On the Internet, everything ages in dog years.
Certain techno-cultural signatures that once heralded the dawn of a new age – the uh-oh of an incoming ICQ message, the shhrr-wee-ching-ch-ching of a dial-up modem grasping to shake hands with the Web – now seem like ancient curiosities, relics from a time when images loaded pixel-by-infuriating-pixel and everybody rode mules to work. All industries march forward, but there's nothing like consumer technology when it comes to the velocity of obsolescence.
But even for hardened veterans of this phenomenon, the looming release of Windows 8 is going to be particularly cruel. Regardless of whether the newest version of the world's most ubiquitous operating system is any good, it's still going to mark a watershed moment – the death of the desktop. Even Microsoft, a company that made billions by slapping its software into almost every PC on the planet, is now betting that nobody wants a computer they can't carry around in their pocket.
A few weeks ago, Microsoft released a consumer beta of Windows 8 into the wild. For many people, it's the first chance to see the operating system that the company hopes to run on all its devices – from desktops to laptops to tablets to smartphones.
(In reality, a new Windows launch doesn't carry as much fanfare as it used to. The world hasn't really gotten excited about one of these releases since Windows 95, which by technology standards might as well have come out in 1895.)
There was a time, not that long ago, when everyone was buying desktops and every single one of them ran Windows and Microsoft was busy installing a dance floor atop Apple's grave. Today, thanks to a mobile device revolution that nobody but Steve Jobs and Co. seem to have seen coming, the tables have turned. Apple is the most valuable technology company on Earth, the iPad and iPhone are profit geysers, and the only reason people aren't talking about how badly Windows Phone devices are doing is because Research In Motion has a stranglehold on bad news in the smartphone industry.
Windows 8 is Microsoft's attempt to turn those tables once more. This, unlike almost every other iteration of the operating system in the past 30 years, is a piece of software designed primarily for mobile devices and secondarily for desktops and laptops. To put it generously, the people responsible for Windows 8 seem to have been heavily inspired by iOS, Facebook and just about every other successful tech trend of the past five years.
The social/mobile theme that runs through Windows 8, which is expected to be released this year, is evident from the get-go. The default lock screen is made up of one big background picture – similar to the layout on Microsoft's Bing search engine – and only a couple of data points (the time and date). To unlock the screen, you don't click on it, but instead drag the whole thing upward to reveal the logon screen below. This makes perfect sense if you've got Windows 8 installed on a touch-screen device, but is mildly annoying when you're using a mouse.
(For this review, we installed Windows 8 on one of the Globe's old beater laptops – a Panasonic CF-W4 "ToughBook" that is only tough in the sense that it appears to have been designed during the Civil War. Nonetheless, Windows 8 ran just fine on the laptop, which bodes well for its ability to function on low-end tablets and phones).
The most immediate and significant design change in Windows 8 is the replacement of a Start Button with a kind of Start Screen called Metro. The layout of this screen will be familiar to anyone who has recently used a Windows Phone device. Floating icons dominate the screen, and extend horizontally. The emphasis, as evident by the default icons placed front-and-centre, is on social media. The first icons a user sees are for photos, contacts, Web-browsing and Xbox Live games, among others. All of these are more accurately described as apps, rather than traditional programs. The user interfaces all look similar, and there's a heavy emphasis on simplicity. Gone are the dozens of menu items and sub-items so familiar to Windows software users. Like iOS, this operating system is idiot-proof. Even the settings screen has been trimmed down significantly, and now looks a lot like the settings screen on an iPad.
Because the Metro interface was clearly built for mobile and touch-screen devices, it doesn't lend itself as well to the kind of multitasking that desktop Windows users might be used to. To ease this, Microsoft built a couple of navigation shortcuts. Scroll to the top left corner of the screen, and you get a menu showing all open applications. Scroll to the top or bottom right corners, and you get a menu that lets you access options such as settings, search and share.
As a mobile operating system, Metro works really, really well. You can move icons around simply by dragging them, and all the apps you'll likely need are either built-in or easily downloadable. If you want to mess around with more complex settings, however, Metro is pretty useless.
Fortunately, Microsoft has kept a version of the traditional Windows desktop within reach. Simply click the Desktop icon in Metro, or scroll to the bottom left corner, and you can access a supercharged version of the same user interface that dates back all the way to Windows 95. If you want to copy files, access the recycle bin or make machine-ruining changes to the registry, you're free to do so. Metro may be a heavily curated art exhibit of an operating system (if you want a Metro app, you have to go through the Windows store, a restriction Microsoft has borrowed from Apple's iPhone/iPad strategy), but the old Windows Wild West is alive and well behind the scenes.
Even in Metro, you can hit the Windows button and then "R" to bring up a variation of the old Run menu, and look for whatever program you want. Even the old-school DOS command prompt is easily accessible. Popular keyboard shortcuts, such as Alt+F4, also still work. But if you hit the Start button at any point, you're always going back to the Metro interface.
A lot of Windows 8 features can be traced to what other successful mobile operating systems (Read: Apple's iOS and Google's Android) have done. For example, Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make this a cloud-friendly operating system, so you can sync your content across various devices. It also integrates pretty seamlessly with (some, but not all) Web-based e-mail accounts. Ideally, Microsoft hopes its massive Windows install base will embrace the new version of the software, and in the process create a halo effect by which Windows desktop users go out and buy Windows-based phones and tablets. The odds of this phenomenon actually happening any time soon are, to be honest, pretty slim. Still, as Windows Vista has demonstrated, Microsoft's customers will stick with the company through just about anything – and Windows 8 is far better than Vista.
Microsoft's biggest problem isn't any particular flaw in Windows 8, but rather that the operating system itself is less a cohesive unit and more an awkward Frankensteining of two wildly different operating systems. Metro, the app-based layout, is clearly designed for touch-screens. Desktop is for the mouse and keyboard crowd. In order to avoid alienating its traditional desktop customer base while still cashing in on the smartphone revolution, Microsoft has slapped the two operating systems together.
But recent history suggests this approach doesn't really work. RIM has tried for years to please its traditional business clients while targeting the new and growing consumer smartphone shoppers. But the result has so far been a series of phones that can't compete with purely consumer-focused offerings from the Apple and the myriad Android players. In Microsoft's case, hardcore Windows users will wonder why they have to put up with a shiny but dumbed-down Metro interface, and the kind of people who may want Metro on their phones and tablets may still find that purely mobile-focused iOS and Android devices are a better choice.
Even in its beta stage, Windows 8 runs surprisingly smoothly. Whether it actually lets Microsoft catch up with Apple and Google in the mobile race is yet to be seen, but the arrival of Windows 8 does mark a milestone in computing: a moment when even the desktop's most vocal cheerleader admitted that mobile is where the money is. Years from now, you may still own a desktop, but the software on it will be derivative of the software on your mobile device, not the other way around.