Windows 8 is here

At work I have a set of floppy disks in my desk draw, three or four of them are MSDOS 6.22 and the rest are Windows 3.11.  It’s been a while since I installed them on anything, but the last time I did a couple of years ago it was enough to demonstrate that a) Windows 3.11 was blindingly fast on a modern PC and b) the user experience wasn’t really all that different from today.   Sure Explorer has replaced the old File Manager, and Windows 7’s Aero is whole lot nicer than Program Manager, but you don’t feel completely out of sync, the metaphors are still the same.

Windows 8 is looking to change all of that:

It’s quite a change, and one that’s long overdue.  Desktop operating systems, whether Windows, OSX or the various flavours of Unix shell all use the same basic metaphors, its incredibly refreshing to see Windows 8 try something new.  It’s clearly borrowed much from Windows Phone 7’s UI and it’s Metro design language.

As someone who’s IT background is in enterprise desktop deployment and management, what’s most interesting for me is the complete separation of the traditional Windows UI from the new Metro interface.  As the video above shows ‘Legacy’ Windows apps (I can barely believe I’m say that given the effort I’ve put into those apps over the years!) launch in what looks like a traditional Win7 Aero interface, but this doesn’t seem to be part of the Windows 8 experience – in fact I’d bet that part of the OS has barely changed from 7.

It’s easy to speculate about all of this, but the separation of these user experiences may be more than just visual.  Windows 8 will be delivered on both on the x86 platform that PC’s have used for years, and the ARM platform.  These are completely different architectures and this would almost certainly introduce application compatibility issues.  One way around this however may be some form of virtualisation.  This in itself this would be tricky, but perhaps the traditional Windows desktop is able to runs within a virtual machine which is surfaced though the new Win8 interface – much like parallels is able to surface Windows applications within OSX on a Mac.

The enterprise IT people among you might also have thought of another interesting idea… what if that traditional desktop could be redirected off to a centralised Virtual Desktop (VDI) infrastructure.  Low cost ARM devices all of a sudden look very tempting as thin client devices.

No matter how it’s delivered, that old Windows desktop will be a welcome site for enterprise IT departments.  Many of organisations are spending a lot of time and money migrating to Windows 7, and by far the hardest part of that is application compatibility.  Microsoft would do well to minimise the application compatibility differences in the new OS, if Win8 breaks apps that work in 7 – on x86 at least – then it would be difficult for organisations who have invested in Win7 to adopt Win8.  Just look back to Vista.  It looks that may not be a problem for Win8, which is a good thing.

With MS keen to adopt ARM as a way of competing in the tablet space, where x86’s power consumption destroys battery life, the new interface also gives them some interesting options to make a ‘clean break’ away from their legacy.  If they have found a way to run the old interface virtually upon other hardware platforms, that could well spell the end for the old Windows.  One of MS’s traditional strengths, the backward compatibility of apps (ok, that’s always true…), has also been a shackle around it’s legs stopping Windows developing into something new.  Abstracting the old from the new would allow MS to move Windows on while still retaining its legacy apps.

The big assumption there of course is that developers adopt the new interface and development environment.  Of course at the moment we don’t really know whether the new Win8 interface is able to present the heavy duty apps that PC’s run day in day out.  I guess that Office 15 will be the first real test of this.  Will it surface through the new interface in Win8 or revert back to the old Windows.  I really hope its the former – the Office apps on WP7 are slick and fast, it would be fantastic to have the full fidelity apps presented though the Metro front end.  How long it would take the big third party apps like AutoCAD to follow is another matter of course, but if Win8 upgrades are made easy and cost effective it might happen sooner rather than later.

I’m also very pleased to see MS asserting some control over Windows 8’s hardware.  Whilst it’s nice to have choice, I’m no longer convinced that the vast PC ecosystem is a positive thing.  It’s a volume market so margins are low and its too easy for poor quality hardware and software to slip though.  Problematic driver software and the sheer amount of ‘crapware’ that litters new computers does nothing to help the end user in the long run, and is one of the main reasons for the PC’s poor reputation for performance and reliability.

If by asserting control MS can improve the quality of the overall end product, I have to say that I’m not all that concerned by a restriction of choice – though I know some manufacturers are crying fowl.  In the past I’ve spent too much time dealing with problems caused by crappy hardware and software, and I can still see those same problems today if I talk to the people doing those jobs now.

So all in all I’m quite impressed with what MS have shown us today.  Added to the other information that’s leaked out Windows 8 it’s looking like a very positive move.  The only concern I have it timescales… late 2012 is too late.  In my view they need to RTM this in the new year.

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