The Windows 8 ecosystem: 5 best and 5 worst features

Across the entirety of Windows 8--from desktops to laptops to tablets to smartphones--what did Microsoft get right and wrong?

Windows 8 hasnt just arrivedit has arrived in full force, with an armada of ancillary products. Microsofts deployment of the new Windows platform across desktops, laptops, tablets, hybrids, and smartphones constitutes a major push to make Windows 8 your defining computing experience regardless of your hardware persuasion. Depending on your point of view, this can be a good thing or a very, very bad thing.

Or maybe its both.

[ FREE DOWNLOAD: Windows 8 Deep Dive Report | Windows 8: The 10 biggest problems so far ]

Lets take a walk through some of the triumphs and failings of Microsofts sprawling Windows 8 ecosystem. Like it or not, this is the environment that all new-PC users (and many PC upgraders) will be working with for the next few years.

The good

The great unification

Although Windows 8 stumbles in its attempts to push a touch-centric operating system onto desktops and laptops lacking finger-friendly screens, Im nonetheless impressed by Microsofts execution in delivering a unified experience across all of its major consumer platforms. Windows 8 on x86-based tablets is the same Windows 8 that you can find on laptops and desktops, and this provides a tight degree of unification thats missing from Apples product lineup, which is split between Mac OS and iOS.

The linchpin is the new Microsoft Account sign-in (formerly Live ID). Through a single username and password, your Microsoft Account taps into the cloud and establishes common preferences among all the Windows-based hardware and services you may use (though regional barriers are still a problem; more about that below). So kudos to Microsoft for acknowledging that our computers, tablets, smartphones, and game consoles should be connected, sharing a common, user-specific experience.

From SkyDrive to SmartGlass to the ability to synchronize settings across environments quickly and easily, the new Windows 8 platform provides the essential core connections for all your software and gear.

Forcing a touchy issue

Since touch is the cornerstone of Windows 8regardless of whether you actually have a touch-responsive display on your chosen deviceMicrosoft is pushing third-party developers to take the next big step in app creation. Simply put: Touch cannot be ignored. This mandate is an issue for people without touch-enabled hardware. And its bad news for people who have tried touch control but hate it. Yet Microsoft's new the touch way or the highway philosophy shows vision and innovation, and affirms the publics overwhelming support for touch gestures on computing hardware.

Sure, some developers will never jump on the touch bandwagon, either because they dont have an interest in advancing their users' experience, or because their software cant benefit from touch in any way (after all, some utilities are so simple, one-dimensional, or keyboard-dependent that an investment in touch development wouldnt make sense). Nonetheless, you can expect to see many more apps that tightly and creatively leverage touch support. These are the apps that will carry Microsoft forward.

And these are the apps that will ensure a consistent, high-quality user experience, regardless of which hardware you use to tap into the new Windows regime.

Leading by (hardware) example

Microsoft isnt just reinventing its Windows platform. Its also doubling down on a hardware strategy designed to lead by example, showing tablet manufacturers that tablet-laptop hybrids are the future of PC computing.

Yes, I know: Pairing touch-based tablets with keyboards isnt a new idea. Other parties have done it before, with Asus being the most effective. But Microsofts elegant execution of Surface RT, with its keyboard-cover accessories, sets a high bar for what a Windows 8 tablet-laptop hybrid should be. Whats more, because Surface RT is Microsofts first foray into computer manufacturing, the company will now compete with its hardware partners, and this might lower prices and encourage the creation of better, more interesting, more innovative computers across the entire Windows 8 ecosystem.

In essence: Consumers get more choice, and better products to pick from. Microsoft, meanwhile, achieves faster market-share gains for Windows 8. The new Surface tablet isnt just the premier hardware component in the new Windows ecosystemits actually a catalyst for greater ecosystem success.

Fearing giants promotes innovation

Now that Microsoft has committed to the brave new world of touchand smartphones and tabletsit has to deliver the goods. Its now competing directly with the iPad and iPhone. Its now competing with scads of Android devices. This isnt necessarily an enviable position given Microsofts uphill climb, but it will definitely drive innovation, and that bodes well for the Windows ecosystem as a whole.

In short, Microsoft has to get very creative, very quickly. Ultimately this challenge will benefit consumers the most. Microsoft will have to drive new features throughout its platform, especially new ways for all of the hardware components to interact with one another. And this is an opportunity that neither Apple nor Google really gets to explore, since Apple splits its ecosystem between Mac OS and iOS, and Google doesnt even have a computer OS.

Apps such as Xbox SmartGlass, and services such as the SkyDrive cloud platform and Xbox Music streaming, are great starts. But what else can Microsoft do to persuade users to abandon their existing devices and ecosystems, and leap head-first into Windows 8? More important, how fast can Microsoft pull that off? These are scary questions for Microsoft, but I think standing in place doing nothing is an even scarier option.

Joining the app-store masses

Apple had one first. Then Google got one. Now, finally, Microsoft has one too: a software store. Its not for your Windows Phone 8 device, but for Windows itself. And the new Windows Store is the only place you can download Windows 8 apps, the Start screen-centric programs previously known as Metro apps.

Although the move has frustrated developers who create software that Microsoft doesnt wanteither a result of a particular app falling short of Microsofts guidelines, or the fact that Microsoft isnt opening the Windows Store to the full purchase of desktop applicationsits nonetheless a powerful driver in making Microsofts ecosystem more accessible, more convenient, and more secure for users.

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