The sheer audacity of Windows 8 was enough to set it apart. It was startling, the kind of uncompromising upheaval you almost never see from a frontrunner. Despite obvious missteps — big, idiotic, self-inflicted ones, more often than not — it always gave the sense that it was just wrong-footed, correctable stuff, never cause for a total retreat. Except, if recent reports are to be believed, that’s just what Microsoft seems to be doing. Retreating. And we really hope it doesn’t.
The next update for Windows — codename Windows Blue or 8.1 — is due at the end of June. It should be major, retooling a lot of what Windows does, or at least how it does it. But there's been at least some talk that it's going to go beyond that, and pull back from the deep end of next level UI that Windows 8 airdropped its users into.
It's almost certain that the Start button is coming back, and that you’ll be able to launch into the regular old desktop. On their own, these are actually actually great changes. And frankly, that’s probably all they are. Hopefully. Because Microsoft can’t afford to reverse course at this point. And we shouldn’t want it to, either.
Metro* Is the Way Forward
The PC, as we’ve long known it, is a DVD player. It’s good enough in many homes, and even far more usable than newer broadband-reliant streaming boxes. Plenty of people will be using and buying DVDs for years. But they aren’t buying new standalone DVD players.
Now think about how the majority of households use their PCs. They’re web boxes or homework towers or non-optimised gaming rigs, glorified Facebook terminals as often, more often than command central for a desktop full of spreadsheets and research and assets. With a few tweaks to the groundwork laid down, everything the average computer uses a PC for can be, more or less, simplified. And if it works as a detachable touch interface, for the inevitable (but still nascent) convergence of the tablet and laptop, all the better.
Sure, the windowed environment will always be necessary for true efficiency, but that’s beside the point. We don’t need true efficiency. Really, we don’t. Not as we have it now. Because that efficiency isn’t really efficient. What it connotates, really, is the ability to multitask efficiently, and as often as not, that can give you more options than you know what to do with. You can probably focus on whatever you're doing or reading a lot better without emails, IMs, and tweets firing in all directions.
This idea has been in the air. Google’s Chrome OS has advocated it for years now, and the new Chromebook Pixel has taken it to its breaking point. Premium, beautiful hardware that makes things easy, not “efficient”. At some point, like discrete graphics cards and optical drives, maybe the old school definition of an efficient desktop can finally fall away, too. And in its place will be Metro, or something very much like it.
It’s possible that this isn’t even achievable under the current windowed paradigm. Certainly, it would be made infinitely harder. But that side of the fence is already developed enough that it doesn’t need much nurturing. In fact, it probably, ultimately, needs to be left alone more than poked. Just a facelift and a mini-makeover is all. There’s one big issue facing it for now — the lack of support for all the gorgeous super hi-res screens coming out, which we’ll get to — but overall, it’s necessary, it will be there. And as crazy efficient new Haswell chips, both the main Core series and their ultra-low-power 22nm SoC variants, make their way into machines, we’ll be able to tuck the whole desktop mode into smaller and more viable convertibles.
OK, Windows 8 Has Problems
It’s not perfect. In fact, there are enough little, frustrating, Microsoftian problems with Windows 8 that at times you wonder if, even with this road map laid out by very smart people, if Microsoft will be able to get out of its own way long enough to follow the road. Encouragement comes in the fact that what’s wrong with Windows 8 doesn’t run as deep as some, often biased parties, would have you believe.
These are problems that can be thought through. Navigation from one environment to the other — the common complaint of being yanked out of desktop or dumped back into it — should be first on the list. No right-thinking person wants to flop back and forth from one way of using a PC to another in between apps. It should be one or the other. Switches should be pre-meditated. Everyone wants this. It’s easy to implement. But to make that feasible, you also have to admit that even for non-”work efficient” tasks, the Metro environment isn’t quite good enough yet. Happily, that’s actually not a very hard fix.
Iconography for iconography’s sake, instead of using symbols and buttons for true, functional purposes. Take the way the Snap feature works — that is, the second Metro app you can snap to either side of your screen. It’s there, sure, and provides some information, but creating any action, like composing a tweet, takes you away from what you’re viewing. This is a core complaint of Windows 8’s Metro apps — as soon as you want to do anything, you’re blasted off in another direction. It’s visually disorienting. And if you’re talking about ways the software is used, this is one of the easiest to fix. Make new emails overtake the Snap app’s space temporarily, or insert themselves into the bottom of the panel, a la WebOS, so there’s still one Window, but more information. This fix alone would go miles and miles toward making the Metro apps usable, and addressing the issue of all the acres of unused space within them.
There are some obvious fixes out there that will make tackling everything easier. Fix scaling, for one thing. What’s scaling, you ask? Scaling is the reason that the retina MacBook Pro and Chromebook Pixel look gorgeous — no, really, GORGEOUS — when displaying text, web pages and other optimised content. It’s also the reason that Windows 8’s assortment of high-pixel density screens (namely the Surface Pro and the recent Toshiba Kirabook) look so goddamn awful. Windows 8's desktop on a hi-res screen is either impossibly small (pixel-for-pixel) or magnified in a way that nearly all of its apps are fuzzy messes, and the ones that aren't still don't look as sharp as on OS X or Chrome. Apple and Google’s solutions (double the resolution for assets, and simply optimise Chrome and lean on web content, respectively) are simpler than what Microsoft is being forced into (percentage-based scaling in Metro, god-knows-what in desktop), but that’s secondary to us. Microsoft having backed itself into a corner doesn’t change the urgency of needing to get the hell out of it. It’s not just that super hi-res screens are rapidly becoming the present day standard for awesome laptops. It’s that scaling is actually more important to Microsoft than it is to Google or Apple right now, because it’s so key in making tablets — which demand crazy pixel density — and laptops work as convertibles.
But Windows 8 Is Not The Problem
Early last month, a notion spread around. It went, basically, that PC sales had dropped to 79 million units in the first quarter, their lowest point ever and down 13 per cent from the year before. The assumption made widely at the time by many reactionaries was that Windows 8 had not only failed to boost PC sales, but had actively gone out and submarined them, that this glacier of an industry grinding to a halt was slowed further by its new un-aerodynamic paint job.
In a way, they were half-right. Windows 8 wasn’t the boost to PCs everyone had been hoping for. But it was a lifeline. They’re in tow, within sight of the leaders. Windows 8 bought them a little more time to figure things out. But here’s Microsoft trying to save its hard-won industry, attempting essentially to apply a field tourniquet and build an evacuation spacecraft at the same time, and it keeps getting kicked in the head by its patients.
Acer has been one of the loudest, which would be comical given Acer’s reputation for making slipshod computers, except that Acer has incrementally become one of the few companies that really gets what a Windows PC is right now. Its convertibles have been more... questionable. But that’s a lot the point. Laptops themselves, PCs in general, they’ve become nearly idealised versions of themselves. And sales are still falling. Products are more beautiful and efficient than ever. And sales are falling. That is not because of an OS. It’s because PCs as we knew them, a tower and a monitor, are no longer a growing market. And that’s OK.
It’s easy to understand an executive looking at something goofy like the Acer R7 and fearing that this is the frightful new face of laptops that Windows 8 has wrought. Easy, but still so dumb. In their honest moments, the companies making the truly out-there designs on these machines describe them as what they are, a play at niche markets — visual professionals, students, educators, what have you — almost akin to the fragmentation of cable television along similar niche interest lines. And while the F word had traditionally been a scary and misguided idea, specialised hardware doesn't sound like the craziest idea. And like TV, maybe that leads to a gem or two if you follow the rabbit hole all the way to its end, like The Wire or Breaking Bad.
That's not the real game though. What's important is figuring out what comes next. We have a vague of what that unified computing experience looks like, but, for now, Microsoft just needs to weather through the unquiet present, unafraid, until the rest of us can catch up with the future.
*Yes, still calling it Metro. Shut up.