Windows 8's Unexpected Features (Part 3)

9/10/2012 3:54:43 AM

Two Internet Explorers for the price of one

Microsoft has been losing ground in the browser market for some time, because most people prefer Firefox or Chrome when given a choice. It appears Microsoft's strategy for turning this decline around is to make two versions of Internet Explorer, therefore statistically doubling the chance someone might use it.

But that's only part of this story, because it's actually another of Microsoft's masterplans to deny its competitors access to all the advantages of being the operating system developer.

To this end, there is the conventional version of Internet Explorer, which works pretty much like the existing one and can be launched from the desktop and the another version that's exclusively operated under the Metro interface. What's odd about the Metro version of IE is that it won't allow plug-ins, other than those that Microsoft has bolted into the standard system (as yet, the details of these are unknown). On the Intel versions of Windows 8, if it encounters a web page with a plug-in while in Metro mode, you can then bounce into the desktop version of IE (or another browser, one hopes). However, the ARM Windows 8 IE version can't take plug-ins either, making that option entirely pointless. Other browsers can be loaded as desktop applications on the x86 Windows 8, but only IE can be the Metro browser, according to numerous sources.

That's just the start of the fun with IE and Windows 8, though. Let's imagine you get an email and you open a web page that your friend sent you a link to. You open it in the Metro version of IE, but you then decide you'd like the desktop version of IE, because you'd like to compare the picture with another one on another web page. You can't do this in Metro IE, because all web pages in it are full screen. You open desktop IE, but where is your page? It's nowhere to be seen, because there is no connection between the two instances; it's like they're different applications with no common access. In this respect, you'd soon be put off opening the Metro version, but I'm sure Microsoft will insist you do on a regular basis, just for the hell of it.

I can see that the two versions of IE will soon be easy to identify, with users talking about the one that sort of works to some degree and the other that rarely does anything useful.

The restrictions on the Metro IE might also generate a lawsuit for restrictive practices from those who make other browsers, yet again.

No DVD support

It was like Christmas had come early at Cybermedia (which makes PowerDVD) when Microsoft very subtly added a statement about Windows Media player to an explanation about why the Media Center would now be a cost item. It said, "Windows Media Player will continue to be available in all [Windows 8] editions, but without DVD playback support."

That's odd, because Windows 7 in all versions from Home Premium upwards can play a DVD and so could Vista. Interestingly, support does come if you buy Media Center, which provides some impetus for people to buy it, if they use their PC to play DVD movies.

Microsoft's explanation of why it did this is a sad story where it's forced to pay the licence holder of MPEG-2 millions of dollars, which it would rather keep. That's a curious story, because if Windows is supplied on a PC, then the vendor of the computer gets to pay the $2 it costs for the licence and not Microsoft.

This probably isn't a major deal for most PC owners, as they most likely have a dedicated DVD player or a games console that plays movies. However, those who do rely on their PC to do this job will have to fork out extra to get it.

Double SkyDrive

If you haven't used it (and you're not alone if you haven't), Microsoft has its own cloud storage facility called SkyDrive. You can access that now, and you get 7GB of space for just turning up and more if you pay for it.

Description: SkyDrive allows you to access your cloud-based files inside Metro, but you'll need more software if you want to do the same thing in desktop mode.

SkyDrive allows you to access your cloud-based files inside Metro, but you'll need more software if you want to do the same thing in desktop mode.

In Windows 8, SkyDrive is directly built into the OS, or to be more accurate, it's accessible from Metro, and therefore is available in Metro apps as a possible location for files to be saved or retrieved. However (and this is where Windows 8 gets slightly bipolar), if you want to use SkyDrive from the desktop environment and sync files on the PC with those in the cloud, then you'll need to download and install the SkyDrive application, as per Windows 7. The choice not to allow sync on the Metro version of SkyDrive seems to be motivated by the concern that a Surface pad user might download 7GB of data from his cloud service over a 3G mobile phone connection, and thus need a mortgage to pay his monthly bill. That seems to make sense, although it's another one of those situations where the Metro and Desktop modes of Windows 8 don't contribute anything useful to each other.

End of the start

It looks like this is going to be the most contentious aspect of Windows 8: the disappearance of the Start button. Most people who saw the first preview wondered if Microsoft would soften its stance on making Metro the only interface for Windows 8. If anything, while listening hard to its customers, it's become entirely deaf to requests to make the Start button an option for those who don't have a touch display and see icons that are 500% bigger than the ones we've been used to since Windows first appeared.

Because Microsoft seems determined to push Metro forward as the only Windows interface, a substantial queue of third-party utilities is forming already with the intention of either providing something that looks like the Start button or, as was possible in the first Windows 8 preview, actually disables Metro and reinstates the Aero interface as per Windows 7.

Unfortunately, according to some well-placed sources, Microsoft is furiously tearing out anything that would allow the Start button to come back, much in the style of Cortez burning his ships to motivate his crew in the Americas. It's a bold move and one that could easily backfire quite horribly.

It would be an interesting historical irony of our time if Windows 8 was successful, but only after people replace the Metro interface that its creator loves so much.

I've stated my personal opinion that on a desktop system Metro is a horrible experience with a mouse, and from the feedback I've had, I'm not the only one who has this opinion.

If you want Windows 8, wave a fond farewell to the Start button, because Microsoft wants to see the back of It forever, or at least until It brings it back in Windows 9.

Built-in Facebook and Twitter

Not being famous for following modern trends, Microsoft appears to have understood the social networking world these days and has built a Facebook and Twitter app directly into the Metro interface. Actually, the application is called 'People' and also fuses the Microsoft Live account information into a single point of contact. As the title suggests, it's also a contact management database and a front end for you to see what's happening in your personal corner of the interweb.

What's nice about this approach is that it considers what happens when people get bored with Twitter and Facebook and move on to something new, as they inevitably will. With this single messaging tool, new modules can be added to support new social networking locations when they become successful. Those who hate Metro will be able to install the usual tools using the desktop mode or a browser outside that interface.

The new People application in Windows 8 Metro seamlessly connects Twitter, Facebook and your personal contact database into a single app.

It’s nearly here

One slightly scary thing about Windows 8 is that it isn't late, as its arrival is predicted to be almost exactly three years after Windows 7, exactly when Microsoft said it would land. At the point of going to press, Microsoft is saying that Windows 8 will be released, along with Windows Server 2012, to manufacturing the first week of August, with the intention being to ship the x86 desktop versions in late October, just in time for Christmas sales.

Microsoft learned a number of important lessons with Vista, and one of those was to keep its target dates, which it's adhering to with Windows 8. This will only be a problem if, in an attempt to keep that date, it's forced to leave an important feature unfinished, or it introduces a major bug at the last minute.

Final thoughts

What's worth remembering is that traditionally Microsoft has almost always held something special back in the form of a 'big launch surprise', so there are things in Windows 8 that probably haven't appeared in any of the previews so far. However, that's also a double-edged sword, because as I recall with Windows 95, the early code had some very nice features that Microsoft decided to remove from the final product for whatever reason. Indeed, every version of Windows so far has had a selection of announced features that never actually made it to release (WinFS anyone?), and quite a few that never make it at all and are quietly forgotten.

What might surprise some people are the things that Microsoft, in its wisdom, decides to leave out, because strategically it's been a while since this software giant and the buying public have been on exactly the same wavelength.

I predict the real surprise of Windows 8 is probably something that Microsoft thinks is 'ground-breaking' and everyone else gazes at in wonderment. Equally, though, it could be something wonderful, but which Microsoft hasn't realised the potential of.

I've heard many people describing Windows 8 as 'bold', 'daring', 'a gamble' and 'revolutionary', but none of those things actually translate into 'successful'.

Of course, uncertainty is part and parcel of any new Windows launch, along with CEO Steve Ballmer using the full force of his admittedly timid personality to promote 'the best Windows yet'.

Personally, I can't wait.

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