Monday, September 19, 2011

First Thoughts Regarding Windows 8

With all the hubbub around Microsoft's BUILD conference and the developer preview of Windows 8, I thought I'd grab a copy to check it out. This is what I found; it's going to be pretty short...

Installation

I downloaded a copy of Windows 8,[1] created a new machine in VirtualBox, attached the downloaded ISO to the CD and booted the machine.[2] It started the install OK and then hung part way through. After waiting awhile, I powered off the VM. On restart, it tried to do an install restart but this time give me a failure message. So I powered it down again and then back up. This time during the restart it showed me the partitions on the drive. I deleted all the previously created partitions and it finally ran through the install to the end. When it finished, it did the typical Windows reboot but hung during the reload. I turned the machine off, detached the ISO image from the CD and turned it back on. This time it booted just fine. It asked me a couple of standard questions, like user name and password and took me to a phone/tablet looking screen.

Cursor problems

At this point the cursor pretty much went wonky. Yes, that's a technical term. When moving the cursor from the host OS to the Windows 8 machine, the cursor would jump to an odd place and then jump back off the guest screen back to the host. It was pretty much unusable. I tried installing VirtualBox's guest additions. The installer asked all the startup questions but then stopped when I told it to begin the actual install saying it didn't support that version of Windows. I suppose that's not too surprising. As a last ditch effort, I moved the virtual screen off my large secondary screen to the laptop's smaller main screen and all of a sudden the cursor started working correctly. At this point I'm not sure if it's a problem with VirtualBox on the secondary screen or if it's a Windows 8 incompatibility or perhaps some of each. In any case, the cursor problem doesn't show up on the main screen and the mouse/keyboard capturing works as I'd expect; i.e. once the guest OS has control, you have to hit the Host button to get back out.

Operation

Once the cursor started working correctly, I played around with a bit. IE10 works pretty much like you'd expect a browser to although the UI is somewhat different in keeping with the Metro design. The biggest thing is the address bar is at the bottom of the screen. Other than that, it worked OK. Google returned search results. GMail showed me my mail. However, when I went to YouTube, it needed the Flash plug-in. I knew the Metro version of IE didn't support plug-ins, so I wasn't sure what would happen. But everything worked, sort of: clicking the link took me to Adobe's web site, downloading and installing worked just fine. Yet when I went back to YouTube, it still complained about no plug-in. I went to the desktop (one of the many tiles on the "start page"), clicked on the IE icon there and then navigated to YouTube. It worked. This is one of those differences between the Metro version and the desktop version. However, I had to know that going in, otherwise it would have simply looked like it didn't work. There was no indication saying the Metro version didn't support plug-ins or that the desktop version did.

I tried clicking on some of the other tiles on the start page and didn't get too far. Most of them seem to need features unique to mobile devices. Word Hunt wanted me to "bump" with a friend's device to initiate the connection. I assume that's some sort of bluetooth thing. Labyrinth simply sat there staring at me. No instructions. Clicking, click-dragging and other random character presses yielded no results. I'm guessing it wanted some sort of tilt sensor input. The last thing I tried was BitBox. I had high hopes of getting somewhere since it actually started with a mini-tutorial. My hopes were dashed on about the third step when told to do a pinch operation to continue. Um, how do you do multi-touch with a mouse?

At that point I pretty much gave up and turned the thing off. That was a bit of an adventure itself. First I tried sending the power off signal from VirualBox. This is equivalent to pressing the power button on a typical PC/Laptop. Nothing happened. I looked around a bit for a shutdown option. All I could find was logout. I ended up going to the desktop and pressing Alt-F4. That has worked since at least Windows 3.1, and it still does. I got a familiar "what do you want to do? shutdown, restart" type dialog. (I have subsequently learned there is a power button that's available after you logout.)

Opinions

My first impression after about an hour of playing with it is that it seems fairly comparable to the iPad and Android regarding user experience. (I've played around with both these about as much as I have Windows 8.) Basically there are big squares that slide around and you can click on them. The applications open in full screen mode. Shrug. I guess some people might get excited about it. To me, it seems about the same as everything else on the market.

What I find interesting about these devices is the infrastructure, development environment and community support that grows up around them. The iPad and Android ecosystems both have their strengths and weaknesses. I think it's too early to tell much about what will happen with the ecosystem around Windows 8. Will Microsoft learn from both their previous successes and mistakes, as well as those of Apple and Google, to become a market leader? Will they become another fairly equal player? Or will they become an also ran in this race?

From an internal design perspective, I like the direction Microsoft is going better than Apple or Google. Apple has a split between the desktop/laptop OS X and the mobile device iOS. Google is trying to scale the mobile/browser experience to the desktop in ChromeOS. I think both these are weak strategies.

Apple has two, separate code bases to maintain, much of which could probably be combined. I think long term this is going to cause compatibility problems much like Microsoft has had between the mobile/embedded Windows and the desktop version and more lately between WPF and Silverlight. Very similar systems with differing code bases have made the developer community pretty aggravated at times.

Google has a similar problem with the bifurcation between Android and ChromeOS. Android probably has the potential for making a pretty nice desktop OS. Give some development effort, it'd be pretty comparable, from a design perspective, as Windows 8. The high-level design documents for both would look very similar. However, Google has decided to try to expand the browser into an operating system. I've experimented with ChromeOS and it works acceptably if all you want to do is available on the web. But frequently I want to use my computer off-line and the whole ecosystem is not up to this task. Perhaps in 5 years everything will be a web app. I doubt it though.

Microsoft is pairing down the core of Windows and then placing different layers on top of it. From a design perspective this seems like the best long term solution. It has always appeared that desktop Windows was the first-class citizen and the embedded/phone OS by the same name (which only had passing resemblance to its big brother) was second-class. By putting a desktop UI on the same core as the mobile device UI, they can both become equal products, just for different markets. As a desktop developer, the biggest fear I have is, instead of raising the mobile UI to be equal to the desktop's, they are going to push the desktop down to second-class status. As it stands with this preview, the first and primary experience is the Metro look and feel. It works great on a tablet. I have yet to see it work well on a desktop. Without major changes to the current experience, I predict Windows 8 will work well on mobile devices but will not be adopted in the desktop world. Hmm, will Windows 8 make the year of the Linux desktop finally a reality?

Updates

The above all happened on Friday. Monday morning, I started the Windows 8 virtual machine. It hung during boot. I turned it off and tried again. Again it hung (at a different place) during boot. I deleted the image. Too much hassle at this point.

Monday evening: I created a VirtualBox machine hosted on my MacBook Pro. Pretty much the same configuration as I had on the other one hosted in Windows 7: 50GB hard drive with about 2.5GB of memory. It installed perfectly the first time and so far has worked flawlessly. (Well, other than the weirdnesses of a touch based interface driven by a keyboard/mouse.)


2. This is not intended to be a tutorial. There are already good tutorials to install onto a hard drive and into a virtual machine available.
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