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Metro breakdown! Windows 8 UI is little gain for lots of pain

Nice OS, shame about the interface

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Comment The public preview of Windows 8 has won "rave reviews" according to the Daily Mail, the newspaper that claims to reflect Middle England and is proudly conservative in every sense of the word. The Mail, it'll have you know, is a feisty opponent of "change for the sake of it".

So not only do I fear that somebody has spiked the water supply at the Kensington HQ of Associated Newspapers, the Mail’s publisher, I’m puzzled about what it is in Windows 8 that merits a "rave".

For, apart from an outbreak of violent electromagnetic storms that zap our PCs at random, nothing is going to disrupt ordinary users as much as the design changes Microsoft wants to introduce. So detached from reality has Microsoft become, it touts every one of these disruptions as a virtue.

The problem isn't Metro, it's the Maoists

Metro is a user interface designed for smartphones, which I have praised generously, and which looks good and works well on small devices. It may yet mature into something equally attractive and useful on iPad-like tablets. But welded onto a non-touch laptop or desktop PC, it represents a huge negative for the majority of Windows users.

The problem isn’t so much Metro, which by itself represents some good thinking about touch device design. It’s Microsoft’s insistence on inserting Metro between us and what we want to do – and at times Metro is spectacularly inappropriate.

But over at Redmond, the Metro team appears to be completely out of control, like the Red Guard during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They’ve sent the educated to the countryside to dig trenches, and for good measure broken their spectacles. Nobody seems to be able to say no to the Metro Guard, it seems, for fear of punishment. But welding this immature and inappropriate smallscreen UI into the everyday Windows experience is being carried out in a quite totalitarian fashion.

And this is being welcomed not just at the Daily Mail, of all places, but on blogs and fansites. Apparently, according to WinSuperSite the vanguard of the Red Youth will spend most of its time in Metro while the legacy UI will only be relegated for use by "office workers".

Hey! That’s us!

I’ll explain a few of the problems here. This isn’t a comprehensive review - if you want a quick two-page Windows 8 Preview review, Tim Anderson has one for you right here. I’m going to explain the problem. But first, it must be said, it’s a bit of a crying shame.

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The Windows UI today has considerable room for improvement and simplification, and this can be done without causing such huge disruption to a couple of billion users. The Windows 7 don’t-call-it-a-dock Dock helped non-technical users without causing experienced users too much disruption. Many seasoned Windows users appreciate the Jump Lists, for example, and many who don’t like the feature can happily ignore it. It’s not intrusive.

It’s a shame because the underlying Windows 8 code shows considerable improvement. Windows 8 shows the fruit of several quiet years of throwing out the cruft and refactoring vital portions of the software for performance. Windows 8 boots much faster, applications spring to life, and many common operations just feel more responsive and crunchier - on the same hardware. Windows 8 without the Metro UI might even be the best version of Windows that Microsoft has produced.

So logically, Windows 8 could be released like Apple’s Snow Leopard, a minor $20 upgrade boasting no (or hardly any) new features but performance improvements all round. But of course, Microsoft doesn’t work like that. The accounts team want their margins, the marketing bureaucracy requires something to do. And an industry hangs off this. Consultants smell the prospect of fees, while bloggers hope to cash in with how-to books. Disinterested parties are hard to find.

The problem with Metro in Windows 8 is one of policy rather than execution. At the end of the day Metro is like one of those funky widget layers like Dashboard or Yahoo! Widgets or like a lockdown launcher, like At Ease. But the Maoists have dictated that this ephemeral layer must become the new shell.

You can’t avoid it.

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