Microsoft Windows 8 Pre-Beta: Review


The pre-beta of Windows 8 shows off a new UI and design features but otherwise looks familiar

If I’ve learned nothing else from spending a few days with the Windows Developer Preview, it’s that Microsoft is taking few chances on there ever being another Vista. Although the first impression one receives of this taster release of Windows 8 is a dramatically different user experience compared with even today’s Windows 7, in many ways, it feels like a natural evolution of the platform.

Architecturally speaking, the Windows Developer Preview is in fact version 6.2 of the Windows operating system, as the OS itself can confirm when one opens what I’ll always call a DOS box (although “command prompt” is now the politically correct term). Microsoft’s own materials make it pretty clear that the next version of Windows is an evolution of Windows 7, with the most drastic changes planned for its use outside the platform’s bread-and-butter role in the office.

Microsoft plays to its strengths

There’s no question that, at long last, the days of ever-expanding minimum hardware requirements have come to an end with this release cycle. The minimum specifications for the preview – 1GHz processor speed, 1GB of RAM for 32-bit systems and 2GB for 64-bit installations – are right in the sweet spot of today’s tablet market.

Speaking of which, it’s interesting to compare the way Microsoft is approaching the tablet market with Windows 8 with the methods of Apple. Although Microsoft championed the tablet PC concept when Apple was still obsessing over MP3 players, it’s now obvious that Microsoft was far ahead of the hardware, if not the actual market.

Apple, having forked its desktop OS for the mobile space, began to bring mobile behaviors to the desktop with the release of OS X Lion earlier this year. Nevertheless, for now there is a very clear line between applications for Macs and apps for mobile devices. In contrast, Microsoft is taking its experience with the desktop OS and pasting a mobile-friendly front end onto the OS.

That may well be a winning strategy for Microsoft, because it plays off its strengths on the desktop. Although the company squandered an entire decade on the slow-motion train wreck that was Windows Mobile, it retains a commanding position with business users. The question is whether a tablet version of Windows 8 will be able to make much headway against Apple’s lead in the application race. But if a developer community exists that can challenge the iOS ecosystem, it would be Microsoft’s.

The only problem I see with the approach that Microsoft is taking to adapt its OS to the mobile, touch-driven world is most users won’t benefit from it. Instead your average corporate user will be working with the same crumb-infested keyboard and mouse that they’ve used since the last coffee incident. For this class of user, there’s still an interface gap between the Start screen and the Windows desktop, one that has to be eliminated before the OS can be ready for beta test.

Certainly, the Start screen and its use of the Metro design language – or scheme, if one prefers – is a welcome departure from the Windows interface that we’ve known for the last several years. Although little tweaks to the fundamentals such as ribbons, 3D shading and transparency have been added to the UI over the years, the differences between Windows 95 and Windows 7 are negligible compared to what the user first sees when booting a system with Windows Developer Preview.

If the Start screen can be made to present classic Windows applications as well as it shows off Metro apps, it will be worth the user confusion. For now, it’s more of a novelty, and, in fact, rather impractical, as the absence of the Start Menu left me rummaging through folders to find my bread-and-butter tools such as Office.

Installing and testing

Installing the Windows Developer Preview was relatively headache-free. I set up virtualised instances on a couple of MacBook Pros running VMware Fusion 4, treating them as if they were Windows 7 setups on single, virtual CPUs with 2GB of RAM. For the bare-metal experience, I used an HP Z600 workstation with dual Intel Xeon processors and 24GB of RAM and an HP Compaq 6000 small form-factor desktop with an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 8GB of RAM. I found that in cases when the preview lacked specific driver support for certain hardware features of my test systems, the appropriate Windows 7 driver would fill in well enough.

At this pre-beta stage, it wasn’t surprising that my efforts at installing and using shipping applications were only somewhat successful; the Office 2010 suite, for example, installed without incident but left me to manually create desktop icons. On the other hand, I couldn’t install a current-generation Autodesk application in regular mode. The installer tools terminated without making noticeable changes to the system or prompting me to try the preview’s compatibility mode features, which allow applications to run as if they were installed on Windows XP with Service Pack 3, Vista with SP2 or Windows 7. (Even running the Autodesk install tool as an XP application didn’t solve matters, and at press time, I was still scratching my head.)

My colleagues have reported similar results when using compatibility mode, and although we agree that resorting to Hyper-V virtualisation – which will be available in the Windows 8 client as well as the server – will be another possible solution to the problem of legacy applications, that one comes with its own complexities. This preview version of the next Windows doesn’t support upgrade installations. Surely that will be rectified in the shipping product.

The big problem Microsoft has to solve between now and the beginning of the beta cycle for the next Windows is the eternal quandary of the installed base. Windows XP is still a mainstay of the corporate desktop for a least a few more years – Microsoft has promised to continue supporting it until April 2014 – but the company has to do more than improve boot times and slicken up the APIs to make Windows 8 a hit. It needs to convince developers, as well as users, that being late to the game doesn’t mean it’s out of the running.

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