You aren’t ready for Windows 8. It’s coming anyway, a slow-moving freight train of massive change and dread, an enormous update that will sow turmoil in the lives of millions of people around the world. This may surprise you. Like indoor plumbing and antibiotics, Windows long ago became a boring, ubiquitous technology that a lot of people—especially folks in Silicon Valley—take for granted. But when it rolls around to every new PC later this year, the new Windows will make you sit up and notice. In time, there’s a lot about Windows 8 that you’ll grow to love. But, as with any tech redesign, your first impression will inspire head-pounding frustration. Some of your complaints about the new OS will be unfounded, the function of a knee-jerk emotional response that you’ll later reconsider. But a few of your annoyances will be right on target.
I’ve been using Windows 8, on and off, for about three months. In February and March, just after Microsoft released its “consumer preview” of the software, I used the OS on a tablet computer that the company loaned me. Microsoft has optimized Windows for touchscreen devices, and while I had some problems with it, I wrote that the OS could make for the “first worthy rival” to Apple’s iPad. But I worried then about how Windows would work on traditional PCs. Last Thursday, Microsoft launched the release preview for Windows 8—the final prototype version of the software before it goes on sale later this year. I’ve been using it for a week on a Samsung laptop that Microsoft loaned me, and now I’m even more worried about how non-touch machines will deal with the new Windows. In my time with Windows 8, I’ve felt almost totally at sea—confused, paralyzed, angry, and ultimately resigned to the pain of having to alter the way I do most of my work.
Microsoft has good reason to change Windows so radically—the company considers the enormous popularity of the iPad a major threat to its business, and the new Windows is the company’s effort to get out in front of the tablet wave. Yet Windows 8 fails to guide users through the enormous changes that it dumps upon them. Many of the things one takes for granted in PCs—the Start menu, the file manager, running apps in Windows side-by-side—have been radically redesigned in the new OS. Doing some of the most basic computing tasks will require a re-education.
For a comprehensive look at the changes and their impact, I urge you to read “Fear and Loathing and Windows 8,” a magisterial 7,400-word blog post by the tech entrepreneur Michael Mace. But if you’re short on time, let me describe one of several Windows 8 scenarios that had me going nuts. The other day I was trying to shut down a bill-paying system that I have with one bank so I could replace it with a new system at another bank. In order to do so, I needed to copy the information about each of my bills from the old bank to the new bank—which meant that I needed to get information from two different Web pages.
On Windows 7 or the Mac, I’d have done this by opening two Web pages in two adjacent windows. But in Metro, Windows 8’s primary interface, that’s not possible, because all apps take up the full screen. I could only have one bank site on the screen at a time, and I had to constantly switch between them. (It is possible to have multiple windows in Windows 8’s “desktop” app, which is basically a way to mimic Windows 7 on the new OS. Microsoft, though, clearly expects the new interface to become the dominant way to use Windows, so I’ve tried to spend most of my time using it.)
The constant switching was annoying enough. But the effort it took to switch was even more trouble. If you’re using a touch-enabled computer, going from one open Web page to another requires swiping from the top of the screen to bring up icons of your open tabs, then tapping on the tab you want—a swipe and a tap, which feels like too much for a simple data entry task. But it’s even worse with a trackpad. To bring up the list of open tabs in Windows 8’s browser, you’ve got to hit the trackpad with two fingers, and then you have to switch back to one finger to choose the tab you want. This sounds easy, but if you’ve got to do it a half dozen times in a minute, the choreography becomes wearying. Things were especially difficult when I tried to mix selecting and copying text into the tab-switching routine. Then, for some reason, my fingers would frequently bring up the tab-switcher instead of selecting text or vice versa. The whole thing was such a mess that I eventually gave up and decided to switch my accounts using my Windows 7 desktop.
Microsoft is clearly anticipating some pushback to Windows 8. Last month, Jensen Harris, the director of product management for the Windows user experience team, wrote a lengthy blog post in which he documented all the ways that Windows has changed over the last 27 years—and how people always hated these changes until they got around to loving them. “One of the things I was trying to get across is that it’s OK for people to have strong opinions about change,” Harris told me last week. “Anytime you change a user interface, there’s a visceral feeling—it really gets you going.” But he added that in all of Microsoft’s testing, the company has found that people can get over those initial feelings. “People adapt to change,” Harris said.
We’ll see. As I wrote in February, there’s a lot to love about Windows 8, especially on touch devices. In particular, its Start page, which replaces tiny icons with “live tiles” that display information from each of your programs, speeds up a lot of tasks. (You don’t have to click the Weather app to see the weather—it’s right there on your machine’s front page.) Microsoft’s decision to require modern Windows apps to go through a centralized store—rather than having them available for download from anywhere online—should also make for much safer computing. But I wonder if Microsoft knows that masses of Windows users are going to revolt against this new interface. If Microsoft wants to preserve and extend its OS hegemony, it’s going to have to hold their hands through the changes, perhaps with more on-screen prompting and a large media campaign. But even that may not be enough. People adapt to change—except when they don’t.