How Microsoft can rescue Windows 8

Credit: Image credit: flickr/AMagill

A modest proposal to fulfill Microsoft's promise to deliver a modern computing experience on PCs and tablets

When Microsoft first outlined its strategy 32 months ago to bridge the old style of PC computing with the new world of tablet computing, we were optimistic. Although Apple had revolutionized computing with the iPad, creating the fastest-adopted technology ever, its approach walled off the tablet from the PC, with two different operating systems, user interfaces, and applications. Instead, Microsoft promised a unified, adaptive approach that would satisfy everyone.

But that's not what Microsoft did. In fact, it did the opposite: It created a horribly awkward mashup of two fundamentally incompatible approaches that worked poorly on both PCs and tablets. Microsoft made a peanut butter and pickle sandwich, and the world has recoiled at the thought ever since, with Windows 8 falling behind even Microsoft's other big failure, Windows Vista, in adoption. As InfoWorld's Woody Leonhard famously wrote in his review of Windows 8, "Yes, it's that bad."

It doesn't have to be that way. Despite its unworkable marriage of desktop and tablet, of traditional input and touch input, Windows 8 has many compelling notions that deserve widespread adoption.

The answer is not Windows "Blue," aka Windows 8.1, which (based on what we've learned so far) offers only superficial changes. No, the answer is Windows Red, InfoWorld's proposed redesign of Windows 8 that takes the best of Windows and Windows Phone, eliminates the unworkable aspects of the Desktop and Metro (aka Modern) mashup, and provides a road map for Microsoft to achieve its original Windows 8 aims.

A team of InfoWorld editors -- Galen Gruman as project lead, Eric Knorr, and Doug Dineley -- worked with Woody Leonhard, a noted Windows book author with unmatched experience in Windows, and illustrator Ben Barbante to conceptualize and design Windows Red. You can see our Windows Red results in the companion slideshow.

Here's how Windows Red fixes the flaws in Windows 8 and accentuates its strengths.

The marriage of Windows 7 and Metro is annulled

Theoretically, creating a dual OS for use on legacy PCs, modern PCs, and tablets was a good idea. But Microsoft's approach was fatally flawed, ignoring its own UI guidelines. It didn't so much integrate the traditional PC with the modern tablet as slap both approaches onto both devices.

On a tablet, the Windows Desktop simply doesn't work. All the controls are too small for gesture use -- as Microsoft's own UI guidelines make clear. Everything is too small to touch and often too hard to read.

We had assumed that the Windows 8 Desktop would provide contextual adjustment when apps were running on a tablet -- essentially enlarging buttons, menu controls, and the like, as well as using the option of a simplified menu to reduce screen clutter, a more intelligent take of Microsoft's "most recently used" menus that frustrated Office 2000 users. We didn't expect that most traditional Windows applications would require users to manually invoke the onscreen keyboard when in text fields.

On a PC, the Metro environment is too big and too simplistic. We had assumed Metro would scale its density to take advantage of the larger screen and finer selection capabilities of mice. But that didn't happen either.

Part of the challenge Microsoft faced in running traditional Windows applications in the Desktop on a tablet was that many Windows apps use very old code bases. Even if Microsoft had created contextual DLLs for UI elements and automatic onscreen keyboard display, many apps don't use the Microsoft DLLs, or at least not current ones.

Microsoft prides itself on maintaining app compatibility for decades, which has let developers save effort. But that timeless legacy support has also created a ball and chain that keeps Windows from moving forward in the dramatic way that Metro was meant to do. Worse, the environment that Microsoft wants developers to switch to -- Metro -- provides a poor experience on traditional PCs, discouraging user adoption and thus developer investment.

There are also serious questions as to whether Metro can support more than widget-style lightweight apps. After all, Microsoft didn't deliver Office for it, yet both iOS and Android have serious Office-like apps. Metro apps are so weak that users are avoiding them in droves.

Given these realities, the solution is to not mix the Desktop and Metro. In Windows Red, we don't. Instead, we've split Windows Red into three versions: Pro, Mobile, and Duo.

Windows Red Pro is an enhanced version of Windows 7, and it runs only on desktop and laptop PCs. It includes the Desktop advances made in Windows 8, such as multiple copy threads, enhanced Task Manager, built-in Microsoft Security Essentials, improved system recovery, Hyper-V, and Windows to Go. Windows Red Pro also drops touch support. Touchscreen PCs are simply a terrible idea and ergonomically dangerous to users; they shouldn't be enabled. Touch belongs on a horizontal surface in comfortable arm's reach.

Windows Red Mobile is a Metro-only operating system that runs only on tablets. It's a sibling to Windows Phone and a cousin to Windows Red Pro. In a sense, it's an enhanced version of the current Metro-only Windows RT, though RT has a bunch of dumb limitations, such as the inability to be managed through Group Policy, that Windows Red Mobile fixes.

Because there are hybrid PC/tablet devices in the market, we felt we had to accommodate them. That's our third version: Windows Red Duo. As the name implies, Duo delivers two Windows Reds on the same device.

But they do not operate simultaneously, as Windows Desktop and Metro do in Windows 8. When your hybrid's screen is detached, making it a tablet, only Windows Red Mobile can run. When your hybrid is in its laptop configuration, only Windows Red Pro can run. A reboot is required when you switch configurations. Though inelegant, it's necessary to prevent a repeat of the "Windows Frankenstein" mashup that is Windows 8. Nor is it as inconvenient as it might sound because Windows Red Pro still runs Metro apps -- only you drive them with a mouse and physical keyboard, not via touch. (More on that below.)

The Charms bar is eliminated

Another unnatural aspect of Windows 8 is the Charms bar, which takes search, device access (printers, scanners, and monitors), sharing, and settings configuration out of the apps using them and into an independent element you have to call up each time you want it. This requires users to move outside of a Metro app for these common functions -- it's also unfriendly and unnecessary.

So Windows Red kills the Charms bar.

Instead, there are Search, Share, and Settings buttons standard in every app's control bar, both in Windows Red Pro and Windows Red Mobile. The Share button, by the way, extends the sharing notion from social apps and cloud storage to include printing, screen mirroring, and screen placement (on devices connected to multiple displays). Essentially, it absorbs the features of the Devices charm.

The Charms bar's PC Settings controls, which managed Metro-wide preferences, are part of a separate Settings app in Windows Red Mobile. In Windows Red Pro, the PC Settings controls not already duplicated in the Control Panel are moved to the Control Panel for a unified OS settings environment.

Live tiles and Metro apps are incorporated into the Windows Desktop

If Windows Red Pro were merely a better version of Windows 7, there'd be little hope that the Microsoft platform would ever transition into the new generation of computing that Apple's iOS points to. Fortunately, Microsoft can move Windows forward on the PC.

One way is to let Metro apps -- both from Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone -- run on the Desktop like any other apps. (Because Windows Phone 8 shares a common core with Windows 8, Microsoft's engineers should be able to support Windows Phone apps on PCs and other Intel-based devices.) It'd be a great boon to Microsoft's desktop and smartphone ambitions.)

So in Windows Red Pro, Metro apps run in application windows, using the keyboard and mouse instead of gestures and the onscreen keyboard. They're accessed from the Start menu like traditional Desktop apps, and they can be pinned to the taskbar like Desktop apps. This is a more sensible way to transition PC users to the Metro approach.

When running in Windows Red Pro's Desktop, Metro apps change their UI slightly. The App bar that appears at the bottom of the screen in Windows 8 Metro and Windows RT (and thus in Windows Red Mobile) moves to the top of the screen when running in Windows Red Pro. That keeps parallelism -- important for a consistent user experience and motor memory -- with the equivalent menu bar in Windows Desktop apps.

For Metro apps that also have a Control bar (at the top of the screen in today's Metro environments), the Control bar appears under the App bar when running in Windows Red Pro. Again, that's parallel to the Ribbon's placement in Windows Desktop apps.

The second way to introduce Metro into the traditional PC environment is to incorporate the live tiles introduced in Windows Phone and adopted by today's Metro. Thus, Windows Red Pro has a pullout Live Tiles tray that contains the live tiles for all installed Metro apps that have them. It's similar in concept to the pullout Running Apps bar in Windows 8, which shows live tiles of running apps.

The Live Tiles tray in Windows Red Pro has a handle so that you know it's there, and you can drag a tile out of it to the Desktop to keep it always visible there. The Live Tiles tray also provides quick access to any notifications you may have missed.

The user experience is simplified and rationalized

Microsoft's complex overlaying of the Windows Desktop and Metro environments is an outrageous imposition on users. Windows Red gets rid of that. But other complexities in both the Windows Desktop and Metro also need to go.

As previously mentioned, Windows Red Pro consolidates the Control Panel and PC Settings controls into the single Control Panel. It also streamlines the confusing, multiple interface approaches in the Windows 7 Control Panel.

For example, we adopted Metro's simple list of individual panel groups, so it's easy to change panels. Those panels organize their controls in panes, similar to OS X's System Preferences, so you won't face a clutter of settings windows as happens in the Control Panels of Windows 7 and Windows 8.

Also as previously mentioned, we ended the jumping back and forth between apps and the Charms bar by eliminating the Charms bar and moving the search, sharing, devices, and settings functions into the apps themselves.

We also dropped the Running Apps bar in Windows Red Pro, even though Windows 8 had it. After all, the task bar serves the same function, so there's no need for a duplicative Running Apps bar in Windows Red Pro.

All versions of Windows Red provide a visual cue for each pullout tray. Today's Metro requires users to know to swipe or click in one of the sides to open basic controls such as the App bar, Control bar, and Running Apps bar. These features are too fundamental to be made part of a hide-and-seek game.

In Windows Red Pro, the handle for the Live Tiles tray is always visible, so you know something's there. In Windows Red Mobile, there's a handle each for the Running Apps bar, the App bar, and the Control bar, so you know they're present.

Finally, we adopted the innovation in Stardock's ModernMix app as part of Windows Red Pro, providing users a way to group items -- folders, files, and apps -- however it makes sense to them. These items continue to reside in their folders, but the groups exist independently of the folder hierarchy, so you can have all manner of collections that make use of aliases to those resources.

In Windows Red Mobile, we enhance the Snap View function that lets two apps run side by side by letting users adjust that division through a slider. Windows 8's Metro environment fixes one app to 75% of the screen width and the other to 25%, which aren't always the best divisions. Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 8.1 "Blue" also provides an adjustable slider for Snap View, which we're glad to see. But we're dubious about its splitting of the screen into four windows -- on a tablet, those windows are simply too small to be useful. So Windows Red doesn't do that.

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