Windows 8: Microsoft’s Marmite

In early September Microsoft launched the developer preview of Windows 8 at its Build Conference in Anaheim, California and in doing so revealed a radical new version of its operating system. So the natural question to ask is how will this be received by Microsoft’s publics and the business sector in particular?

As most of you already know, Windows 8 is the software giant’s combined desktop, laptop and tablet operating system. It’s designed to go from small, touch-only tablets to big domestic screens and from ultra-portable notebooks to massive touch screen gaming systems and business desktops – in theory.

At a glance, one cannot help but notice the similarities between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 7, which is used on the latest Windows based handsets. As a result, the new operating system looks and feels very different from what we have become used to from Microsoft.

It gives users the option to work through a new interface inspired by Windows Phone Metro; by borrowing the live tiles display from the Smartphone. The tiles, which are very much like the apps we are familiar with in the rest of the mobile computing world; provide real-time feeds from almost all of your applications onto the home screen.

This means that social networking services, corporate inboxes, news sites, and anything else that you normally only check once or twice a day become constant interruptions. This makes the tiles seem cluttered and too disruptive for office use, thanks to the sheer amount of information they display.

Browsing the net and your PC

Windows 8 will include an HTML5 browsing engine that will enable the fastest Windows Explorer experience to date. If that is the case, we can all rejoice in anticipation – given that it has been slower than its competitors such as Google Chrome, Firefox and Safari for a long time now.

Equally encouraging is the fact that this Windows version will not require any hardware upgrades. It is also speculated that the most recent edition will have the fastest boot time of any PC available on the market.

However, perhaps the most striking thing about the new Windows OS is the way we now access functions. The Start menu has disappeared and pressing the Start button just opens the Start screen again, there is no interactive menu anymore. For instance, the Control Panel can no longer be found under the start bar menu, it now has its own tile on the desktop.

The familiar Windows layout has been kept for those apps that require the Windows desktop, with the control panel being a good example, and that’s when you get the traditional view with all the things that make us feel comfortable, such as the recycle bin, task bar and start button.

Touchy-feely computing

Although it looks very attractive, the touchy-feely Windows 8 will probably confuse the less technically proficient, less forward thinking users. Many will struggle and find it difficult to operate, mostly because of the ‘mosaic’ of tiles displayed on the screen.

The touch screen functionality of Windows 8 is by no means a negative though. But, if used on a normal desktop computer, all of its glossy touch-screen abilities are wasted, and can become more of a hindrance than an aid. So as things stand at the moment, tablet and Smartphone users will be the only ones to enjoy all of the interactive and highly aesthetic features from Microsoft’s newest product.

The majority of SMEs will not be using touch screen interfaces as their desktops, so investing in an operating system that would allow them to do so does not seem worthwhile – at the moment.

Ahead of its time for business but ideal for consumers

For those used to the traditional look of the old operating system, Windows 8 will come as a shock. This is bad news for SMEs. What was intended as a user-friendly interface may come across as clumpy, cluttered and complicated. In addition, it is not as intuitive as one might expect, and this will cause a whole host of problems for business owners trying to implement it across a network.

The average SME or small business user will only use Windows 8 for work-related tasks such as word processing, e-mail management and Web applications. For these simple purposes I do find myself asking whether the new OS is just a bit too much. SMEs will need to retrain their staff so they can actually use the system properly. This represents an additional cost on top of buying and implementing the software on the company’s machines.

As an IT consultant and Microsoft certified partner, I don’t believe that SMEs will find Windows 8 particularly useful or beneficial. However, while there will be slow take up in business, there should be greater enthusiasm for its modern interactive features in the consumer and domestic markets.

Windows 8 will receive very mixed reviews. The tech savvy early adopters and gadget fans will find its glossy appearance irresistible. Installed on the right tool, like a tablet or a Smartphone, it will enchant the younger generation. In contrast the sceptics, many of whom will be responsible for IT in SMEs and small businesses, will just not get enough benefits from Microsoft’s innovation.

Windows 8 is a big gamble for Microsoft; it’s their Marmite and will be loved or hated. As a mass market software provider that’s a very dangerous thing to be. Apple is happy with that position, because it has come from a niche market into the mainstream and is growing. In contrast, Microsoft already dominates this market and it might just be shooting itself in the foot by changing too quickly. Or it might be showing us the way into a brave new world.

Dominic Jones is managing director of IT support provider Barton Technology. Established in April 2000, Barton Technology is a privately owned company with a proven approach which is quality driven, thorough and extraordinarily successful. From their headquarters in South London, they specialise in providing IT support and business telephone services to customers in the construction, not for profit, retail, finance, legal and insurance SME sectors and who are located in London, Surrey and Kent.