Charge of the Metro brigade: Did Microsoft execs plan to take a hit?

Touchy-feely annoyance a plot to keep Windows relevant


Analysis "Tiles to the right of them, Tiles to left of them, Tiles in front of them"
  - Alfred Tennyson, The Charge of the Metro Brigade (1854)

It's fair to say that the typical reaction of pundits and analysts to Windows 8 is quite different to yours or mine. Our misgivings are shared, I have discovered, by many Microsoft employees.

In a nutshell, Microsoft is changing Windows 8. In addition to many welcome and uncontroversial improvements, it is adding a widget layer for touch users. This is fine, in itself. The problem is the way it's done. The widget layer drastically interferes with the daily workflow of a user and his or her Windows applications. Familiar parts of Windows have been stripped out or hidden, replaced with non-functional equivalents, or not replaced at all. The replacement for the Start Menu (for example) ejects you into this immature and non-functional fullscreen widget layer. And then, because it can't do very much, in the next moment, you're back again. This goes on all day – until you turn the computer off.

It's a rather an elaborate kind of torture.

So why isn't this a major story? Well, you must remember that almost all the analysts and journalists you have read enthusing over Windows 8 have been shown the Consumer Preview running on tablets, or on an overhead projector, in a carefully-choreographed demonstration environment. My experience differs slightly. I installed it one evening on my regular Windows machine, and the next day set about attempting to do a full day's El Reg work, just as if I were on a Mac or PC. (My main machine is a Mac, but I use a Thinkpad for writing longer pieces, and I have it set up so everything works seamlessly regardless of which machine I'm on. This is a "production environment", not a "demonstration environment".)

The Windows 8 problem is really quite simple. The "benefits" will be seen by nobody, but the disadvantages will be felt by almost everybody. Every user who must access the machine primarily (or exclusively) with a keyboard and mouse will register a net inconvenience. And that isn't going to change in a hurry.

In 10 years' time, perhaps, a much larger proportion of the market will be touchscreen tablets, and – perhaps sooner than that – the Metro desktop may have matured a bit. Metro might even have a full set of Common Dialog Boxes by then – who knows? But even then it won't be as productive for many of us as Windows 7 is today. We want computers to get out of the way. Those other 50 per cent will still be using the traditional rich GUI desktop to get anything done.

Here's how one reader expressed it:

The Metro interface without touch is painful and annoying. Like you, I'd love to see the clan in Redmond figure out that if a touch screen is detected at time of install, the Metro interface is default, whereas if no touch interface is present, it would give you the choice of interface/desktop to use. It's not rocket science, really. I also agreed that the gains made in Win 8 speed and responsiveness were great. Like you said, we just need to put a bag on the Metro team and get them to realise that the majority of Windows users will still be deploying to desktop/laptop devices that are not touch-enabled.

But Microsoft sources tell me that it's non-negotiable. They also shed light on the strange, twisty logic that is impelling Microsoft to its fate.

Next page: The Metro logic

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