Windows 8 Experience: The Metro Browser

I have been playing around with this post in my head for about a week now, because it does not really relate to Windows 8 usability in an enterprise desktop environment – it is more of a general usability thing.
The Metro Browser is beginning to annoy me. Not a lot, just a little. It does, however, annoy me equally whether I am using it with a keyboard and mouse or using it via touch.
First on my list is the lack of Flash and Silverlight support. I understand Microsoft’s logic in deciding not to support them. I even agree with it, philosophically speaking (especially where Flash is concerned – I personally consider Flash one of the most vile things on the Web). The problem is not philosophy, it is reality. The reality is that right now, you pretty much need Flash and/or Silverlight to do a lot of things on the Web. As an example, I point out that you could not watch the live streaming of Microsoft’s own Worldwide Partner Conference keynote from the Metro Browser, you have to switch to the desktop browser, or media player.
Second – lack of support for Favourites. The Metro Browser does not support favourites. Yes, if you start typing in the address bar, autocomplete will use favourites from the desktop browser to help identify which you are looking for. There is no way to add sites to favourites from the Metro Browser, however. You can Pin sites from the Metro Browser to the Start Screen, and yes you have the ability to sort of organize them there. For example, the picture below shows how I have organized my links to SharePoint Vendors. This is ok, but hardly replaces the ability to organize a large number of favourites in a logical hierarchy (or an illogical one, if that is what you want!).
Finally, at least for my major annoyances, is the way tabs are managed/presented. While the “no chrome”, full screen browser model is great, I find the mechanics of switching between tabs cumbersome, especially when combined with the app switching mechanics. I constantly find myself switching apps, when I really just wanted to switch to another tab. Another aspect is related to the lack of Favourites support – there is no way I have found to Pin a set of tabs so that you can return to them as a unit, or to set your home page to a number of sites in tabs.

Windows 8 First Impressions: Navigation

I started to write this last Friday, as a summary of my first few days of using Windows 8 as my work computer. Then a couple of things got in my way. Firstly, describing my first few days’ impressions became very messy and long. Secondly, I started coding and did not really stop all weekend (it happens sometimes!)
So I have finally pulled myself away from coding, and have decided to break this post up into several regarding my first impressions of various parts of the Windows 8 experience.
The first thing I want to talk about is navigation within Windows 8. Much has been made of the Windows 8 user experience (UX) because of the mix of Metro and the desktop. The main comments that come up are:
  1. The UX feels schizophrenic and disjointed because of switching back and forth between the Metro environment and the Desktop
  2. It is a touch-optimized UX being forced onto the desktop
  3. No one will be able to live without the start menu
  4. Finding and launching programs is difficult
  5. The full-screen app model is stupid
I am going to look at each of these as I discuss my first impressions. Note that I am not going to discuss whether the average user will want to learn the new metaphor, only whether I find it usable. I am also not going to talk about the UX from a touch perspective, only on my desktop, with a keyboard and a mouse.
Just for reference, here is how I have things set up right now:
Typically I keep the desktop open on my laptop screen, with things like Lync and Outlook visible. The external display is for my active work. Note that for the most part, other than IE, none of the Metro apps are work-related, so I am not launching much from there. I do, however, keep a number of apps running (news, weather, finance, etc.) and switch back and forth periodically just to exercise the model. When I am programming, working on Word documents, etc. I have the Desktop on both displays.
So, does the environment feel disjointed because of the context switch between the Desktop and the Start screen? I will admit, it is weird at first. The context switch is not significantly worse than switching focus from what you are working on to the Start menu in Windows 7. Yes, it is full screen. This means you can see all of your most common apps in one view (especially on a typical modern desktop display). You also have significantly more ability to customize the organization of the Start screen, compared tot eh old Start Menu. No more grouping apps into folders and navigating around, losing context if you are not quite accurate enough and having to start again. My start screen looks like this:
Looks pretty much like every other picture of Windows 8 you have seen, right? What I would like you to note here though is the organization of the applications. Everything I use on a daily basis is right there, organized how I want it. There are well over 20 apps and web sites here, organized according to how I think, and readily accessible. I suspect that there are not too many people who use more than this many apps and web apps on a regular basis. If there are, there is plenty of room to make your start screen extend as far to the right as you want (I am sure there is a limit, but I do not know it and have not run into it).
One of the things that concerned me at first was scrolling horizontally along the Start screen. It works great with touch, but the idea of having to grab the scrollbar at the bottom and drag it seemed terrible. I discovered by accident pretty quickly (by accident, because I never read documentation about user interfaces!) that your mouse wheel will scroll horizontally on the Start screen. In addition, if you have a lot of tiles, you can use what Microsoft calls semantic zoom to see your entire Start screen, zoomed out:
From here, you can reorganize your groups. You can also quickly jump to the group you want by clicking that group. Using Semantic Zoom is easy. Ctrl+Mouse Wheel will zoom in and out (as expected).
There are a couple of things on the Start screen I would like to see work better, to make things feel more integrated:
  • I wish the tiles for Desktop Apps could indicate if they were already running
  • I wish the tiles for Desktop Apps could be at least a little “live” – for example indicating that a desktop app like Lync wants your attention.
  • I wish there were more work-oriented Metro apps available, so I could get a better feel for how things would flow
  • There should be more visual cues to help people learn how to navigate. Maybe a beginner more, which you can turn off, that guides you through some of what I discover by playing.
Other things I would like to see done better to eliminate some of the context switching between Metro and Desktop:
  • True access to the file system from Metro, rather than popping out to Windows Explorer on the Desktop – you made the SkyDrive interface, how hard would it be to make that work for the file system?
  • Same thing for most of the Control Panels. I agree with what some have said – the more it pops out to the Desktop for things, the less “finished” it feels.
So what about the touch UX being forced onto the desktop? Well, I actually find that some of the features work better without touch. On the cheap (or at least old) touch screens I am using, getting some of the UX elements to appear by swiping from the bottom or the side can be challenging. With the mouse, it feels quite natural. How do you bring up the application options at the bottom and top? The exact same way you would bring up a context menu now – right click. Want to get to the System charms? Go to the top or bottom corners on the right. Want to switch to another app? Top left corner shows you the last app you had up – keep clicking there and you will cycle through all running apps (including the desktop – though not the individual desktop apps, unfortunately). Anther feature I like – the Windows button toggles you back and forth between whatever you are running and the Start screen.
I think for a lot of people, the UI will be easier to navigate with a keyboard and mouse, than with touch.
So what about the Start Menu? Is its loss really such a big deal? Emotionally, maybe. But in terms of productivity, who cares?
Working on the desktop, how would you normally get to the Start Menu? Bottom left corner, correct? Or the Windows key on the keyboard. Well, both of those still work, only they bring up a more powerful, better organized start menu, as discussed above.
Want to eliminate some of the popping back and forth to the Start Screen? Well, I don’t know about you, but even in Windows 7 I don’t go to the Start Menu for 99% of the apps I launch. Most get launched because I have selected a file. For those I launch directly, I keep all of the ones I use often pinned to the Task Bar. Well, you have the same option here. Keep them pinned to the Task Bar, and launch them directly from Desktop mode. How hard is that? How different is it from how you work now?
Personally, I do not see the change to the Start Menu paradigm all that important. Again, for the most part, Windows has just conditioned most of us to work a certain way, and it feels scary to learn a new way.
What about finding apps (and other things, like Control Panels) that you do not have pinned to the Start Screen or Desktop task bar? A lot has been said about how hard it is to find these things, and how much the All Apps view sucks. Well, when you first bring up the All Apps screen, it is a little cluttered and intimidating:
Maybe they could find a slightly better way to present all of this, but there is a lot of information to display here. Fortunately, this screen also supports the semantic zoom I described earlier, so if you know what you are looking for, this will speed your search greatly (note the Metro apps alisted alphbetically, and the Desktop apps by their program groups):
What is you don’t know exactly what you are looking for? Well, the Apps app (?) supports the Windows 8 integrated search capabilities. Say you are looking for Network Settings. Searching for “network” will show you your options:
Granted, this is only as useful as the naming of the apps, but it helps!
Finally, what about the full-screen app model? Well, I will not really talk about that here, since I wrote about that yesterday!
Overall, I find the navigation to be smooth and natural with keyboard and mouse. Does that mean it will be so for everyone? Probably not. There is a learning curve involved. Does this mean that Windows 8 has a bad user experience? Not really – it is different, and anytime you change the paradigm, you are going to challenge your users. That is the price of progress.

Windows 8: Will the “normals” use it?

I am enjoying using Windows 8 on my desktop. I find it refreshing, and if you are willing to change some of the habits Windows has conditioned you into, it feels very effective and fluid.

That said, it has been pointed out to me that I am not exactly a “normal user” (actually, I think it was phrased more like “you are not normal”, but I choose to take it kindly!)

So the question is, even if abnormal people like me embrace Windows 8 on the desktop, what about all the “normals”? Lets face it, from the perspective of developers and IT folk, the vast majority of computer users in the enterprise are borderline computer illiterate, especially if anything moves beyond the exact sequence of tasks they are used to performing day after day. Just ask anyone in support about the types of calls they get when the least little thing changes. I have otherwise intelligent friends who had real challenges adapting to the differences between Windows XP and Windows 7.

So despite my pleasure in using Windows 8 for my work, I suspect most people in most organizations would have nervous breakdowns if IT were to give them Windows 8.

What does this mean for Microsoft? Well, not a lot really. I do not think the success of any new version of Windows is pinned upon enterprise adoption. Lets face it, enterprises do not update their Windows versions quickly. As for new computers purchased in the enterprise, what difference does it make to Microsoft if it is Windows 7 or Windows 8? Microsoft still gets their license fee.

In the long run, a lot will depend on Windows 8 adoption outside of the enterprise. If people become used to the OS on their tablets and home PCs, then they will not be so shocked when that same OS appears in the Enterprise. Will the “normals” use it on their own PCs? Well, that remains to be seen.

Metro Split View

The Split View functionality in Metro is one of the features I like.

Much has been made of the Metro UI and the fact that all Metro apps run full screen. I have even read one insightful post whose prime example of why this is wrong is that Notepad would look silly that way. Yes, Notepad, directly ported to Metro, with no thought to user experience, would look silly. If an app is going to be usable as a Metro app, it needs to be designed as a Metro app. Otherwise, leave it on the desktop – that is why the desktop is still there!

I don’t know about you, but I run most of my apps maximized anyway. If I am working on a Word document, I generally have Word maximized. Excel – same thing. Development? I definitely have my dev tool maximized.

The exception to this is when I want to be able to see other content while I am working on, say, a blog post. Then I will generally have two apps visible, one docked left, one docked right.

This is pretty much what Metro Split View gives you. One app is docked left, and one app is docked right. You will note from the picture below that I am writing this post using Metro Split View.

I have been using Split View quite a bit when I am using Metro apps. The main limitation right now is that most of the apps I use for my work (Office, Visual Studio, etc.) are not Metro apps. That said, one of the panes of the split view can be the desktop, so you can have a Metro app on one side, and all of your desktop apps on the other side, as shown below:

All is not quite perfect, however. I have so far run into two annoying things in Split View:

  1. It does not work on my “legacy” tablet (which is only 2 years old!) – someone at Microsoft decided that Split View would be disabled is your horizontal resolution is below some arbitrary number (1366px, I think). Really? 1280 is no close enough to make it usable? Maybe give me an option to override this decision? I understand they are trying to enforce a certain UX here, but please, don’t make decisions for me that lock me out.
  2. Split View only allows one split ratio (as shown above). The separator can be moved from left to right, changing which app has the main focus, but the rations stay the same. It would be very useful if there were a third option, that being a 50-50 split. There are times (like what I am writing in one pane, and researching in the other) that an even split would be more appropriate, especially on an external monitor.

Windows 8: Why all the Hate about Metro?

I have now been using Windows 8 as my primary OS for a couple of days now, including using in in a traditional desktop mode with a keyboard, mouse, and LCD monitor. I will be writing later today about my initial thoughts on Windows 8 as a desktop replacement (spoiler: it is much better than I expected!) Of course, I have also been playing with Windows 8 for about 9 months, and am used to the Metro look from that plus a couple of years of using Windows Phone 7.

I am really curious about the hatred many people have for the Metro interface. There is very little written out there with a mild response – people either think it is really cool, or hate it with a passion (leaning heavily towards the latter). It is not clear to me where this passion comes from. Most of the negative reviews are from people in three categories:

  1. Have seen Windows 8 in pictures and videos, but have never used it
  2. Have played with it for a few minutes on a demo machine somewhere
  3. Have installed it and used it for a few days or more, but not on their main environment.
There are also a few people out there that have used it for a considerable amount of time, but I do not see a lot of opinions posted by them (maybe they are too busy having fun with Metro!)
In addition, most people have seen it running on tablet or other touch devices, because that is where it is being shown off the most. Almost every post or article you find has a stock image attached of a tablet with the Metro UI proudly displayed. Almost everything said about Windows 8 on the desktop is conjecture. Of course, that is why I am writing this blog!
But I am still not clear about where the hatred comes from.
There is the (partially understandable) fear of new things from Microsoft. Lets face it – Microsoft has introduced some questionable things at times (Microsoft Bob? Clippy?). Microsoft also has a history of introducing great new things which are going to be “the future of all computing”, and then abandoning them a couple of years later. This is especially a problem for those of us who develop on the Microsoft platforms.
My initial thought, though, is that it is just because Windows 8, and Metro, are so different superficially from what has come before. Let’s face it, the Windows desktop has not changed all that much since Windows 95 was released. People tend to hate change. The move from DOS to Windows was pretty chaotic. I worked with people who would not let anyone near their computers, for fear someone would install windows. We had one small group where I worked where they had to send the whole group away on a course for week, just so they could steal their old computers running DOS and switch them to Windows 95! I think there is a lot of this “fear of change” behind the hatred of Windows 8.
This does not quite fit, however. Many long time Microsoft users have embraced other technologies, especially iPhones, iPads, and Android phones and tablets. The user interface differences between their Windows computers and these devices is at least as great as the change from Windows 7 to Windows 8, and yet very few people complain about the learning curve involved. In fact, most love learning the new interface and having fun with it. So why not embrace Windows 8 with the same openness and joy of discovery?
I think the key is that it is Windows. When people adopt a completely new device (especially one as well evangelized as the iPhone or iPad), they expect it to be different. They want it to be different, and they enjoy learning to use it. When people use Windows, however, even a new version of Windows, they expect it to be the same experience. They are not mentally prepared for the effort of learning a new paradigm, because in their minds it is still Windows and should work the way Windows always has.
I wonder if there would be the same passion about Windows 8 Metro if it had been released by someone other than Microsoft, and not called Windows? We will never know that, but maybe that is the key to embracing Windows 8 and Metro – forget that it is Windows, and approach it the way you would a completely new platform (that just happens to run all of your Windows software!)

Windows 8: The Upgrade Experience

I am now fully upgraded to Windows 8 on both of my laptops. My Acer was actually upgraded a couple of weeks ago. That experience was pretty trivial, since that laptop is set up for the OS to be “disposable” (i.e. I do not keep anything important on it), so I was able to download the Windows 8 Release Preview, in ISO format, burn it out to a USB drive, and do a fresh install. While the touch screen on the Acer does not meet the Windows 8 specs, everything installed, and all seems to be working properly. This machine was also simpler because I have no need to attach it to the domain at work.
This week’s adventure was upgrading my work laptop (my HP2740P). This laptop is pretty messy, from a software perspective. Given my role, I have a lot of different development tools installed. I also have many third-party libraries, including demoware, open source, beta, pre-beta, etc. I have also never flattened this machine and installed Windows 7 clean to get rid of all the bloatware (just never got around to it). So the opportunities for various things not to upgrade well were many.
Given all that, I made the most logical choice – upgrade and retain all of my files, software, and settings! I started this at about 6 PM Tuesday night. I did not use the ISO download for this, just the basic installer. All of this worked pretty well (or seemed to), but was painfully, painfully slow. The upgrade finished just before midnight. I did not have much time to play with it at that point, but a cursory look seemed fine.
The next morning, things did not look quit so fine. Start up was really slow. There also seemed to be some issues with various things that normally run on start up (like all of the HP tools), but that was not all that surprising. Of greater concern was the fact that some of the metro stuff did not seem to be working quite right – specifically Internet Explorer. I could not seem to find the Metro version anywhere. I did some web searches but found no answer to this. I then started screwing around – uninstalling all sorts of things I did not really want anymore (such as the bloatware, old dev tools, etc.). This only got me into trouble! Many things would not uninstall cleanly. I did not really spend too much time looking for solutions to this, as my real intention all along was to flatten the machine and install cleanly.
So, Wednesday morning was spent making sure that all of my important files were moved of the machine, and getting read for the install. I still did not do a completely clean install, because I did not format the hard drive and install from an ISO. Instead, I still used the installer, and selected the option not to keep anything. This turned out to be a minor mistake, which cost me some time later.
The install again went cleanly, and was faster, but still took 2 or 3 hours. When it was done, everything was as it should be, except that I was, of course, no longer on the work domain. I also had the “windows.old” folder on my hard drive, containing about 35 gb of stuff the installer had kept either from this install or the original upgrade I tried. Deleting this took me quite a bit of time because of some interesting ownership and permissions on the files in this folded, but I eventually got it figured out.
The computer starts up significantly faster now, and runs well (in a couple of days of usage, I don’t think I have gone above 2.5 gb of memory usage, even with a lot of things running).
The next step was adding my laptop back onto the domain. This works exactly the same as in previous versions of windows, and worked smoothly. I then added my domain user identity, and linked my Microsoft ID (formerly Live ID), and everything was hunky dory (I can post details of any of these steps, if anyone is interested – feel free to ask in the comments).
Next, I had to put some virus protection in place. Our corporate antivirus is Microsoft Forefront Endpoint Protection, which installed without incident and is running fine.
Finally, I installed Lync 2010 and Office 2010, all without issue.
All in all, the only real issues I ran into had to do with choosing to upgrade instead of installing cleanly. Starting again, I would definitely lean towards re-formatting the hard drive and installing from an ISO. This is not to say that upgrade is not an option, but my machine was so messy that this was just asking for trouble!
Next time, I will write about my first impressions and experience running Windows 8 on the desktop for my daily work (hint, it is not as bad as you might think!)

My Windows 8 Hardware

I wanted to set the stage by describing the hardware I will use for my Windows 8 experiment (at least to start). Since most people will be looking at whether to upgrade their existing systems to Windows 8, I think it is important to use my existing hardware.

I will be using two laptops for this project, both of them convertible tablets.

The first is a HP2740p, which is a couple of years old. It is running a core i5 processor (obviously not the current generation) at 2.53GHz. Everything else about it is pretty standard, except that I have bumped the memory to 8gb. I use it both in laptop and tablet mode regularly. At home and at work I also use it with external monitors.

My second machine is an Acer Aspire 1420P, which Microsoft gave to attendees of PDC09. It is significantly less powerful, with a Celeron processor and 2 gb of RAM. The touch screen on it has also been a little questionable the last year or so. That said, I have been using it with Windows 8 ever since the Developer Preview was released.

So that is it for hardware. Next time I will talk about my experiences installing the Windows 8 Release Preview on these two computers.

Welcome to The Windows 8 Experience!

Windows 8 is coming!

Unless you have been under a rock, or in a cave, or running Linux, you have probably heard far more about Windows 8 than you really want to. The technology publishers and bloggers are all over it.

So why then am I creating yet another Windows 8 blog?

Most of what is being written is conjecture and opinion. For example Windows 8 Is Vista IIWindows 8 is like a bad blind date, and Final thoughts on Windows 8: A design disaster are pretty negative. Windows 8 Release Preview detailed impressions on the other hand is a little more balanced and a lot less emotional.

Let’s be clear – Windows 8 is very new, and very different from past versions of Windows. It is also significantly different from anything else in the market. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen. It is a gutsy move by Microsoft, and should be respected.

The point of this blog is not, however, to get involved in the “Metro is great” versus “Metro sucks!” debate.

What I intend to do here is to document my experiences in moving to Windows 8 as my primary operating system both at home and at work. While the software is not complete, it seems stable enough to work with. A number of questions are at front of mind for me for this experiment:

  • What is the upgrade experience like from Windows 7?
  • What is Windows 8 like on my existing hardware (face it – not everybody wants to buy a new computer for a new OS)?
  • What is Windows 8 like to use in a corporate environment? What are the challenges working with existing infrastructure?
  • What is it like to use Windows 8 with Metro on a day-to-day basis as my desktop environment?
  • What problems are there, and what workarounds can I find?
Overall, this is just an experiment in immersing myself in Windows 8 and seeing what happens. This is similar to an experiment I did back in 2002 when I got my first Windows XP slate tablet – I got rid of all of my other computers for 6 months, and learned how to live on a tablet. One thing I learned there, and expect to learn here, is that much of what we think is great about our current user experience is not really that great at all – we are just used to it, our computers have trained us in how to behave.
As a slight disclaimer, I am not entirely new to Windows 8. I have been running it on one old convertible tablet since the developer preview was released last fall. But this will be my first attempt at using Windows 8 for everything I do.
I will be following up shortly with posts describing the hardware I am using, and with some notes on the upgrade experience.
Wish me luck!