Windows 8.1 – Loaded, aimed, fired …. miss!

Posted on October 19, 2013

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Having been running Windows 8.1 RTM (‘Release to Market’ version) since it was available to partners over a month ago on both a multi-screen 27inch desktop rig and Windows Surface Pro. I guess I have been holding my breath hoping that the public release would somehow address the underwhelming enhancements and reverse a feeling that Windows 8.1 is a missed opportunity. An opportunity to leverage what Windows 8 failed to, the traction, familiarity and continued demand of Windows as a desktop platform. For smaller form factor Touch centric devices such as the Microsoft Surface Pro is a great example of a device ideally lending itself to operating the Modern UI (User Interface), but for the poor selection of apps, however in my 27inch multi-monitor environment or similar it is a miss match of experiences where there is a need to multitask and make use of applications that are neither available in the Modern UI or likely to ever be practical in that interface style.

The let down in the evolution that is Windows 8.1 was compounded in its delivery model and what it has done to SkyDrive. Having deployed Windows 8.1 across one Small businesses (as well as my own family), since release, the new online download deployment model can be summed up as half-baked.

Instead of mitigating the reality of the broadband divide, that not all users and business enjoy a high speed connection, and engineering out negative perception potential Microsoft is courting critique. ‘Broadband divide widens: rural areas lag further behind cities’ .This download only model of deployment is not new, the Office365 Office ProPlus is likewise a download only. Albeit less in size, but still represents a significant impact on bandwidth. Why Microsoft do not offer an MSI or Executable option for such large packages I cannot fathom. It would at least support the lower bandwidth majority. I hate to think what regions such as Africa and other countries I have worked in will be doing where bandwidth is chargeable and in some cases throttled by the Gigabyte. A download of 4GB’s will equate to a month’s usage limit in some countries and in others equate to more than a packaged product purchase.

For anyone or organisation that does not have access to Volume License Downloads, being relegated to relegated to having to have each individual PC/device download the install individually. For a small business of say 15 users on Standard Business broadband that is the equivalent of imposing a bandwidth tax on such businesses and home users as they have to work with a 4GB download. Furthermore the time to conduct such downloads out with business hours leaves the whole process open to conflicts as we have experienced with other automated installs that suspend the Windows 8.1 process further protracting deployment. It is surprising that the Windows 8.1 process is not intelligent enough to avoid such conflicts by auto starting its own routine amongst other logical solutions.

As for Skydrive, a core asset in the modern Microsoft ecosystem in the face of third party tools such as DropBox, iCloud and Box.net, the Windows 8 desktop and Modern UI versions have been mashed into one. Unfortunately the result lacks the elegance of what it should be, a maturing and improvement on both the former iterations. Instead it is a step backwards, albeit a gesture forwards in the one saving grace that it now saves just one copy of the offline files instead of duplicates as it does using the Windows 8 versions. Unfortunately it has gone backwards in terms of features fundamental to any online storage application. The user feedback in terms of what is and is not offline, and real-time insight into what has and has not been uploaded or downloaded. The Windows 8.1 SkyDrive fails to provide either of these basic feedback requirements in a reliable and convenient way. For example how can my files contained in nested folders be market ‘available offline’, yet the folders they are contained within marked ‘available online only’! This and a list of other issues has been shared with the product team which they have had the decency to acknowledge as issues, as for resolution……

Oh yes and Windows RT 8.1 , as if Windows RT has not had enough birth pangs, users getting a faulty upgrade to download that ‘bricks’ (crashes without any recovery option) their devises. Microsoft having to suspend the Windows RT update, ‘Microsoft pulls Windows 8.1 RT update after it breaks devices’ leaving no ready solution other than to somehow get hold of Windows RT media to create a boot USB from. And just how does the average consumer get hold of Windows RT install media? Something well beyond the capacity of most end users for this consumer focused platform, and once again pointing to a gaping hole in the download only delivery model and strategic thinking!

Don’t get me wrong. Windows 8 /8.1 (not RT) is an AWSOME Desktop platform, and its tablet potential is currently being let down by a poor selection of Windows 8 apps, the good watered down woefully by too many poor quality apps, and the poor desktop harmony (their ability to operate in desktop windowed mode as well as Modern UI) of these Windows 8 apps makes it doubly frustrating as users see the real-estate of their expensive large monitors squandered with ill-suited application design user interfaces. When I refer to windowed mode I do not mean the shared ‘snap to screen’ Modern UI take on multi-tasking, I mean an ability to run a Modern App in a free floating window that allow users to better utilise large screen areas. Something the Modern App development environment does not cater for, we can but hope.

For now the Windows 8 Modern UI remains ill-suited to workstation environments and enterprise desktop user adoption. Reflected in reality where we continue to see roll-out of Windows 7 over Windows 8 unless an organisation has an explicit Tablet strategy, then we still see Windows 7 at the desktop and windows 8 for the tablets.

The return of the ‘Start’ button does little to address the desktops relegation to what is clearly Microsoft single focus and insistence on forcing the Modern UI / Tablet interface onto every user’s interaction with the OS. Irrespective of whether the user requires that style of interface, which for many large and multi-screen desktop users it is inappropriate and inefficient. Having attempted with the release of 8.1 to adopt the new model of navigation I have had to return to a proper ‘Start menu’ and desktop orientation. Windows 8 can be adapted to support desktop centric user familiarity and focus as I wrote back in 2012. See my Windows 8 Desktop Prioritisation Guide’ , and still is current sadly. This as I say is not for the want of trying, having reached a point of ‘flash screen fatigue’ from being bounced into the Modern UI and back to the desktop as I do my program launch selection and search.

Just to highlight how distracted Microsoft are by their Modern UI (User Interface) it was also smeared onto their Server products. What a touch interface is doing on a server product I still cannot fathom. Apart from frustrating systems administrators trying o call up these ‘charm’ bars in remote console windows using pseudo hand gestures with a mouse, all it has succeeded in doing is created requirement for remote desktop and administrative tool vendors to update their software to add ‘charms bar’ quick navigation buttons to their menus. It is reminiscent of the ‘Ctrl + Alt + Del’ requirements of older Microsoft OS products, which has for many years been questioned for its practicality. Bill Gates himself coming out this year with the confession ‘Ctrl+Alt+Del was an error, admits Bill Gates. This is demonstrative of how long such aberrations in design can fester at the expense of logical efficiency and practicality. How long will this persist for Windows Server and the desktop!

For now Windows 8.1 remains a bipolar OS. Neither tablet nor Desktop, ill equipping individuals and businesses with the in-built switches to conveniently orientate to either. It is targeting two distinct audiences, a single arrow trying to hit two targets, result is the inevitable miss!

The worrying trend is that outside of the consumer space, Windows 7 has been voiced in terms of the next XP unless Windows 8.2 (or v9) whatever it is going to be recognises that desktop computing is here to stay for generations of users to come.

What Microsoft need to do, amongst many others things, I am sure is:

  1. Get users on to Windows 8 and that means allowing the Modern UI to be relegated to a backstage view where necessary ie: for desktop users. The important thing being to get it onto workstations, over time the Modern UI will get traction, and the platform for developing Windows 8 apps will mature to be more inclusive of the desktop environment. Only by being inclusive will this journey be accelerated.
  2. Provide a means of rendering Modern UI apps in traditional free floating windows for desktop users. In so doing further bridge the gap between the two worlds of desktop and tablet/touch.

As long as Windows 7 is still being deployed over Windows 8, and Modern apps lack desktop harmony, this will delay commitment in the business to Modern Windows 8 style app development and a persistence of the same desktop environment reducing exposure and the potential of the new paradigm that Windows 8 and latterly Windows 8.1 aspires to but is failing to pull off in its current guise. That having been said I have no doubt, as they have proven with their abundance of tenacity in the past, Microsoft will get there.

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