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?

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The Windows Store is a great step forward; but in order to recognize its benefits, you cant look at it through the eyes of a power user. Envision, instead, the typical technological neophyte who wants access to online shopping, streaming movies, financial information, games, rudimentary media editing, and all the other simple services that computers make possible. Throughout their computing lives, these novices have been tempted numerous times: A Web ad has asked them to install something they shouldnt. Or theyve installed software upon the recommendation of a friend, but that software isnt compatible with their system. Or, even sadder, these newbies might not even know how to find and download new programs for their PCs.

The Windows Store gives such users a simple and secure entry point for downloading apps that have passed stringent certification from Microsoft itself. Sure, an app might ultimately stink, but at least users now have strong assurance that the software wont muck up their systems. To wit: Apples App Store went more than five years before succumbing to its first piece of malware, and the company quickly expunged the app so that no new user could download it ever again.

The Bad

Friendly compromises that were never made

To construct a user experience that works fairly seamlessly across desktops, tablets, and smartphones, Microsoft had to make some compromises, and these trade-offs are affecting desktop users the most. Although its relatively easy to operate a touchscreen-oriented interface on a device with an actual touchscreen, its not so easy to translate touch gestures to the world of mice and keyboards. Power users arent happy with Microsofts new Windows 8 mouse gestures, so you can only imagine how well theyll be received by the enterprise market, and by all of our grandparents.

In some cases Microsoft didnt even have to make compromises, but still opted to restrict the users ability to navigate Windows in a familiar, friendly way. The company had ample opportunity to give users choice and freedom in its construction of Windows 8, but decided not to.

Want a Start menu? We wont show it by default, but you can enable it if you really need to. Dont like the Start screen? Thats totally cool. Well make it so that you can still access it, but we wont force you to deal with it up front each time you start the OS. Dont need a lock screen since youre on a desktop computer instead of a tablet? Great. We wont force you to reveal your password prompt. Or at least, we wont bury the option that lets you eliminate this.

Thats how Microsofts internal dialogue could have sounded. But in the real world, Microsoft chose differently. In creating a common ecosystem for Windows 8, Microsoft has shifted portions of its new user interface into places where they dont need to be.

Common interface, uncommon apps

The scariest part of the Windows 8 ecosystem is the fact that Microsoft has put a good chunk of the potential success of its OSacross PCs, tablets, and smartphonesin the hands of third-party developers. Even though its premature to declare Windows 8 a complete dud in terms of available apps, we have to be concerned about the critical dearth of apps that one would otherwise expect to find on a major new platform. Windows 8 has no official Facebook app, no official Twitter app, and no Instagram. And those are just three of the most obvious omissions.

The app situation could very well change in a few months, so I wont quibble about specifics. After all, Microsoft execs have stated that they hope to have 100,000 apps in the Windows Store within 90 days of the Windows 8 launch.

Whats worse for Microsoft is the way that it has decided to treat the Windows Stores on smartphones, tablets, and desktops, walling them off in separate silos instead of unifying all of the environments. How cool would it be to buy a copy of Microsoft Office, and receive a version geared for your Windows 8 smartphone and for your Windows 8 desktop or tablet? Or, for that matter, wouldnt it be nice to purchase rights to run your favorite Windows 8 smartphone game on your tablet?

But, no, thats not happening.

A Windows 8 tablet or hybrid is the functional equivalent of a laptop, which shares the same Windows Store as your desktop PC (unless youre running a Windows RT-based tablet; I'll get into that below). In contrast, a Windows Phone devicewhose interface inspired Windows 8 and exhibits many of the same behaviors and features of Windows 8taps into a completely different software store. Phone apps share a common code with tablet and PC apps, but they cant directly transfer over to your tablets and PCs.

The sins of Windows RT

If you thought the Windows 8 ecosystem was confusing enough in terms of app support, you aint seen nothing yet.

Windows 8 RT has entered the fray, too. If the Windows 8 ecosystem of desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones were a great land mass, then Windows 8 RT would be an island off the coast. Its under the mother country's protection, and it likely enjoys much of the same climate and vegetation, but its still separated enough to be its own little, self-contained world.

Microsoft representatives have had trouble explaining the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT in the months leading up to Windows 8s big launch. And if they cant get it right, how is an average consumer supposed to understand that Windows RT is a stripped-down OS version that wont run desktop applications, save the ones that come preinstalled? In a nutshell, the Windows RT desktop runs a junior edition of Microsoft Office and a motley crew of legacy utilities. Thats it, along with providing the basic file-management functions of any Windows desktop OS.

Microsoft might gain some depth-of-ecosystem advantages by opening Windows 8 to inexpensive (and energy-efficient) ARM processors; in fact, the move to support ARM extends the reach of the new Windows platform. But Windows RT also has the potential to create serious confusion for people expecting to jump between all Windows 8 devices without issues.

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