Windows 8: The Schizophrenic OS from Microsoft

“...scared spitless...”

That’s what I thought Ihnatko said. The audio was bad that day, so maybe I didn’t get the the exact wording. My main point, though, is that this is the thought that popped into my head when I started playing with the May Preview release of Windows 8, “Metro.” I’m now confident that this is what’s happened to Microsoft. There’s an acute saliva shortage up in Redmond.


They were the fat cats for so many years. Bill Gates retired after having achieved his life’s ambition, to put a Microsoft computer on (nearly) every desktop. Imagine his horror to wake up a few years later only to discover that most of the world’s computing is being done by people away from their desks!

For years it appeared that the computer market was nearly saturated and only small incremental progress was possible. The revolution took place so swiftly that many have not had the chance to get their arms around it. Today:

  • The iOS wing of Apple now makes more money than all of Microsoft.
  • Apple makes more money than Microsoft and Google combined.

It’s as though Apple kicked away a rock and found a vast new market where no one ever thought to look. Apple had finally figured out how to undercut laptops on price. In the process, they also figured out how earn more revenue from low-cost computers than from any other source.

It’s worth reflecting on how it began. It began by understanding the problem deeply.
The challenge was that they needed to find a design that is:

...far better at doing some key tasks...

or they wouldn’t even build anything. Apple really did have the answer to the question that Steve posed.

It turned out that the mistake other vendors made was to design to a price point rather than to address an unmet need. As Steve said:

...the problem is, netbooks aren’t better at anything. They’re slow, they have low-quality displays, and run clunky old PC Software...

That’s why Microsoft is spooked. Their near-monopoly was transformed to a quaint old-fashioned industry in one simple phrase: Post-PC.

The Windows 8 Preview

I looked at the first preview release a few months ago, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. So I put it away.

What really helped was a great critique by Michael Mace, which came out a day or two before the second preview release was posted. It is by far the most useful and helpful piece on Windows 8 that I’ve seen. It is nearly Siracusian in length but lacks his distinctive touches. Like an authentic Siracusian tome, the complete text should be read. It forms a great framework for further discussion.

Unfortunately, his central thesis is misleading at best. I want to comment on this and offer a different perspective to think about. Here’s his theme:

The most important message I want you to understand is this: Windows 8 is not Windows. Although Microsoft calls it Windows, and a lot of Windows code may still be present under the hood, Windows 8 is a completely new operating system in every way that matters to users. It looks different, it works differently, and it forces you to re-learn much of what you know today about computers.

No, that’s not it. It’s more complex than that.

As a matter of fact, Window 8 is Windows. It is in at least two critical ways:

  • It is on the “Windows” branch of the Microsoft evolutionary tree. It is the direct descendent of XP, Vista, and Windows 7. Everyone knows that. If you buy a PC after Windows 8 ships, you’re getting Windows 8. And if you somehow want to upgrade a Windows 7 box, you’re getting Windows 8. In that important sense, it absolutely is Windows. Microsoft is not dropping Windows!
  • Windows 7 is in there anyway — but in a flawed and incomplete way. Of course, there’s this very new and unfamiliar beast front of it. It’s called “Metro” and it is obviously their new tablet OS. Metro is the UI that is featured in Windows 8. It is not a “skin.” “Metro” is what you see when you log in, but it’s nothing short of their new API for both tablets and desktops/laptops. When you start up your new Windows 8 PC, you’ll see Metro. But, If you brush it aside, you reveal something that looks like Windows 7.

Instead of telling the world that Windows 8 isn’t Windows. I’d change the message to read:

  • It is Windows.
  • It isn’t Windows.

There’s a word for this: schizophrenia.

Windows 8 has two personalities! Unfortunately, this not a subtle thing. This is full-blown, raging, in-your-face The Three Faces of Eve schizophrenia — minus one face. Let’s call it The Two Faces of Ballmer.

The Two Faces of Ballmer

No, I’m not kidding. Schizophrenia is a great metaphor for helping us get our arms around Windows 8. The basic idea of multiple personalities runs much deeper than I thought before I started playing with the Windows 8 Preview.

Multiple personalities is an especially dramatic form of schizophrenia, so it naturally lends itself to movies! With the success of Eve, another multiple personality story made its way to television. It’s simpler, so it illustrates my point better. I want to show you an excerpt.

In Perry Mason’s The Case of the Deadly Double, Perry gradually figures out that there was an eyewitness, but the witness suffers from multiple personalities. Normally, the identity of “Helen Reed” is out. She is a reserved and frightened married woman, highly allergic to fur. Dormant within her body is the personality of “Joyce Martel”, an unmarried party girl. She comes out at night!

“Helen” has no knowledge of the fact of the murder, let alone the identity of the killer. Joyce Martel is the witness!

Perry calls the character “Helen Reed” to the stand, but he needs to hear from “Joyce” instead. Just watch:

Does that give you a flavor of what we are up against? Both ”Metro” and “Windows 7” reside in the entity known as “Windows 8.” They are as disconnected from one another as “Helen Reed” and “Joyce Martel”.

This applies to both the product and the companies behind each personality. It’s a metaphor for the turmoil that’s going on at Microsoft. Mace calls it a “quiet panic.”

To me, it feels like Microsoft is in a quiet panic. When Apple says the era of the PC has ended, I think Microsoft may believe it even more than Apple does. Smartphones eat away at messaging, tablets compete for browsing and game-playing, and who knows what will come next. In the new device markets, Microsoft is an also-ran. I think Microsoft feels it must find a way to leverage its waning strength in PCs to make itself relevant in mobile.

Let’s talk about the product first. Here’s how the two faces of Ballmer shake out.

  • If you want a full-screen UI that runs one application at a time, then bring out “Metro”. It’s designed for a tablet but is also the default interface when Windows 8 runs on a desktop or laptop.
  • If you want the familiar multiple overlapping window UI that runs Windows productivity apps, then brush Metro aside and bring out its “Windows 7” personality. It closely resembles the Windows 7 UI but is incomplete. In the Preview, it is called the Desktop.

The Metro and Desktop Faces

When “Metro” is out, Windows 8 has the personality of a tablet. Even if the device that you are using is actually a desktop computer with a large monitor, Metro lives inside the limitations of a low-powered device. There are no windows, only full-screen mode, no menus, and no file browser. The new fashion statement of Metro removes Aero in favor of very simple colored blocks and a lot of white space. Guess what, the new fashion would run faster than the Aero style.

However, a lot of new gestures are required to operate it successfully. The gestures are not easily discoverable but once they are learned, they are easy enough to remember.

When “Metro” comes out, you see this:

Windows 8 Metro start screen

Desktop is the compatibility environment. When Desktop is out, you see this:

Windows 8 Desktop interface

To hear Microsoft tell it, the Two Faces of Ballmer are additive: Windows 8 customers get the best of both worlds. It’s no-compromise.

Of course, the huge compromise is that schizophrenia is not an acceptable long-term adjustment to life.

The Thinking Behind Windows 8

Rather than jumping into the technical details of Windows 8, its instructive to stop and consider where it fits into the new market and Microsoft’s own history..

They certainly didn’t try to answer the question that Steve posed. I repeat:

...far better at doing some key tasks...

Instead, They’ve decided to ship an OS that is the union of the traditional Windows and tablet feature sets. Thus, it’s left up to the customer who has to decide what he/she wants. That’s the compromise.

Instead of focusing on a few objectives, they decided to release an OS that that is as diffuse as possible.

“Desktop” is supposed to serve the needs of their established customer base, while “Metro” is their interpretation of the new tablet market.

Here’s a clip from that Windows “Build” conference in which they introduced the thinking behind Metro. This is their head of the “user experience” effort.

Hey, wait a minute! Sure, the initial little demo apps that were developed in-house for the initial preview are little baby apps — apps that serve only to give us a flavor of what Metro-style apps will be like. But this is Microsoft! The heart of their business is business! — mainstream productivity apps running on Windows PCs.

How will the little demo apps scale into full-fledged business productivity apps? They didn’t even hint at the answer here. His most direct comment was:

...that’s not the way Metro-style apps work.

What?? Unbelievably, he’s dismissed the feature set of Photoshop in the name of “chrome.”

To “Metro”, that is just “chrome” but to Adobe and to Photoshop users, that’s exactly what differentiates the real Photoshop from the low-cost competition. Following that reasoning, Photoshop no longer has a place in the PC market; everyone might as well get Pixelmator It’s $14.99 in the App store. That’s all! $14.99 for Photoshop minus all that now-unnecessary Chrome.

Stated directly, “Metro” throws Microsoft’s own business customers under the bus. The customer base that Bill Gates built up from paper tape doesn’t matter any more: “Metro” represents a schizophrenic break with the past.

It’s as though Microsoft no longer has any institutional memory of those years of working with their enterprise customers. The “Metro” personality is free to blow off the power-users’ toolset in the name of distracting and unnecessary “Chrome.” Whew!

Office 15

If you don’t believe me, check out what’s happening to Microsoft Office. If my interpretation were wrong, then the new Metro Office should clear it up. If anything, Office should be the “poster boy” for how a Metro business app. Office is the most important business productivity office in the world.

As of this writing, there is no public beta of the new version of Office for Metro (Office 15); it is in a private beta. But a few reporters have copies and they’ve published screen shots and descriptions.
The Verge
published a brief article:

We already know that Office 15 will feature some Metro elements, but will remain a Desktop application instead of the new Windows 8 Metro style apps.

Paul Thurrott also published his impressions.

This application shows a decidedly friendlier face than does its predecessor, in a full screen experience that indeed mimics some Metro-style design.

Yep, the new version of their flagship productivity application runs inside Desktop!


This is unprecedented and really scary. In Windows 8, the Desktop is not merely the compatibility environment. It isn’t only for the legacy apps. Instead, Microsoft is actually introducing the new version of their flagship productivity suite for Desktop!! This is unprecedented.

As Thurrott noted, they use the euphemism of “Metro-style” for new Desktop apps that mimic the fashion cues from Metro. Geez. And this is the new API for Windows.

When I realized this, I thought it led to an extremely cynical prediction. However, a bit of research revealed that good ole Paul Thurrott was already there:’s become increasingly clear to me that Microsoft doesn’t actually expect businesses to upgrade to this new system in any meaningful way. I believe that the software giant is taking a pass on businesses for this release, a calculated risk that enables it to more firmly focus on the consumer market that’s on the cusp of slipping through its fingers thanks to Apple and, to a much lesser extent, Android.

Two unrelated circumstances drove me to this conclusion.

The first is business adoption of Windows 7. While Microsoft has ever-lengthened its support lifecycles to accommodate the slow-moving business market, its business customers have responded in kind by not upgrading to newer versions of Windows in record numbers. But compared with Windows Vista, business adoption of Windows 7 has been excellent, and Microsoft now claims that up to 40 percent of all enterprise desktops are now running this OS version. Of course, that figure also suggests that up to 60 percent of all enterprise desktops are now running something else, that something else being Windows XP. I suspect that Windows 7 will simply be the next XP for businesses, the Windows version that’s still being broadly deployed throughout Windows 8’s lifecycle and, perhaps, even Windows 9’s.

What about Metro?

So, what is the future according to Microsoft? I can illustrate what’s happening with a simple scenario.

Let’s Update Windows!

Suppose Thurrott is right and businesses live in Desktop all day. As an exercise, let’s see how a routine operation like updating Windows is like. Everyone knows this scenario. Click Windows Update in the Control Panels window...

Desktop looks like Windows 7, except the Start button is missing. With it, the way to display the Control Panel window is also hidden.

I remember that I can display some Metro icons, known as “Charms”, inside Desktop. You can do this by hovering the pointer or touching the screen at the top or bottom right corners. The “Charms” are shown on a different layer, in front of the Desktop.

[That’s supposed to be better than pressing Start; don’t ask me why.]

To update Windows from Desktop:

  • Move the pointer to the bottom-right corner to display the list of “Charms” on top of the Desktop layer.
  • Windows 8 Charms

    In the Preview release, the column of Charms is on top of my icons from Desktop. Perhaps this is only a Preview bug.

  • Click the Settings Charm. This is the bottom “Charm” (the gears).
  • The list of settings appears (Note that you now have a Metro layer on top of the Desktop).

    Metro layer on top of Windows 8 Desktop

  • Tap Control Panel.
  • You are whisked back to Desktop (!). The standard Control Panels window appears.

    Windows 8 Control Panel

    Notice that the layer of “Charms” is also gone.

  • Now that you have the familiar Control Panels window, you can click Windows Update.
  • Windows 8 choosing update

    The familiar Windows Update dialog appears.

    Windows 8 update screen

  • Make your selections, as usual.

Ugh!! Do you see what I mean by “unfinished”? The Windows 8 Desktop has most of the components of Windows 7, but this simple workflow is interrupted by this little side trip over to Metro and back. In this context, Metro serves only as an inconvenient launcher. It is needed in the workflow only because “Desktop” is deliberately incomplete.

What is the point?? Mace and Thurrott both speculate that Microsoft is trying to force their installed base to try out Metro. But why even bother when Microsoft doesn’t even have a suite of productivity apps that runs under Metro: Microsoft’s concept of a tablet OS doesn’t leave room for sophisticated productivity apps.

And that’s only part of the problem...

The other part is that Microsoft (that is, the Metro personality in Microsoft) fundamentally misunderstood the decisive advantages of the iPad UI. The concept that they should have gotten is that common operations in a winning tablet are so obvious that the technology itself becomes invisible. It’s the technology that becomes invisible, not the controls!

One wrong turn that they took is to hide essential controls in corners and edges. Another is that they emphasized gestures for their own sake.

For example, here’s what is hidden in corners:

  • From the Desktop, you can summon the Metro Start screen from the bottom-left hot spot. It’s damn close to where the Start button used to be!
  • Trying to select Start

    Would it have killed them to leave the Start button where it was and just changed the action? Why in the world is it better to hide the hot spot and force this context change???

  • The top and bottom right corners display this column of Charms on top of Desktop. The Charms you get depend on context. Once again, a layer of Metro controls is overlaid on top of Desktop.
  • The edges also summon other stuff, but you get the idea.

The result is that they’ve emphasized gestures even on desktop computers at the expense of clicking objects and using shortcuts. Desktops and laptops already have keyboards!! The decisive advantage that the iPad has is that it is a one-piece slab of glass that can actually function as an information appliance. It order to accomplish this, the designers needed to supplement typing with some gestures.

On a laptop or desktop, there’s no reason to pretend that gestures are still needed or that consumers somehow love them for their own sake. The mouse and keyboard are already right there!!

Instead, a more suitable interpretation is that users favor gestures only when it is direct and intuitive. Some great examples are the drag to unlock and pinch to zoom. Metro has gone crazy with gestures prefer them even on desktop computers.

I’ve got another clip that demos what I mean. This is so old that most have seen it but it bears repeating. This might be the sigle most perceptive review of the iPad I’ve ever seen. The reviewer somehow got his paws on a very early shipping unit and his first encounter with the iPad was recorded. With just a short demo, he understood how it operates right away.

This reviewer treated the images on the screen as if they were real objects. That’s when gestures work and it’s one reason why the iPad took off like a rocket.

Microsoft has inadvertently created a Bizarro tablet because hidden controls are arbitrary and the entire environment can change wildly from one world to another. Sure, the new gestures can be learned but to what end?

Think about how real-world products operate. They have controls and we deal with them all the time. For example, a car has all sorts of controls and takes some time to learn how to operate them safely. Once the operation is mastered, the controls don’t become invisible. Instead, their use becomes invisible! You know, “fast & fluid.”

The steering wheel, for example, is a vital control but it isn’t hidden! Its right in front of your nose. You’ve overlearned how to operate it and you don’t even need to look at it. In a great car, you look past it and on the road. Its the process of driving that is so natural that it becomes second nature.

Same old, Same old...

Reaction to the initial unveiling of Windows 8 was uncharacteristically positive. Finally, Microsoft wasn’t serving warmed over Windows. The fact that the slumbering giant had awoken was cause for genuine excitement.

Yep, it’s great that they have something that really is different, but its become time to ask practical questions. As Horace asks, “What is the job that it will be ‘hired’ to do?” In adapting this ambitious strategy, they’ve made the question even harder than usual. Business has already “hired” Windows to do some very well-defined jobs for them. But the raging success of iPad has gotten Microsoft’s attention like never before. They know that all the potential for growth is no longer on the business desktop.

What is genuinely surprising to me that they didn’t find a way to develop their tablet operating system without exposing their core business to this level of risk. After all, Apple started their assault on mobile devices with the humble and overpriced iPod. The original version was expensive and required that the user already have a Macintosh. Apple took its time evolving the mobile business. They’ve worked for more than a decade on the iOS code base. By 2007, they could branch it into Cocoa for Macs and Cocoa Touch for iOS. Their “overnight” success took years. It’s typical for Microsoft to take a couple of major revisions to tune a new product. I'm expecting that to happen here. Understandably, Metro has the earmarks of a version 1.0 product.

By responding to the challenge with a schizophrenic OS, they are also risking their well-established business and may also be their own worst enemy in the tablet space.