Windows 8: The Verdict Isn’t In!

By  |  Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 12:03 am

My lousy photo of two of the devices I'm carrying around at the moment.

On Monday, the day before Microsoft formally unveiled Windows 8 at its BUILD conference here in Anaheim, it held a event for the press. Tech journalists from around the world (including me) got a preview of the news that would break a day later, and we went back to our hotel rooms with loaner Samsung tablets loaded with the developer preview of Windows 8. We agreed to a Microsoft embargo that said we could publish our stories at 9:05am on Tuesday, once the BUILD keynote was underway.

On Monday night, I frantically put the Samsung through its paces and hurriedly began to write, knowing that my first-impressions piece would be one of dozens that would hit the next morning.

And then I thought to myself: What’s the rush?

Hasty thoughts on Windows 8 based on cursory use of it aren’t all that useful. And it will be many months until anyone pays for a finished version of this operating system. So I’ve been continuing to use the developer preview and work on a story, but I’m not done yet. And even once I write about the developer preview, I’m going to strenuously avoid forming anything like a final verdict on Windows 8.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber has a post up pointing out that Apple would never start talking about an upcoming product as early as Microsoft is doing with Windows 8, much less allow anyone to use a pre-beta version on less-than-definitive hardware.  He’s right, of course. But Microsoft would never not do this sort of thing. The company’s eagerness to spill beans early and often is as defining an aspect of its corporate personality as secrecy is part of Apple’s. (It started talking about Windows 1.0 in 1983 and didn’t actually ship it until late 1985.)

Gruber says that he likes writing about things that are real right now. I agree that an existing groundbreaking  product like the iPad is exciting in ways that a developer preview like Windows 8 can never be.  However, I’m still glad that Microsoft is letting interested parties such as developers and OS geeks try a very, very early version of Windows. I just think it’s up to us–and especially those of us who write about Microsoft products–to judge it accordingly.

Windows 8's Metro home screen.

Even if you have access to the Samsung tablet that was unveiled today or plan to download and install Windows 8 on your own computer (you can get it here), you’ll be dealing with a very fuzzy version of the reality that Win 8 will present when it ships. (Microsoft isn’t saying when–I’m guessing it would like to have PCs in stores by the early fall of 2012, which would mean finishing the software by midyear.)

A few examples of the remaining holes in our knowledge:

  • The developer preview is missing some important stuff that Microsoft demoed today, such as the e-mail, calendar, and contact apps, as well as key parts of the user interface, including something called “semantic zoom” (which simplifies the desktop as you zoom out rather than simply rendering more items in fewer pixels). All we know about these items is what Microsoft chose to show us in its demos.
  • Windows 8 also extremely buggy, to the point that it sometimes foiled Microsoft’s own demos. (The people doing them clearly anticipated problems–whenever something went wrong, they briskly and cheerfully segued over to backup machines.) Will 8 be alarmingly buggy when it ships, like Windows Vista, or delightfully reliable, like Windows 7? Who knows?
  • No Windows 8 computers have been announced. (The Samsung is at best a rough draft of one sort of Windows 8 machine.) To be really interesting, computers will need to be designed to run Windows 8 in a way that’s new–there was no such thing as a “Windows Vista PC” or a “Windows 7 PC.” We don’t know how thin and light they could end up being; whether battery life will be any good; whether PC makers will figure out elegant ways to incorporate touch into devices which largely resemble traditional desktops and laptops.
  • Windows 8 will run on devices that sport ARM-based processors from companies such as Nvidia and Qualcomm, but the details on such machines are particularly blurry. For instance, will you be able to run traditional Windows apps on ARM systems as well as Metro apps, if they’ve been recompiled for the ARM architecture? I heard Windows honcho Steven Sinofsky address journalist questions about this at length yesterday, and discussed it myself with Qualcomm representatives today, and I’m still confused.
  • Microsoft almost seems to have gone out of its way to avoid demonstrating compelling apps at BUILD–it let small teams of college interns build the first Windows 8 programs, such as a Twitter client, a finger-painting program, and several games. They’re certainly good enough to whet your appetite for what’s possible, but nobody’s going to buy a Windows 8 computer to get their hands on them. There will be ambitious Windows 8 programs, of course–the whole idea of BUILD is to get developers excited about building terrific software that takes advantage of all the new features–but they don’t exist yet.

How can you come to any firm opinions about Windows 8′s chances of success or how it stacks up against the iPad based on such an incomplete picture? You can’t. All you can do is form some inconclusive initial impressions, which is what I’m still in the process of doing.

Even once you can go out and buy cool Windows 8 computers running nifty Windows 8 apps, it’ll be smart to be cautious about declaring it to be a winner or a dud. With Windows, the bar for success is higher than with any other product, because it needs to win over hundreds of millions of people to be deemed a success. Consumers and businesses get to decide whether new versions of Windows flourish, and they have a long history of rejecting ones no matter how good Microsoft’s hype and how upbeat the initial critical response. (Exhibit A: The Tablet PC. Exhibit B: Windows Vista.)

Windows 8 is trying to do radical things to the world’s most well-established piece of software. It’s going to take a while for the world to get used to it. It might even take another upgrade or two. (When is Windows 10 scheduled to come out again–2018?)

I promise that I’ll share thoughts about Windows 8 shortly. (Twice, in fact: Both here and on TIME.com.) If you read my impressions and tell me that I sound uncertain and keep hedging my bets, I won’t feel guilty. Actually, I’ll take it as a sign that I succeeded in doing my job…

 
44 Comments


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44 Comments For This Post

  1. DAR418 Says:

    Loaner tablets?

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Yes, Microsoft loaned Samsung tablets to pressfolk.

  3. Will Blake Says:

    Always good, Harry. Going to take a look at it on my x60 touch-capable Thinkpad.
    I think we'd rather have your hedges and uncertainty than what is often the alternative. Guess you're doing your job.

  4. Rodney Says:

    Never fear, Harry. I'm willing to wait for your fully-baked thoughts on this. I value your opinion on these things more than anyone else's.

  5. bogopogo Says:

    I appreciate your honesty – already some people (I guess you could call them Windows Fan Boys) are already stating that Windows 8 on a tablet will trounce the iPad – and like you stated – there's a whole lot more that we don't know yet – than we actually do know.

    I think Gruber's comments are particularly prescient.

    Let's also keep in mind that this thing is still 12 months from releasing. The HP Slate was talked up quite a bit – and then by the time it actually released, not only was it a bit of a dud – it also cost quite a bit more than an iPad.

  6. Tech84 Says:

    So Windows 8 only runs for tablets and not on PC's?

  7. CndnRschr Says:

    Beats me how a company can spend a kajillion man-hours developing a new version of an operating system, put it on a bunch of non-optimized tablets and then expect the press to come to intelligent evaluations after a matter of hours. This was clearly aimed at creating buzz around Windows 8 just like concept cars. Thanks Harry, for taking your time. The videos of demos posted on Engadget and ThisIsMyNext don't exactly gel with their actual reviews the on-stage difficulties by the highly prepped Microsoft demonstrators show that these are early days. There is plenty of time to improve the software and the lack of definitive dates for the various QA stages indicates Microsoft is not going to put this out prematurely. What they have done is two things. Firstly, they HAD to get something out there for people to talk about. They've had sweet nothing to talk about in the tablet space since the iPad blew away the Courier "concept" and that must have hurt. Now people at least have something to talk up. Secondly, they have declared their approach to be a Swiss Army knife – a converged OS that can power one device. You can have it all – no need for a PC and a tablet. We'll see how that works out (I think not well – there will be too many compromises).

    I know its an exaggeration, but Samsung seems to be giving more devices away at developers meetings than they sell in retail (Google and now BUILD). Obviously, they've been paid for these demo units, but they seem to be willing to do anything to help out OS developers – aside from their biggest actual client and court buddy of course, Apple.

  8. CndnRschr Says:

    No – its designed to work on both but was demonstrated on a prototype tablet from Samsung. The glossiest "innovations" in Windows 8 are based on its touch interfaces. Windows 7 had touch input methods too but in Windows 8, these are integrated. Whether people actually use a single device much in two modes is unclear (doubtful I think) but you have the option…

  9. Amelia@IT Management Says:

    I'm just keeping my fingers crossed with Windows 8. I personally don't like its interface but the fast startup they're pitching is keeping my excitement level above average.

    I understand it's not even in the beta stage yet so MS is excused. I just hope they'll polish this one up before shipping it out. The Vista debacle was enough.

  10. David Says:

    Well, it looks like a name change from Programs to Apps, an "app wrapper" and an absence of programs (where's movie maker, calculator etc?) and Avast didn't install correctly. My guess this is Win 7 with the (modest) changes bolted on for now.

  11. Joshua Says:

    John Gruber: "I prefer to talk about things that are real, so here's a post devoted to Windows 8, also, don't forget to read my post on iPad 3 from a few months ago. Once again, I only talk about real things."

    He likes talking about Apple products. Nothing wrong with that, but that's his motive, nothing else.

  12. Random person Says:

    Ridiculous post – probably aimed at just increasing your blog hits.

    It's an OS which has atleast a year to get out to public – It's not even beta yet – do you have any idea how Software QA process works?

    It's an early preview to get the word out, get hardware partners onboard, get developers excited. Microsoft makes software and probably needs to test it on thousands of hardware devices – unlike Apple which has everything inhouse so it doesn't have to worry about hardware/device/driver failures.

    As Sinofsky mentioned, the apps were written by interns when the platform was itself being written – if you had any amount of CS knowledge, you'd realize how difficult that is.

    I think you are just pissed at yourself for not having anything to write about because you wait for other blogs to write something so you can plagiarize it. Unfortunately, that didn't work out this time. Aww, so sad.

    Get a life dude.

  13. Sam Crow Says:

    At least we'll be able to use W8 long after we've all got bored of tablets and stuffed them in the back of the cupboard, as seems to be happening already – well worth the 500 quid, I must say.

  14. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Harry, I DO look forward to your opinion when you have had time to review more fully. Especially what you think of it as a tablet platform.

  15. Harry McCracken Says:

    You got me. I specialize in ridiculous posts aimed at increasing my blog hits. (And um, I'm confused: What part of the post are you disagreeing with, again? We both seem to be saying it's an eatly piece of software and there's lots of work left to do…)

  16. Rod Torfelson Says:

    This. Gruber is a mouthpiece for Apple, so anything he says has to be taken in that context.

  17. PaladinTom Says:

    I don't know, I tend to like the idea of getting some feedback on your direction prior to release. As stated above.

    To Gruber's point, Apple arguably has fixed a lot since iPhone 1. If you can field test something, get some feedback, and actually implement it prior to release, I'm all for it.

    Go back and look at the evolution of older versions of Windows via betas and release candidates. We've got a ways to go before Win8 is released.

    The down side though is talking about things too early. I only recently upgraded to Win7 on my main pc. I do still have an XP box, but I probably won't be running 8 for many many years – unless MS can ship a tablet that's more compelling than an iPad. It's not just interface, but price and battery life too.

  18. AlfieJr Says:

    Ah, a voice of reason! how rare on the web.

    just want to add some additional precision. Windows 7, which is popular, is essentially a polished update of Vista, which wasn't, that fixed Vista's UI flaws. technically, Vista was NT 6.0 and Windows 7 is NT 6.1.

    So a big question is whether "Windows 8" is just a more evolved version of Windows 7 optimized for a touch UI – and hence NT 6.2 – or instead is a real jump in MS OS technology "under the hood" – and hence NT 7.0.

    all the initial reports have focused on the eye candy and hype, but does anyone know about the underpinnings yet?

  19. Ryan Says:

    Lol…M$ can't win. If they developed behind closed doors they'd be evil and unconcerned with the communities input. If they develop in the open they are accused of not giving them any news. I'm not defending them just saying it's funny.

  20. heulenwolf Says:

    Good stuff, Harry. I am often frustrated when looking for details or full reviews about a recently-released product only to come across piles of results that are just previews, 30-second hands-on videos, and other coverage that is meant to get out there first but doesn't provide much depth. These tend to dominate the search results whenever I type "<tech product name> review" into Google.

  21. yetanothersteve Says:

    except there are other OSes in the world and none of them do it on this timetable. It's a choice and a strategy.

    And I've been a professional software developer for decades so I know how the process works.

    Dude.

  22. yetanothersteve Says:

    I wonder if the reason you're confused about ARM implementations is that some decisions haven't been made yet. The hardware requirement math for a competitive tablet doesn't add up. I wonder if MS is keeping options open… or may even leave them open for hardware makers. (Or simply doesn't want to tip their hand.)

    Full Windows + Metro on an ARM $500 tablet with long battery life is a tall order. Toss "full windows" aside and it's a slam dunk. Maybe they're waiting for the Office team to commit…

  23. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    They are just keeping it murky so that it is not as easy to understand that they are 3-5 years away from having a competitor for the original iPad.

  24. Max Says:

    No need to feed the trolls with a reply Harry.

    Personally I’ll be sticking to the traditional interface and do not want that to go away, but I can see the value in a simplified way of performing basic tasks to be used by people for which computing in and of itself is not an interest.

    I just hope that real computers are not simplified/dumbed down towards the level of tablets, as the simplification is both what makes the devices workable yet also ensures they are far less suitable for heavy usage.

    At least if they screw it up too bad, there will always be linux and wine, or just sticking with older versions of windows.

  25. Vincent Says:

    Windows 8 is a dog. Waste of time and money. Desktop users saw NOTHING USEFUL even from time of Vista. W7 gave a few useless "improvements". Now this "toilet tile" OS… who need it?? Both Windows Mobile users? Nope. Desktop users? Nope. NOBODY need it, despite the marketing division tricks. So… hell, don't bother us with that W8! Throw it away.

  26. GuyverXT9 Says:

    "Windows 8 also extremely buggy" That Build of Win8 was purely for preview purposes, and was in no way even near an alpha or beta build, so your point on that is null and void.

  27. Mike Says:

    Well from the comments I read here I guess none of you have really understood what is going on with W8. Even some of you go so far as to say that W8 is going to be a polished up version of W7. Don't you guys read before commenting? W8 has a brand new KERNEL rewritten from the ground up to rid itself of all that legacy code. This version pretty much makes .NET a first class citizen on the windows plateform. The entire reason why W8 can boot as fast as it does is because the boot sequence for windows has been stripped down to the bare necessities.
    Besides, if you really want to know whats going on inside a windows platform, why come to a blog that is pretty much an Apple blog to learn about a new Windows platform?

  28. Alan S Says:

    Well that was a well thought out response Vincent… (sigh)

    The demos at the BUILD conference showed Win8 for was it currently is, that being a DVELEOPER PREVIEW. Most of the opening session spoke about and demoed a lot nice things that we're baked into the OS so developers don't need to write a bunch of code that is non standardised, instead they can use the API's to easliy and seemlessly ingtegrate apps without even knowing how other apps work internally.

    I'm running the Dev.Prev as a dual boot on my desktop and it runs just fine, especially considering that's it's not even at alpha stage yet.

    if you personally "don't need it" that's just fine, but please don't come out with statements that 'Nobody needs it', what nobody needs are narrow minded views of the general population.

  29. Alan S Says:

    why did I say Alpha? I meant BETA ! :)

  30. Alxz Says:

    Vista wasn't buggy, original release was anoying for the end user, Win7 is a tweak of the same OS with more usuability in mind. I'm optimistic with this new OS, at least they are creating interesting options not just copying the same 3d icons from the 90's.

  31. Lars K Says:

    It seems to me that you miss an extremely important point that really deserved your attention.

    In terms of judging Windows 8 as an operating system based on this preview you are entirely right and justified in hedging your comments like you do.

    But by being able to present this preview of Windows 8 and also the preview of the hardware given out in form of the Samsung tablet, Microsoft in a very factual way presents us with a near future, where the tablet and the PC becomes one.

    Did you notice, that the Samsung tablet contained came with a dock – turning it into a PC, just like that? With dual screen, keyboard and mouse. With Visual Studio and all the developer tools? Running on Intel i5?

    I – as a roaming developer – am so looking forward to having 1 machine, instead of today where I have my laptop for my work and my iPad for everything else.

    Windows 8 is in preview, agreed. But I believe that Microsoft with this – functioning – preview takes a giant leap forward and is far, far beyond 'just making an other iPad'

  32. CodeBlitz Says:

    You are as bad as a hedge fund manager. Just hedging your bets. That kind of behavior has cost the US economy almost a trillion dollars in overall value. Enough with the hedging of bets. Unless you are looking to join large hedge fund group as an analyst, I would suggest you invest in an idea. Without solid investment strategies you can not make gains in the market. This is not a metaphor!

  33. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Sooooooo, this (W8) ISN'T based on NT architecture? REALLY? where did MS state that?

    LINK pls.

  34. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Vista was way more bloated than XP and required a LOT more RAM to run. Can't really name any advantages over XP unless you were running 64bit version…

  35. Rick Says:

    +1
    Your screwed if you do and screwed if you don't basically.

    Some people like to look at the glass half empty regardless

  36. wanorris Says:

    I would love to get a device I could use in both modes — something like an Acer Iconia W500 or an Asus Transformer. Have all my stuff with me in a tablet wherever I go, but be able to dock to a keyboard, etc., and load up a full version of everything I need to do real work. This seems like a major win to me.

    The question is whether they can make devices that strike the right balance of power, battery life, size/weight, and price.

  37. The_Heraclitus Says:

    What ARE you babbling on about? He hasn't even seen the RTM version yet.

  38. A B Says:

    "You are as bad as a hedge fund manager. Just hedging your bets. That kind of behavior has cost the US economy almost a trillion dollars in overall value. Enough with the hedging of bets. Unless you are looking to join large hedge fund group as an analyst, I would suggest you invest in an idea. Without solid investment strategies you can not make gains in the market. This is not a metaphor! "

    Wow! You *have* swallowed a lot of financial nonsense phrases!

  39. cart Says:

    Well tried it, didn't like it, not intuitive to me, felt clunky for lack of a better word. Oh and the mouse stutter from win 7 is still there, sadly. I will check back for future releases but so far no joy.

  40. Rick Says:

    some of you folks are just so judgemental, man get a grip, if you dont like dont buy it when it comes out in full version, but how many of you Nay Sayers wish they could run and operate there computer like they do on CSI Miami, lolol, but you get my point, dang people.

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  44. Video maker Says:

    Hasty thoughts on Windows 8 based on cursory use of it aren’t all that useful. And it will be many months until anyone pays for a finished version of this operating system. So I’ve been continuing to use the developer preview and work on a story, but I’m not done yet. And even once I write about the developer preview, I’m going to strenuously avoid forming anything like a final verdict on Windows 8.