BitDepth#901 - September 04

The new Windows 8 Preview tidies up some outstanding issues with Microsoft's new operating system, but will it be enough to persuade users who haven't chosen to make the switch yet?
Windows 8, updated
Multitasking in the Modern UI’s tile based interface neatly bundles different windows side by side. Panes for open windows are at far left, a map from Bing at centre and an Outlook message at right.
Image courtesy Microsoft.

Like almost nobody I know, I rushed to install Microsoft’s free preview of Windows 8.1.
If you have a perfectly functional copy of Windows 8 running on your computer, there’s no good reason to rush to install the preview since you’ll find very little that’s different on first launch.
It should also be clear to veterans of public beta releases like this one that what’s on show here won’t necessarily be what’s in the final release, scheduled for release on October 18.

Smart users working on production equipment should just wait for the official release. Leave the adventures with pre-release software to folks who don’t get paid the big bucks to do it like me.
The download and update process is a bit fussier than it was with Windows 8. After a battery of security related questions and OS level preference settings, the screen goes black and the word “Hi” appears.

After the slow download and dialog box cross-examination that the update demanded, it seemed like a welcome grace note, but it’s really a meggie. There’s more setting up to come.
Let’s skip to the immediate payoffs for existing Windows 8 users. First up, it’s true, installing the update frees more than 4GB worth of disk space.

For me this was a very good thing. I’d been skating into the danger zone on the tablet I’ve been using the software on, often running all the way into the red zone of disk space, living dangerously with just 2GB free.
The reduction in the OS footprint will likely be celebrated on tablets and ultrabooks running expensive flash storage as well.

Next up is the welcome return of a Windows start button in the traditional desktop mode.
The button that’s available in the preview version of the new update seems almost perfunctory. Just a list of links to system settings and launch choices. It feels limited compared to the well-developed utility it once was and certainly isn’t as slick as third party substitutes like
Start 8.

As promised, you can bypass the tile-based Modern UI on startup to get directly to the traditional Windows desktop, but since I do my Windows 8 work on a tablet, I haven’t found a need to invoke that option.
In a strange way, it seems like I’ll be robbing myself of a way of working with the computer that I’m slowly getting used to.

Unfortunately, the Modern UI remains a distinctly inferior way of working with Windows and it’s unclear whether even as useful a development as multitasking in the Modern UI interface will change that for most users.
There’s a lot more software available in the Windows Store, but far too much of it still feels dumbed down and simplified.

For almost every app that I work with on Windows, I’ve rejected several tile-based options in favour of a traditional Windows app. It’s more troublesome making software designed for a mouse click respond to my ham-fingered tapping, but it’s better software generally, and I’m more productive and happy with it.

Too much of the software on the Windows Store for the Modern UI just feels wrong, even when it’s designed well. That’s strange, because the software designed for Windows Phone 8 feels elegant and well put together, but in scaling that experience up to tablet use, something is lost.
Internet Explorer for the Modern UI simply isn’t as good or as elegant a browser, for instance, as Internet Explorer for desktop Windows on the same tablet.

I’m almost certain that’s why the Windows RT tablet platform collapsed, leaving Microsoft with a US$900 million loss on its books on its most recent quarterly earnings report.
Nobody seems to want the Windows desktop experience on their phones, and the tile interface has done very well there. On the desktop and even on tablets; old habits and better programming have kept Windows 8 rooted in desktop software.

The Modern UI on the desktop and laptops has turned out to be a product in search of a customer.
Windows Phone users have no history of running classic Windows apps, so the interface has gone over well with Lumia owners, but the majority of users picking up a Windows based tablet expect what they are used to.

There are a lot of new features built into Windows 8.1, including esoterica like native 3D printing support, but Microsoft hasn’t moved the conversation around it’s flagship OS from the fundamentals of the user experience yet.
The company finds itself in a curious space now with Windows 8. Its traditional users are divided on the value of having two user interfaces on its flagship software and have rather resoundingly rejected the Modern UI only Windows RT.

Windows 8.1 only offers hardcore desktop Windows users more of the utility they had before and an easier way to ignore the Modern UI.
It’s likely to placate the most virulent opponents of the new dual OS model, but it’s a distinct setback for the company’s ambitions and the developers who were banking on the Modern UI as a new platform.
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