primary interface. Can you figure that out? I can’t.
Okay, correction. I can figure it out, and it’s related to the only good reason for Windows 8′s existence: its tablet friendliness. Microsoft has obviously reached the same conclusion as Apple, Google, and many technophiles and decided that tablets and phones are where most computing will be done in the future. And the new Metro interface, which displaces the Desktop as the initial Windows 8 environment, makes sense when looked at that way. Plenty of extra-large icons and buttons, a heavy focus on horizontal scrolling, and using the whole screen for every task — this is all commonplace tablet stuff.
But what Microsoft forgot, or perhaps ignored, is that the world is not yet all tablets. There are millions upon millions of current or prospective desktop and laptop owners out there who want and need to use their computer with their mouse rather than their finger, and think being able to flip instantly between applications — and see them simultaneously — isn’t a feature but a necessity. And, of course, there are plenty of serious users who don’t want the PC on which they spend huge chunks of their waking life to look like it was designed by Fisher-Price. They want their interface and their way of working to be completely under their control. Which, until now, it always has been.
With Windows 8, Microsoft is taking most of your choices away. Once you open programs, you don’t get to decide to close them. You don’t get to decide if you’d like a nonintrusive log-on screen. You don’t get to decide if you don’t like Metro enough to boot into it. You don’t get to decide how, or even if, you want to arrange programs on your screen. Microsoft will do it all for you, because that’s how tablets work — and your computer not being a tablet is irrelevant. One imagines that Microsoft sees the industry as one day not letting you decide whether your computer even is a tablet. Quite probably that’s where we’re headed. But we’re not there yet.
Microsoft is not entirely alone in this outlook, of course. Apple pioneered it with its iPhone, spread it with its iPad, and is trying to propagate it still further with each new release of its converging OS lines. But Apple has one advantage Microsoft doesn’t: It controls the hardware, too. This lets Apple ensure that its devices, of any size or complexity, work with the software exactly the way they’re supposed to. One of the main reasons I’ve stuck with Microsoft so long is that its openness across a broad range of products and platforms encourages using technology the way I like to: while maintaining foundational control over the hardware and the software alike.
That doesn’t work in the Metro-ized Windows 8 — either way. Interacting with apps is clunky and nonintuitive with the mouse. Programs take longer than they should to start because each is accompanied by animation that plays before it opens. Switching between open tasks (which you’ll do all the time, as they’re so difficult to close) is cumbersome and confusing if you use either of the new “corner” methods rather than the stalwart (and, thankfully, still-working) Alt-Tab. Signing in is a chore because you have to “sweep away” a splash screen and log in via a Microsoft account, and finding the setting to change this is like a scavenger hunt in a junkyard. And what if you don’t care about your e-mail, your calendar, the weather, or the Microsoft Store — why should you have to remove all those links instead of add them as you want them? Previous versions of Windows stashed them in the Start menu or on the taskbar, but here they’re front and center. Again: taking choices away by default.
The good news is that if you hate Metro you can still use the desktop. Sort of. Unfortunately, it’s treated as another app, and not something you can see automatically when you turn on your computer. And, once you get in, the functionality is basically identical to that of Windows 7, minus the convenience of the traditional Start button and menu. In other words, if you buy Windows 8 and don’t groove on it, you’re not even granted an updated alternative to the OS you gave up. This is, in every way, a raw deal for everyone except devoted tablet users. A colleague crowed about using Windows 8 and not seeing Metro for hours — would Microsoft really consider that a plus?
Compare this behavior with that of another operating system: Ubuntu. Canonical, the company behind the popular Linux distribution, took a lot of heat last year when it moved Ubuntu full-time to its own Unity interface, which was developed with the goal of helping Ubuntu better cater to the emerging tablet market. Yes, it added a new (side-mounted) program launcher filled with big icons and a dash for searching through your programs and files. But the underlying functionality remained the same, and you still had (and have) the option of using it the old-fashioned way, and you don’t have to change your workflow to do it. In other words, it expanded into a new market without shutting out the previous one — exactly what Microsoft hasn’t done.
Of course, the Redmond-based company is in a much different position, with a dazzlingly large market share, and thus has good reasons for thinking it can get away with this and telling everyone how they’ll use their computers at home and work. Microsoft may be right, but my time with Windows 8 has made it seem so simplistic that I can’t envision why any company would want it on any non-tablet computers (and I’ve never worked at, or even seen, a business that operated entirely off of tablets). And I see even advanced home users rebelling against using one program per screen, something PC owners haven’t had to endure since DOS went the way of the dodo.
If Microsoft has demonstrated a more hubristic attitude when releasing a product, I can’t recall it. And I’m not sure such cockiness is safe this time around. Windows 8 is poised to alienate millions of people who have been devoted Microsoft users, or even (in my case) fans, for as long as the company has been around — all in a play to wrest a nascent product market from the Cupertino-based firm that now dominates it. It’s a gutsy move, and I appreciate that — but the company’s willingness to junk nearly 30 years of work, and the customer trust it’s generated during that time, does not thrill me.
There’s still time for Microsoft to change its mind. Not everything about Windows 8 is bad. I like, uh, the reduced boot times — my hard drive–based test computer dropped to 48 seconds from 55 after upgrading. And one little option to let me specify whether I want to boot into Metro or the desktop, preferably located near the top of the byzantine Settings menu, would instantly inspire me to give the whole thing a long second look. I’d love to see more truly useful features, but I’ll keep my demands light for the moment. Once the biggest “fixes” are undone, we can discuss the rest.
One warning, Microsoft: If you don’t, you’ll permanently lose this defender. You’re halfway there already. I’m too die-hard a DIYer to ever love Macs, but the folks at Canonical have shown that, even while favoring Unity, they want longtime desktop users to feel at home with their product. I have to say, I’ve been getting might cozy with it — whether on desktops or tablets. And it’s free. If you don’t prove with Windows 8, as you have with so many of your previous products, that this one is worth paying for, I’ll drop you faster than you dropped the desktop.
I’m giving you the chance you refuse to give me. Please don’t blow it.