Specifically, I'm talking about Windows 8. I've weighed in a few times on why I'm not sold on a one-size-fits-all OS that prioritizes tablets and other mobile devices over the traditional PC in the user interface. I've had my doubts about the business value of a touchscreen on laptops and desktops -- enough so that my editor referred to me on Twitter as "our touch skeptic."
I recently spent a couple of weeks using Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon, a touchscreen ultrabook running Windows 8 Pro. Although it was primarily for review purposes, the session provided a timely opportunity to retest some of my early responses to Windows 8.
[ Two weeks with a high-end Windows 8 ultrabook revealed plenty of pros and cons. Read more at Lenovo Windows 8 Ultrabook: My First 14 Days. ]
As an ultrabook, the X1 Carbon is a close cousin of the "old-fashioned" laptop -- no "tent mode," detachable keyboard, or other explicitly touch-centric features. I went in with an open, even enthusiastic, mind. The touchscreen PC experience grew on me while immersed in it for an extended time period. Nonetheless, I found many of my prior thoughts were underscored rather than undermined.
1. Touch on PC Is a Bonus, Not a Requirement.
As I said, I enjoyed the touch experience on the X1 Carbon. It's new, it's novel. The app model currently favors personal over business use by a wide margin, but there's promise in the live tiles concept and in the Windows Store. From a design standpoint, certain apps like Twitter and SkyDrive look great in Windows 8, and make logical sense for the streaming data idea behind the UI.
Here's the thing: I can do my job without it. There could certainly be other roles and tasks where touch becomes table stakes for PC users, but those users are probably already using tablets. For the deskbound crowd -- and there are a lot of us -- it's more nice-to-have than must-have, at least for now. I only "touched" a Word doc because I could; doing so didn't make it easier or more productive. Ditto Excel. Even Web browsing, a potential boon for touch PCs, was underwhelming. On my phone, touch-based browsing is a necessity; not so on the laptop.
One reason why that distinction matters: While prices seem likely to come down over time, business-grade touch hardware is expensive. Microsoft's Surface Pro starts at $900, well north of the iPad. (The two aren't an apple-to-apple comparison, yet many tablet buyers will certainly stack the two side by side.) The X1 Carbon starts at $1,349; plenty of the other, newer Windows 8 hardware hitting the market likewise retails well north of $1,000, a high price tag in the traditionally budget-friendly PC market. Why pay the premium if it's not adding productivity?
2. I Would Not Install Windows 8 on a Non-Touch Device.
I don't doubt there are specific use cases -- likely in IT positions -- where installing Windows 8 on non-touch hardware makes sense. InformationWeek readers have regularly pointed out some of the under-the-hood improvements that have nothing to do with touch, for example. But for most people, I think Windows 8 on a non-touch device is a nonstarter. Can you use the Modern UI with a touchpad or mouse? Sure. Should you? I just didn't enjoy it -- the live tiles experience was designed for touch, not for touchpads, and needs the hardware to match. Otherwise, Windows 7 should meet the needs of most workers just fine for the foreseeable future.
3. Windows 8.1 Must Include the Option to Boot to Desktop.
Sometimes divisive tech topics -- Windows 8 certainly qualifies, to the point that Microsoft is blogging about the public discourse -- turn out to be a lot of hubbub for no substantive reason. Take the polarized reaction to Microsoft making desktop mode the second-class citizen in Windows 8. Without a third-party app, you've got no choice but to boot to the touch-oriented Start screen. (You know the script: "Gaaaaaaaaah, where's the start button!" "Stop complaining, noob! Get over it!") Either side might seem like an overreaction.
Yet this hubbub had a very real cause -- subordinating the Start button and overall desktop UI that millions of people are comfortable with. My X1 Carbon came with Start8 installed for demo purposes; this is a paid app that enables you to bypass the Start screen at startup in favor of the traditional desktop. It made a world of difference, even if some of that was psychological. I lived in desktop mode and switched to the Start screen and my live tiles when I wanted to, not vice versa. It better suited my usage -- lots of documents, some spreadsheets, plenty of content creation and other forms of data entry, email, and so forth. It also better matched my hardware -- not some slow, XP-era desktop, but a modern, high-end laptop built for business.
It shouldn't require a non-Microsoft app to make this happen. Windows 8.1 needs to include a system setting that allows users -- not investors, partners or competitors -- to decide which best suits their needs. I'll be floored if this doesn't happen. I'd even take it a step further: the default setting on touchscreen PCs should be desktop mode. The default on tablets or hybrids that feature a keyboard but are more tablet than PC, like Microsoft's Surface Pro, should be the Modern UI.
4. Don't Kid Yourself: Joe and Jane User Will Need Training.
At the moment, it doesn't appear that IT has grand plans for widespread Windows 8 deployments. But if Windows 8.1 or other factors change that, you'd better get your training programs ready. It's no media-driven myth; Start mode does take time to get used to. That time has a real dollar value when you're talking about employees on the clock versus consumers tinkering at home.
A couple of quick examples: It's not particularly intuitive to swipe -- or pull, really -- the Search, Settings and other options from the right side of the screen, or the All Apps option from bottom -- or top -- of the screen. On the X1 Carbon, at least, even using the keyboard's Windows key to return to desktop mode isn't especially elegant. (There's a back-and-forth hitch when exiting Start mode.) These are the kinds of things that drive some users -- you know the type -- to send a rash of panicked tickets to the help desk, or at least to grumble about it at the water cooler.
Can users figure it out? Sure, but it's going to take time and, in some cases, plenty of hand-holding. Prepare accordingly.
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