Windows 8 six months in: Thoughts from a power(less) user

Crave's Eric Mack has felt at home in Windows for decades. Now that his home has a fresh coat of paint, he's still not sure if it's an improvement.

What happened to the old neighborhood? Microsoft

It's been half a year now since Windows 8 officially hit. For those first three months, I coveted it from afar. I was in Ecuador checking out plans to build a Latin American Silicon Valley , and I felt squeamish about upgrading without access to all the backups, support, and even the reliable postal service we take for granted in North America, should something go wrong.

That turned out to be a smart decision.

Upon my return, I kept one of my New Year's resolutions and dove headfirst into what I hoped would be a quantum leap forward in productivity and general operating system awesomeness. I upgraded my Windows 7 Dell laptop and shortly thereafter ordered a Surface Pro .

It turned out to be quite handy having the Surface Pro after the Windows 8 update crippled some key functions of my Dell laptop. Interestingly, numerous Google products barely function on my Dell machine running Windows 8. To be fair, some Dell drivers, and Google's insistence on building Flash into Chrome and other products like Google+ Hangouts, seem to be at the root of the problem, but the problems still speak to the strained relationships between Microsoft and its OEMs and competitors and the stunning overall lack of support for Windows 8, especially when compared with past Windows launches. More on that further down.

That was my somewhat painful introduction to Windows 8. Three months later, and even after getting started with my Surface Pro, I'm still too stubborn to roll back my Dell machine to Windows 7, even though some problems still persist. I'll explain why in my six reflections on the first six months since Windows 8 officially dropped.

See, the thing is that:

1. I love the concept of Windows 8. Many months ago I wrote about how I'd love to be able to make my Nexus 7 my primary device. I know plenty of you feel the same way about your iPads as well. Of course, Android tablets and the iPad don't quite have the same level of flexibility and productivity power that Windows addicts like me have become accustomed to.

Windows 8 touch systems, in particular the Surface Pro seem, on the er... surface, to bridge the gap between our increasingly mobile, touch-screen-centered existence and the persistent need to maintain the levels of productivity we've come to expect from legacy Windows (or OSX or Linux) systems.

Android and iOS have come to be really good at what they do well, even exceeding the capability of Windows for certain things like sharing and app interoperability. So for the first hour of using my Surface Pro I was psyched. It seemed that everything I loved about Android (the place where I live for most things to do with my social, day-to-day, on-the-go life) and Windows (where I get work done) had been baked into this slick little slate. Unfortunately, I quickly came to another realization:

2. Windows is a continent, not an ecosystem. I mean, of course there is such a thing as a Windows ecosystem, but over the decades it has grown to such an extent that it barely resembles the picturesque walled garden of a place like iOS where all things interact in a sort of harmony. It's more like a huge continent that various platforms are trying to colonize.

Every time I boot up my Surface Pro, it's like watching this ongoing battle of colonial powers all fighting for my attention. Will I choose to support an expedition that begins via the lush lands of the new Windows 8 Start screen? Or will I play it safe and devote my time to the established and more secure stronghold of the legacy desktop? Perhaps I'll go totally gonzo and explore via the app-rich lands of Bluestacks ? Maybe stay close to the ship and do as much as I can on the Web via Chrome? Ah, but which mode of Chrome do I need -- desktop mode or Win8? Internet Explorer seems to take well to this strange new environment for once.

The result is a kind of crippling chaos that most often forces me to retreat into the familiar security of a browser window or the legacy desktop for most tasks. But speaking of explorers...

A continent unto itself? Microsoft

3. Where are the devs? So the common wisdom is that iOS is where the money is for app developers; I get that. But principles of supply and demand should still be in effect in this universe. Fact is that while demand for Windows 8 has been soft, I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon, given the enormous market share that legacy Windows versions enjoy.

The undersupply of Windows 8 apps is simply staggering. Sure, designing Windows Phone apps didn't become the cash cow Microsoft might have hoped, but Redmond is clearly all in on competing with the Google Play and iTunes stores.

Maybe I should stop beating around the bush and just come right out and beg developers to start coding for Windows 8, and Microsoft to give them the tools and incentives to make it worth their while. Please help us, folks. It's a virtual desert in the Microsoft store.

Speaking of the seeming lack of brain power on the Windows 8 development side of things:

4. Where did everything go? Yes, I couldn't forget all the complaints we've already heard about Windows 8. They can mostly be boiled down to "Why did you guys feel a need to hide practically everything?" Apparently we can't have a Start button and a Start screen. And for some reason it takes 18 clicks and reciting a brief dance routine to restart your system.

But the real problem here seems to be Microsoft's attempt to do the impossible: stuff a brand new user experience on top of an old one, add a new form of user interaction (touch), and then integrate them and make them as intuitive and easy to use as possible. If it's too complicated for me to figure out, my neighbor buying his first system to use with his small business is totally screwed. But that said:

5. The integration of touch in Windows 8 is actually a win, it's just not done.

During rare occasions when I can get things done via the Start screen and apps designed especially for Windows 8 like Skype and Evernote, it can be a delightful experience. It's a hint of that potential I mentioned earlier in the successful merging of a mobile OS with legacy Windows.

Unfortunately, those moments have been few and far between the past few months. Even worse, most touch-based Windows 8 apps seem to be crippled in strange and inexplicable ways, or maybe some functions are just hidden too deep within the "Charms" bar for mere mortals to locate. Either way, there is work that remains to be done, and I'm hopeful that many of these fixes will be granted from upon high in the Pacific Northwest in a future update, which is why:

6. I'm not giving up. Maybe it's not quite right that the continent of my attention is what Microsoft and others are trying to colonize with new ecosystems. Maybe it's far beyond that. Maybe I'm just another of the conquered and Windows is my conqueror. Redmond landed on the shores of my brain decades ago and planted its flag with an MS-DOS command prompt. Then they wowed me with Windows 3.x and the majesty of Windows 95.

Since then I've been courted by other colonial powers, but I was conditioned at a young age to the ways of Windows and -- no matter how it came to be this way -- it still feels like home. Now my home has just received a fresh coat of paint. And even if the painters did a shoddy job and painted over all the switches and outlets and left a mess on the hardwood floor, I'm willing to wait for them to come clean things up and get my home looking better than ever.

 

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