Windows 8: One OS to rule them all?

It doesn’t seem all that long ago in time that the only people who used a PC were business users. If you worked in an office environment then you may have had to use one daily, but other people didn’t own a personal computer at home. At that time there really seemed no need to do so, unless of course you were a business owner and perhaps needed to take work home with you. Ordinary users (and in this context, I mean none corporate users) either couldn’t afford one or didn’t feel the need to own one. During the eighties I first encountered using a PC when I decided to update my skills at a training centre to include word processing, spreadsheets, databases etc. and most of my learning took place on an IBM computer. During that training we did not access the internet of course, as the internet was not available at that time as it is today. There was little incentive therefore for the ordinary man or woman in the street to own a PC.

Slowly over the years, the user base of just the corporate user has changed, and with it the needs of users. Whereas corporate usage tends to err on the productive side, the consumer usage tends to be of an entirely different nature. None corporate users aren’t all that interested in using Office programs or in productivity, for them its all about sharing. Sharing thoughts, sharing what they are doing, sharing their day to day lives, their favourite music or photos of their latest exploits or family, or simply keeping in touch and making new friends. Though most corporate users probably tend to think of this usage as ‘flippant’ in contrast to the way that they use computers, it simply can’t be ignored by those who provide the software on PC’s as the none corporate user base has continued  to grow and grow over the years. Combined with this growth in the consumer user base, has also come the need for mobile devices instead of the static none movable PC usually used by businesses. The consumer user prefers their usage of technology and  the internet to be always available as they travel, either on a mobile phone or alternatively a laptop or tablet.  This change of user base and their needs must have created something of a dilemma for Microsoft who have now to try and provide an operating system that can work both on a static desktop PC for their corporate user and at the same time work on a tablet and/or mobile phone.

How can anyone create an operating system that meets both the needs of your corporate user and the entirely different needs of the growing band of consumers? During the growth of this much more personal usage of new technology and the internet by consumers has also come the growth of touch screens and voice control, a much more tactile user interface. This by itself then requires a huge rethink about how your operating system works, it no longer has to sync with the usual keyboard and mouse, but also work with touch screens as well. Others have managed to create their own operating systems to work with these new  tactile interfaces, Google with its Android OS and Apple with its iPhone and iPad iOS. But neither Google nor Apple have attempted to ‘straddle’ both the static desktop PC user interface of keyboard and mouse AND the touch screen interface of portable tablets and phones. Can it work? Is it possible to do?  Can Microsoft achieve what seems to many as a near impossible task, and cater for every user and every user interface currently available at this time? Not only that, how can the apps you offer on your different platforms meet the needs of both your corporate users and at the same time your consumer user base?

A tall order and one that I certainly wouldn’t want to face. One answer would be to simply create another separate operating system for the extremely different usage of the none corporate user on those types of devices that they prefer such as phones and tablets, and keep your desktop operating with perhaps enhanced updates, but leaving its core functionality more or less as it is at this time. After all, Windows 7 is a brilliant OS, easy to use and maintain although despite this, I was amazed to find out this last year just how many corporate users in this country are still using Windows XP!  Whilst this ‘ordinary’ consumer Granny has moved on from Windows XP, to Vista and then finally to Windows 7, it seems that many of our big organisations such as the NHS have not for whatever reason.  It must be a very big undertaking and cost of course to retrain all of your employees to use a new operating system, but still, this fact to me signals that if they haven’t yet moved on to Windows 7, then they are hardly likely to introduce touch screen technology into the workplace no matter how brilliant a new OS that makes full use of it might be to use.  The point I am trying to get across here is that we have now arrived at a state where (in this country at least) the corporate users seem to be lagging way way behind the consumer in their usage of technology and PC’s. They may be using Windows XP on a static desktop PC at work, and then on their way home be making use of  a touch screen device to contact their family and friends! Who would have thought that it would be this way twenty or so years ago? It is now the none corporate consumer user and their usage and needs that is dictating the progress of technology as we know it today.

But Microsoft’s problem is not just about creating an interface which works with both a keyboard and mouse and a touch device, its also about covering all bases for corporate usage and consumer usage. Here we come to the big dilemma of whether or not to include Office. Incorporate it in mobile devices or not? How do we make it completely usable with a touch device? Will consumer users who buy tablets and smart phones require office apps? Do we provide Office only on static desktop PC’s? Do users really want to be able to share their documents, work productivity etc. via a mobile phone or tablet whilst they are on the move? Or do they tend to do that on a laptop PC? Not easy decisions are they?  Microsoft have now stated that a version of Office, Office 15 will be available on their mobile hardware such as tablets, but it isn’t clear at this time if this new version will be free to use. However, including Office on the mobile and touch ARM hardware has also meant the inclusion of the desktop, albeit in a tighter format as only Microsoft will be able to supply desktop programs for this area thereby limiting its use. In fact, I would argue that if including some form of Office on these devices was not necessary in order to keep corporate users happy, then surely it would not have been necessary to include the desktop at all and only the Metro tile interface and associated apps would have been needed. So anyone buying a mobile or touch device will not be able to download and make use of any third party program on the desktop on ARM devices. It will in essence be ‘closed’

Many journalists who follow Microsoft closely have noted how there has been little news available about the new operating system, but I feel that this can partly be explained by how difficult the whole exercise must have been for Microsoft. Apple have not attempted it. Google have not attempted it. It seems to be an exercise fraught with ifs and buts not only because you are trying to cover all bases as far as hardware and user interfaces go, but because you are also trying to keep a very wide user base happy, one who’s needs range from a corporate production environment to sending a quick message to Facebook from the consumer user.

I’ve been trying out the Windows 8 developer preview myself on my Dell desktop using a keyboard and mouse, and it has not been much of a pleasure using the Metro start screen with a mouse. However, using the Metro tile interface on my Windows phone via touch is an absolute joy, but it has prompted me to question just how the corporate user is going to be persuaded to update to Windows 8 or how any Office programs are going to be fully functional with a touch device, but I’m willing to be convinced and so on February 29th I’ll be eagerly downloading Windows 8 Consumer Preview just to find out if Microsoft have managed to do the impossible and created the one OS to rule them all.