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!).
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).