Windows 8’s bigger, broader problem

In my regular Tech Files column today, I reviewed Windows 8, focusing almost exclusively on its new interface.

In my column, I explain some of the particular reasons why, as a user of a traditional PC,  I “hate” the interface, which was formerly called “Metro.” But there’s a broader reason that I don’t discuss in the column for disliking the new interface: Metro in Windows 8 is ignorant of its context and unsympathetic to the needs or desires of its users.

Let me explain. Microsoft originally developed Metro to work with full-screen touchscreen devices, specifically smartphones. As such, it was designed to be touched, swiped and pinched with fingers directly on a screen. As a touch-centric interface, it has a lot of potential for use on tablet computers that might compete with Apple’s iPad.

But most traditional PCs today are not touch-screen devices. Instead, we still navigate them with keyboards and mice. And even with those relatively few computers that do have touchscreens, the touchscreen is a secondary interface for most users; the primary way users interact with such computers is with keyboards and touchpads.

We already have an interface that was designed to be used with keyboards and pointing devices: the good, old reliable desktop that has been at the heart of Windows for the last 30 years.

Yes, Windows 8 (but not Windows RT) has a desktop interface. But it’s not the primary one. At boot up, everyone has to go to the Metro start page. If users want to see all their applications, they have to go back to the Metro start page. Instead of a start button, you get an icon that takes you back to the Metro start page. And Metro is clearly where Microsoft wants all users to live in the future.

Unfortunately for PC users, Microsoft didn’t design Windows 8 to recognize the context in which it is being used. It would be great if users saw Metro when they used a true touch-first device, like a tablet. It would also be great if traditional PC users only saw the desktop interface.

It would also be great if Windows 8 recognized devices that could switch between those two modes and would switch its interface accordingly.  So, if you have your hybrid PC set up like a laptop, you get Windows desktop. If you fold back or detach the screen so the device is acting more like a tablet, you see Metro.

But that’s not how Windows 8 works. Instead, it shoves Metro at you regardless of whether Metro is appropriate for the device you are using or how you are using it.

Worse, Windows 8 completely ignores users’ preferences. Many current PC users would likely prefer to just work in desktop mode and ignore Metro completely. All their existing applications are desktop applications, and traditional productivity applications are much more suited to a desktop environment.

But Microsoft won’t allow it. There’s no way for the average user running the stock version of Windows 8 to turn off Metro. In fact, the company has reportedly gone so far as to try to thwart efforts to hack Windows 8 so that it will go straight to the desktop interface. Not that people have stopped trying.

So from my perspective, that’s the bigger, broader problem with Metro: Windows 8 ignores what device you are running it on and doesn’t care how you prefer to interact with it. With Windows 8, you’ve got to take Metro, even if it isn’t where you want to go or the best way to get where you’re going.


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  • Mike

    This article is incorrect. There is a clickable option within Windows 8 that will allow you to switch between the Metro interface and a more traditional setup. As Windows 8 has not been fully released yet, this information may not be fully widespread as of late. But the point is the option does exist and that it allows users to interact with Windows 8 as they choose. Just like with Aero and Vista (yes, the dreaded OS).

  • James

    I’ve been using Windows 8 since the developer preview and it is very intuitive and user friendly. People need to give it a chance instead of “crying” foul because the antiquated desktop is on the way out. If you don’t like Windows 8 then stick with 7. You’ll still be able to order pcs with Windows 7 installed from all the major manufactures. My three year old daughter can easily work Windows 8 on my HP Pavilion Laptop. If she can use it with ease I say Microsoft did something right.

    • Alex_D

      James, no offense, but the best O.S. for a 3 year old girl is not necessary the best O.S. for serious computer users.

  • Windows has ignored the development towards innovation, when it wants to compete against Appel, not only should focus on developing its operating system rather they should focus on addressing the needs of users, and I can ride in an OS friendly bracelets ben 10 style that allows users to enjoy a ipad be attached to his alt form that meets the needs transparante doing daily communication technology and better serve parsonal as leader of his working section 7/24 in marketing your company or business.

  • James

    I’ve been using Windows 8 since the consumer preview and it is very intuitive and user friendly. People need to give it a chance instead of “crying” foul because the antiquated desktop is on the way out. If you don’t like Windows 8 then stick with 7. You’ll still be able to order pcs with Windows 7 installed from all the major manufactures. My three year old daughter can easily work Windows 8 on my HP Pavilion Laptop. If she can use it with ease I say Microsoft did something right.

    • GTW

      I’ll keep this in mind the next time I need a platform for three year olds.

  • Vincent Brown

    My sentiments exactly only better written and more thorough . As a user of Windows 8 Beta on my laptop I don’t like Windows 8 as you wrote I have no need to use a touchscreen on my laptop , or desktop and will buy and I Pad not particularly for touch , but will no doubt use it sometimes like in presentations .

    Windows 7 is great and follows years of learned windows knowledge only to have Windows 8 try and change what aint broken . I find it a pain to find my applications and it fails to find some of thing when it should .

    Looks like Microsoft has bombed out again . If they don’t quickly monitor the market acceptance of 8 and I don’t mean the forced acceptance of it being installed on new machines they may have non techies like me running to Apple in droves never to return .

    • Mark

      ‘windows’ key, then type the name of software, just like 7. I was forced to do it this way after they dropped the QuickLaunch toolbar in 7. The start button has always been a pain in my side, I’m glad to see it go. Who wants to click, to click, to click, to click…. oh there it is. I can run my most commonly used software within 3-4 key strokes. I find that much faster than mouse play on infinately layered start folders. If you’re looking for ‘computer’ or ‘control panel’ shortcuts, ‘windows’ key + ‘e’ for ‘computer’. In the ‘computer’ window, look for a heart shaped symbol, called ‘the ribbon’, near the upper right. Click on it, and awesome workflow shortcuts appear.
      – 8 rocks

  • Joel

    Can you say “UBUNTU”?

    • Mark

      uh, no. I speak English.

    • Alex_D

      Joel, imagine if Canonical were able to spend $1.5 Billion promoting Ubuntu!

  • Irene

    Typical “this is new, I don’t like it” comment. I think it’s cool that Monitor manufacturers will now be incorporating touch screen tech to their products. Just like in the movies. If it takes Microsoft to do that, then “Congratulations”! Why are we content with the way things are? Are we that old and jaded with no desire for excitement of using something “new”? Well, you can stay or switch to LINUX or OSX….. your choice.

  • Liono

    I seriously think you’ve not actually used Win8.

    actually boot up and start using it instead of youtubing windows 8 reviews…

  • will

    shut the h3ll up, there isn’t a problem with the UI.. Retard.

  • Well said by you….

  • Ed

    I’ve been using it for about 3 months on an old laptop. I was hesitant at first, but I can get to any item faster am with fewer clicks now. Windows key and windows key-D… I stopped usingy production laptop after a couple weeks as it was slower running a recently installed XP. No problems with software compatibility yet. I admit I don’t use the metro apps much, but the ui is pretty good after moving the things I regularly use on there.

  • Will

    That’s the whole point..MS what’s ppl to get used to the “metro” UI. It is the future.

  • Apple innovates by making changes that people want and embrace. Microsoft “innovates” by cramming radical changes down their customers’ throats. This policy will not change until the delusional, arrogant Steve Ballmer is no longer making decisions for Microsoft.

    • Tim

      apple rarely innovates. It takes preexisting ideas and markets them as if they innovated thus making people think they innovated.
      Though you might dislike the windows 8 UI, it is actually innovation. Microsoft through it new OS has broadened the form factors windows is able to run on.
      What has apple done? Take the smartphone done the consumer route (I thank apple for that). Build a larger version of that phone called an ipad. Put retina display. Oh and SIRI. Except for the higher resolution screen’s none of these were truly innovative in my view. One more thing apple does make changes and often people don’t want, but they also shove down the throats of there consumers, the difference is apple(talking about OSX) has a smaller user base.
      People always hate change.
      I will admit their are some oddities in the windows 8 UI. I hope they fix them, but overall the experience has been pretty good. No disruptions in workflow, still able to do what i did on 7 and in many occasion faster than 7. Now ill have a familiar operating system on my tablet (acer w510), desktop (built).
      Long live pc+

  • Eric

    I have been a PC guy for a long time, I am planning on installing Windows 8 on my current touchscreen Lenovo, but tomorrow I am getting an iPad mini.

    • Mark

      If the iPad had a USB jack, I think, you could install 8RT. Hmmm… others have cited inovation by Apple? So why haven’t they figured out how to put a USB jack on their phone, I mean iPad?

  • Philip Madrigal

    It seems that you have not truly reviewed W8. There are several ways to customize it to suit your needs, like if you prefer the traditional desktop over the metro. The new OS is supposed to have common applications over various devices, like the phone, pc, and the tablet. I have been using it only for a week, for both office and personal stuff, and I find it great. We just need to learn it.

  • Ryan

    Wow, another Apple lover. Reason I say this, is because most people that complain about the Start Menu not being available are Apple fans.

    Now for Windows 8, this OS was design to be used in the mobile area, I beleive Microsoft isn’t setting its goals on saling this to PC/Labtop users, that what Windows 7 is for.

    Is Windows 8 perfect, no. But Microsoft like most of its OS’s, the first one is okay, but the follow up OS is a lot better. Also, Troy Wolverton you said that metro isn’t a name that Microsoft is using. What you repeatly used that word in your article?

    Another Thing, the upgrade to Windows 8 from Wins XP, Vista or 7 is about 40 dollars and the full release is about 130, no way near the cost of Windows 7…Small price for a new OS!

    • Alex_D

      $40 for Windows 8.
      Don’t you think Microsoft must be really worried when they sell their new O.S. at bargain bin prices already?

  • Dada

    Absolutely true Troy. MS decided to save a few dollars by making an OS that will work across platforms and then decided that everyone must use what their big shots thought was cool. All they had to do was to make an evolutionary successor to their windows lineup and they ended up making a revolutionary successor, a revolution their most loyal fan base is not willing to follow. Why? Just to win a few smartphone and tablet customers (of course we all know they will lose to iOS and android)? Shame on you MS. Rename your OS “Windows Sh8”

  • Fyasco

    Speaking as a tech professional myself, I can state with certainty that I may have used the start menu one or two times a day if that at all. Most of the average users probably don’t even use the start menu at all. More often than not there is a little desktop icon that we click to get to that program, and guess what, that icon will also show up in the “Metro” version of the Start menu.
    Need to access features such as Command Prompt or PowerShell? Then there is a key combination for that. Miss your desktop? Open it once on boot up (It’s one click if that) and then utilize another keyboard shortcut that I’m sure you are familiar with (alt-tab) to get back to it. Other than a space to clutter up with folders, icons, and a nice background image of the family, the start menu and desktop serve little purpose.
    Change is hard, but I’m sure with time you will learn to adjust.

  • Alvin

    To the author: well said. An additional non-trivial observation I want to offer is that a light, small touchscreen held in the lap or elsewhere close to the body is workable since the upper arm for the most part remains in a position of relative rest. By contrast a much larger, near vertical touchscreen situated 16 or so inches away that is accessed by repeatedly lifting the upper arm in order to enable you to reach forward past the keyboard I suspect will quickly prove physically impractical at home and certainly in the workplace. What’s next an ergonomic armrest for users with 22 inch touchscreens to reduce chronic shoulder fatigue?

  • Yrojan

    This dumb author should be named Troll Wolverton.

  • Chris Higgins

    “Windows 8 ignores what device you are running it on and doesn’t care how you prefer to interact with it. With Windows 8, you’ve got to take Metro, even if it isn’t where you want to go or the best way to get where you’re going.”

    I’ve always felt that the windows UI philosophy has been one of ‘do it our way, or not at all’

    I have tried over the years (lots and lots of years) to use Windows as my desktop / laptop environment, and with every release I’ve switched to it for a couple of weeks – and I always come back to the Unix model.

    I think the reason is that the Unix and Mac user interfaces are friendlier than the Windows UI. I mean that as a power user – not from a non-technical user – “oh my goodness – it beeped, I broke it” – view. Those users just want to learn a sequence of things, and often don’t end up understanding what they are doing.

    Fundamentally I believe that Windows is just rude, and the rudeness permeates the entire UI structure. When I’m in the middle of talking to an application, and windows wants my attention – it rudely interrupts. Stealing my focus, and dropping my key presses into somewhere I didn’t want them to go, popping up a modal dialog box – demanding my attention..
    Specific example : Internet explorer will make the location bar available for typing while it is finishing loading, but then overwrite anything you have typed as it gets to finish loading. Why make the location bar available for typing, and then ignore what I typed.

    It’s like a spoiled child – throwing a tantrum unless I interact with it on its terms. Windows never treats me like I’m in charge of the computer.

    It cannot keep a desktop tidy – and I don’t mean those Icons on the root window – that’s just a messy user. I mean the inability to remember the state and location of all the windows in a stack of windows.

    It’s impossible to do virtual desktops – no matter what magic you do. Too many applications just get badly confused ( bring a laptop and external screen into the mix, and it’s useless ).

    Focus follows mouse – a fantastically logical thing – is impossible to do – again because the original windows modal model is still alive in there, trying to control – trying to live.

    So – I think the disjoint nature of the classic vs metro UI is par for the course when interacting with the windows experience. It has always frustrated me, and there is no indication that Microsoft ‘get it’… so I can’t see it changing. Ever.

    Goodness – they still expect a server class machine to have a VGA port.. in this day and age… It’s downright hilarious.

  • auto user

    Lets keep it simple. how much did Apple pay you to write this Crappy article. Honestly , its a shame that, biased articles like this are called technology articles or review of windows 8. If there is an automatic way , articles like these are tagged as Trolls , when we open the page, it will save readers a lot of time

  • PG

    The FUD for Windows 8 continues with this author. I was not surprised to read that the author was writing articles for apple as well as worked with CNet in the past. Apple Fanboy i am sure.

    Windows 8 is real innovation and a revolution indeed as the very near future will be completely touch enabled even on the desktop and windows will be there first and perfectly fine before others play catch up, the fruit company included.
    Windows 8 is the beginning of the more advanced user interfaces that will follow so this is the right time we start to learn this exciting new OS called windows 8.

  • Tim

    I agree with this statement “ignorant of its context and unsympathetic to the needs or desires of its users” BUT only due to the nature of the applications that one can access from each interface.

    The navigation between the 2 interfaces is no issue. I have been using it for a week now, and prefer the start screen to the start menu.

    What I have a problem with is the isolation of application between the two interfaces. For example, I installed Skype as a Metro app. Then, while using the desktop view, I did not receive notifications from Skype. Obviously this was an issue.

    So the premise of this article, for me at least, is incorrect as it focuses on the navigation. Rather, I think that the issue is the separation of user information between the interfaces. Meaning that the UI preference remains the choice of the user, while the information they require is merely presented based on that choice.