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.
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…