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Windows 8 – they’ve built it – but will they come?

As Gary mentioned in a post the other day, a new version of Windows has just been launched by Microsoft, one the many pundits see as the biggest launch of any Microsoft product in its history: Windows 8. Right now in Redmond Microsoft are in the middle of a massive Windows 8 launch conference for Windows developers called Build. The reason it’s so massive is because this is the first Windows that has been specifically designed to operate in the Post-PC era (even though they refuse to admit that’s the world we now live in) – a Windows not just for your desktop – but also for your tablet or your phone – a unified experience, glued together by Microsoft’s cloud offering (SkyDrive), consistent in user interface through Metro (Windows UI) and an experience that’s designed to flow seamlessly between home and work and back again.

For anyone upgrading to Windows 8 it’s very obvious what the biggest change is as you are greeted with it when you log in – the Start screen, an evolution from what Microsoft invented with Windows Phone 7, is colorful and unique, fully utilizing the Metro design language (I don’t care what Microsoft want me to call it – it’s Metro). There is no Start button – just rows of colorful, “live” tiles. Definitely this interface is the most controversial aspect of Windows 8 – it’s a complete change, however one that will be familiar to the 2 Windows Phone 7 owners out there (sorry – couldn’t resist). The tiles are cool though, and were the best part of WP7. It actually makes Android and iOS look extremely dated – instead of rows of static icons, Windows 8 offers users glanceable, personalized, dynamic information from your favorite apps, even when they’re not running.

As mentioned above the biggest part of Windows 8 is the fact that it’s designed to work on tablets and phones as well as the desktop. In many respects it feels as if the Post-PC market was its target market. I’ve been using Windows 8 on my iMac in a VM and it’s actually really hard to use with just a mouse. I want to touch it – it wants me to touch it (not in a bad way). Almost everything that you can do is designed to be done with gestures. The mouse, once the most crucial peripheral a Windows user owned, is now a pain. When you see Windows 8 being used on one of the new Microsoft Surfaces, or on the new Windows 8 laptops hitting the market that have touch-enabled screens, it all starts to make sense. In fact I now want Apple to make their next MacBook Air update one that has a touch-screen – I don’t need an iPad with a keyboard – but a laptop I can interface with beyond a trackpad is really desirable.

While Metro dominates the interface, you can drop into “desktop” mode at any time which gives you a Windows 7-like desktop (except without the start button). The only time you need to be in here is when the application you are using doesn’t support Metro. Unfortunately as a developer that means pretty much everything. (It’s interesting to note that the Start menu also exists in Windows Server 2012 which seems like a complete waste of time – I’ve had to install a Start button to make myself more productive). I like the Start menu – but I have to spend so much time in the desktop the whole concept for 2 different interfaces becomes quite jarring. The new Internet Explorer is actually a good example of this – in Metro mode it’s full screen with the toolbar at the bottom (yes – try to figure that out after 20 years of browser UI), and yet when you switch to desktop mode you get presented with the old interface, with the toolbar at the top, tabs and menu options. It’s a mixed metaphor – I’d prefer to be able to choose rather than have to switch back and forwards.

As well as the release of Windows 8, one of the first announcements at Build was the release of Windows Phone 8. While Apple based iOS on Mac OS X, it’s fair to say that Windows Phone 8 is Windows 8, or could be considered just another product edition of Windows 8. For all intents and purposes Windows 8, Windows RT (for low-powered tablets) and Windows Phone 8 share an ecosystem that feels like one product. It’s an interesting approach, one that Apple has specifically shied away from, however as the lines keep blurring between what devices really are (is it a laptop or a tablet?) it’s an approach that I’m hoping that Jony Ive (recently promoted to lead Human Interface at Apple) will embrace and extend.

Probably the biggest improvement over Windows Phone 7 (and also a significant point of difference over other smartphone operating systems) is that WP8 is user-driven, rather than device driven. Through the updated People Hub you can create “Rooms” which are custom groups of your friends, family or work colleagues, for sharing private messages, locations, calendars, photos, and to-dos. Rooms highlights the power of good design – what seems like an obvious concept, Rooms is brought to life with something as banal as a shared shopping list. There is also the ability to create a Kid’s Corner – this is not just about parental controls, it’s an actual profile that your children can operate in that’s independent from the rest of the device. No longer do you have to be at a restaurant trying to placate your kids by giving them your phone and worry that they’ll text your boss (or start buying apps!).

From a developers perspective, Windows 8 introduces an entirely new way of building applications through a new platform called WinRT (not to be confused with Windows RT). While you can still build Windows apps using languages like C++ and C#, Windows 8 also allows for applications to be built using web standards (HTML, CSS and JavaScript). WinRT is a big deal for Windows developers however I definitely can’t do it justice in this post – please read Windows 8 & WinRT – everything old is new again for a stunningly detailed review of where Windows development is heading.

For web developers, Windows 8 comes with Microsoft’s latest version of Internet Explorer, IE10. And yes, Xero works great on IE10. After years of shipping subpar browsers, Microsoft is heading in the right direction with IE10. However while it’s currently an impressive browser, from Xero’s perspective our only hope is that they adopt an aggressive update strategy (ala Chrome) so that they can keep up with the market. (There are still TV ads running in the US pushing IE9 as the best browser on the market – it hasn’t been close to being the best browser for almost 2 years now).

While a lot of the interactivity of the Start screen is only available to apps built for Windows, IE10 and Windows 8 offers some flexibility for web applications. If you’ve built a web app (like Xero) the easiest approach is to use the new pinned sites feature in IE10 which will load up your web app in the full-screen Metro version of IE10. This approach is not just an ability to add a static image to the Start screen – you can also get Windows to poll a file to display simple notifications. We’re already thinking about cool things we can do with this (the simplest being showing statement lines to reconcile). You can learn more about pinned sites over at IEBlog.

We’ve been very vocal (just search our blog) about our choice in web technologies both for our “desktop” apps and also our mobile apps. As part of the launch of Windows Phone 8 we’ve been working with the Microsoft Open Technologies team to trial some of the new open source tools around WP8 development using WP8-supported versions of Sencha Touch and PhoneGap (Apache Cordova). The tools are fantastic and shows a definite commitment around the platform to have these available at the launch. While we are enjoying playing with the tools we are not working on a WP8 version of Xero Touch at this time – the design characteristics of Metro requires us to rethink the user experience (an approach we took with Android that has delivered a tailored & beautiful experience). However if you are interested in a WP8 version then please head over to the Xero Community and vote on it.

Overall the all-encompassing nature of the Windows 8 ecosystem is a risky but intriguing strategy from Microsoft. Time will tell if it pays off – from an enterprise perspective I wonder how many IT teams will just stop at Windows 7, and from a consumer perpsective I’m not sure people care about operating systems any more and tend to be drawn to devices (in which case the wider ecosystem play could come down to the success of Microsoft Surface and the new range of WP8 devices).

 

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18 comments

Matt Kennedy-Good
1 November 2012 #

Great summary of a what I think is going to be a major competitor in the enterprise zone, leveraging MS Office etc.

“it wants me to touch it (not in a bad way)”

Carl
1 November 2012 #

Great read, been trialing Windows 8 Pro upgrade for last 48 hours on a non-touch laptop and after taking a bit of time to blindly learn the new environment I have to say I like it.

I have to admit I spend most of my time in the traditional desktop setting most of the time. Using three monitors, the desktop taskbar is displayed on all three monitors with each monitor capable of accessing the charms or multi-tasking bars. Which also means that you can setup the Start screen on one of those screens.

As for the Start button, it kind of is still there because if you move to the bottom left hand corner of your screen the pop up shortcut to the Start screen appears to take you to the metro interface. And I read a Yahoo article this morning that said metro is essentially the Start button in an exploded view, where you can pin all your favourite apps.

I’m still learning my way through it and there are a few quibbles like slow load times for apps, not enough apps – but no doubt they will come, Mail app can’t be configured with Office 365 mail account yet, shutdown is hidden away but there is a work around to pin as a tile, but the biggest gripe is that this would work so much better with a touchscreen device. One touchscreen device I am looking forward to is the Surface Pro that will essentially replace your laptop and tablet.

I agree this new approach is an interesting direction, and Windows 8 is more enterprise friendly then the other touch based operating systems available. And let’s face it some of us cannot live without our smart phones and so the concept of a touch-screen interface isn’t foreign to us but strangely enough it’s very natural to us. Definitely a space to watch.

Robbie Dellow
1 November 2012 #

One of the interesting takes I see with Microsoft’s recent news is their release of the ‘Surface’ tablet. Aren’t they now encroaching on the symbiotic-type relationship they shared with Dell and HP? I know these guys latests 1/4 reports have not been too rosy.
I haven’t used Windows8 so can’t comment there, but seems the genuine advancement of mobility and ‘the cloud’ prompted them to (dare I say it) … keep up.

Jon Jenkins
2 November 2012 #

Great article and summary for someone who has gone so far off Microsoft that I wouldn’t even want to try Windows 8 but I must admit I like the look of it (don’t tell anyone) and the information supplied thinks it might be worth a look. My biggest reservations are that most Windows users are dinosaurs and this may just be a step to far for most of them.

Craig Walker
2 November 2012 #

@Robbie Surface is actually pretty cool – but I think it introduces a whole new product category – one that Microsoft seems unwilling to talk about because I think they’re scared of going that angle (probably because of OEM relationships more than anything else). While many suggest that Microsoft are pitching Surface as a tablet-killer, it isn’t. But as a laptop killer…

The keyboard (which is pretty amazing) and the kickstand are designed for the table. It’s quite heavy – and wide. It doesn’t fit as well in the hand as the iPad does. But as a touch-enabled laptop? It’s pretty awesome.

But I wouldn’t buy one yet. It’s under-powered as it currently is (though it could be that apps are not optimized for it yet). The display, while great for video content, is just not as good as the iPad – Microsoft should have invested in a “Retina”-like display (though Apple are culpable in this as well with the iPad Mini).

There is also a dearth of apps and it doesn’t run any of your current apps. So for me I can’t replace my laptop because I have to use x86 apps to do my job. I’m interested to see what the Surface Pro has to offer, however being an Intel-powered machine I’m expecting it to be heavy and fat and a bit of a disappointment.

@Jon Personally I don’t care about operating systems any more. I don’t even think about them. With over-the-air updates and the app store concepts I wouldn’t think to actually go and buy one. However since I have to spend a lot of time in my day in Windows it’s pretty cool and a nice upgrade (especially at the current upgrade pricing). And it would be awesome if my iMac was touch-enabled…

John Younger
3 November 2012 #

Hi Craig;
Excellent post….

Your article highlighted to me the growing gap between software developers who write standard consumer software (shrink-wrapped software), and we enterprise line-of-business developers. The gap has always been there (just read Joel Spolsky on the subject), but it is becoming wider every year. The reality that we are faced with is that our enterprise customers are generally running way “behind” technologically, due to their size and the sheer scale of the work involved in upgrades. An example : almost all of my Virgin users are still on IE7 and it’s a difficult to get their IT department to even think about IE9 right now (I have been trying for a long time). And they won’t even consider other browsers.

As an aside, this takes me back to when Microsoft started making VB developers write for Win32 rather than Win16. Same story, at the time almost all of my business customers were still running on Win16 platforms. When I said to Microsoft “but all of my customers are on Win16″ the reply was “well, find new customers”. Back then it wasn’t nearly as arduous for an end user to move from Win16 to Win32. Today, though, the change for our enterprise customers to embrace the new WinRT platform is going to be much bigger. Prohibitively so?

So whether we enterprise developers buy in to the Windows 8 / WinRT development architecture or not (and the jury is still out on that), we are stuck with the practical reality of having to design and build solutions that are appropriate for their target platforms. And I can’t see those enterprise customers moving to Windows 8 for a very long time.

Accordingly, I will be checking out the WinRT platform and preparing myself to migrate my existing code base to that platform, amending that code base to leverage the new benefits, and rethinking the user experience for the new Windows 8 world. But I won’t be in any hurry to do all of that, because I know that my target users won’t be on the new platform for a long time yet.

Meanwhile : I have a question for you:

I am wondering about the Windows Store. I have read various things about it and some commentators state that the ONLY way consumers will be able to obtain applications, in the future, is through the Windows Store. I can’t possibly see how that can work for enterpise developers like myself who write very customer-specific applications. Those applications are usually very large, very expensive (tens of thousands of pounds and upwards) and are of no interest at all to anyone other than the customer they were written for. Surely we won’t be reuired to submit them to the Windows Store for approval ? The testing alone would take months. So here is my question : in your view, how will we enterprise LOB developers deploy our applications to our corporate customers in the Windows Store future?

Thanks

Craig Walker
3 November 2012 #

@John That’s why you should build web apps instead ;)

The Windows Store is the only way to get apps for Windows RT (i.e., Microsoft Surface) because it’s designed for ARM processors (confusingly only apps built on WinRT run on Windows RT :)). Basically think of the Windows Store on the current Surface in a similar vein to the iOS App Store. On Windows 8 proper you can run any app that you can build for Windows 7 (including apps, server software or development tools that you currently have). Everything I have running on my development VM (running Windows 8 Enterprise) was installed outside of the Windows Store.

Note: Microsoft Surface Pro will run Windows 8 Pro so will have the capability to run any Windows app. It will be interesting to see how good the hardware is – I think a lot of Windows geeks are waiting for that…

John Younger
3 November 2012 #

Craig;

Thanks for that.

I would characterise Protonomy as a “Web app”, surely?
It generates literally hundreds of “virtual” application Web pages at Virgin, at runtime, using database metadata. Given that app users are all browser based, doesn’t it meet your definition of a “Web app”?

If you wouldn’t mind checking our Website for a brief description and let me know whether or not you consider it to be a Web app.

Cheers and keep up the good work

Craig Walker
3 November 2012 #

@John Sorry for being glib – I was referring to your specific mention of building apps over the WinRT platform. In that case, I don’t see any need to build WinRT apps unless you’re building something for a tablet or phone where having something native (even if it’s a native wrapper) is beneficial because of the lack of standards around browser/device interaction.

Michael Carter
5 November 2012 #

Craig, re your “MacBook Air update one that has a touch-screen” +1! I (with clearly wishful thinking) asked Apple for this a while back. If the screen detached (a la Surface) that would be fine, but seeing as the Air is insanely thin and light, I’d love it to be able to fold back on itself into the tablet form factor. It would be the ultimate personal computing device (and I could leave the iPad at home).

fluidity limited
8 November 2012 #

sorry if i missed this in the text or the comments. but i saw a xero live tile and am wondering is there a xero app in the market place or was this photoshopped?

keen to see one..

cheers

Craig Walker
8 November 2012 #

@fluidity Nice pick-up. It’s not Photoshopped – but it’s also not a Windows 8 app. As mentioned in the article you can now create custom tiles when you pin a web site or a web app to your home screen (as described in detail here: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ie/archive/2012/04/03/pinned-sites-in-windows-8.aspx).

Antony
15 November 2012 #

No Xero doesn’t work correctly on IE10 (desktop). You have to put it in IE9 compat mode for the pages to render correctly.

Craig Walker
16 November 2012 #

@Anthony OK… Standard developer response: “it works on my machine” ;) Anything specific that’s not working? (I’m not using IE9 compat mode)

Antony
16 November 2012 #

In a nutshell when you look at the transaction view of an account or Spending vs Saving or a Goal none of the columns display correctly. They are all bunched up on the left. Email me your address and Ill send you screenshots. I can send you screenshots of IE9 compat mode vs IE10/Standards mode. I’m running RTM Windows 8 IE10 Desktop. I also tested it in “Modern” IE10 and its the same.

Craig Walker
16 November 2012 #

@Anthony oh! Xero Personal? Yeah – sorry about that – I was talking about Xero Business (I totally understand that the distinction is lost on our customers – to them it’s one platform – as it should be). Will alert the XP team and try to get it fixed asap.

Antony
16 November 2012 #

Thanks :) I left a comment in the forums early last month prior to GA but no-one commented.

Inca
8 March 2013 #

please build a windowsphone APP!

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