Four early concerns ahead of Windows 8 beta

Microsoft in August said Windows 8 would be the most significant reimagining of its trademark operating system since Windows 95. But all those changes may not be for the better, at least based on what we know so far. There are some interesting innovations headed your way such as a new touch-centric interface, a version for ARM-based processors, and deep SkyDrive integration.

But Microsoft also plans to exert more control over how you use your PC thanks to its new iOS-style app store. The software giant is also making some significant changes to how common Windows user interface elements operate, such as the Start button. And it’s not clear what Windows 8 on an iPad-like tablet will look like.

Windows 8 is still in its early development phase, so some of Microsoft’s changes may be modified or thrown out altogether. But based on what we know so far, here are four concerns about Microsoft’s latest refresh of the world’s most popular operating system.

Benevolent dictator
Microsoft’s Windows Store will be the sole source to purchase, download and install Metro-style apps for Windows 8 devices, the company revealed at its Build developer’s conference. There will be an exception for enterprise deployments that want to distribute their own apps and third-party developers for testing purposes. But home users will only be able to get Metro-style apps from Microsoft’s Windows Store.

No big deal, right? Apple does the same thing for iOS devices, creating a great user experience overall, so why shouldn’t Microsoft do this for Windows 8 tablets? The big difference, however, is that Windows 8 isn’t just for tablets, it’s also for PCs. That means Microsoft is exerting control over your primary computer in a way it previously didn’t. Microsoft is positioning itself as the sole arbiter of what kinds of Metro-style applications you will be allowed to install on your PC. Does that sound like a good idea to you?

At least traditional desktop programs can be installed from third party sources on Windows 8 the same way they are available today on Windows 7.

App killer (beta) Microsoft is including a kill switch in Windows 8 Beta that will allow the company to remotely disable or remove Metro-style apps from your device. “We may change or discontinue certain apps or content offered in the Windows Store at any time, for any reason,” Microsoft’s Windows Store terms of use says. And if Microsoft does remove a Metro-style app that has a bunch of your data tied to it, Microsoft warns you’d better have that data backed up. “If the Windows Store, an app, or any content is changed or discontinued, your data could be deleted or you may not be able to retrieve data you have stored. We have no obligation to return data to you.”

To be clear, the Windows Store terms currently apply only to the beta version of Windows 8 due out in February. When contacted by PCWorld, Microsoft declined to comment on whether it would retain the ability to kill Metro-style apps in the final release of Windows 8.

If Microsoft does retain its ability to remove Metro-style apps from your device, this is another sign of the company’s attempt to exert more control over devices running Windows 8. Sure, Apple and Google both have the ability to remote wipe troublesome apps from mobile devices. But PCs are not the same as mobile devices, unless you subscribe to Apple’s vision for iCloud that is.

Despite the growing popularity of online storage services such as Dropbox, Google Docs, and SkyDrive many people still rely on their PCs as the hub for their digital lives. It’s the place where you store some of your most important and precious files such as photos and personal documents. Given the PC’s “mission critical” importance, no company should have the ability to remotely wipe anything from a PC without prior approval from the user.

Start shock
In the Windows 8 developer version, the traditional Start menu including links to programs, “My Computer” and the control panel is replaced with the Metro UI start screen. So whenever you hit “Start” in Windows 8’s traditional desktop you get kicked back into the Metro interface. It remains to be seen if disrupting the Start button’s expected behavior will be better or worse for the overall Windows experience.

But for longtime Windows users this is probably going to be one the biggest and most jarring changes to get used to. It’s possible, however, that Microsoft may include an option that lets you disable the Metro UI entirely. And if Microsoft doesn’t let you disable Metro third-party software probably will. In fact, there are already apps that claim to disable the Metro UI in the Windows 8 developer preview such as Windows 8 Start Menu Toggle.

Tablet Confusion

Microsoft has yet to declare whether the traditional PC desktop will be included in the version of Windows 8 for devices such as tablets using ARM-based processors. Current rumors suggest Microsoft plans on cutting the desktop for ARM devices so that Windows 8 slates can better compete with the iPad and Android tablets.

Whether or not to cut the desktop for ARM devices is going to be a deciding factor in how Microsoft sees Windows 8. Is it trying to create one single operating system that will be the same across every possible device form factor? Or will Microsoft go along with the currently prevailing view that touch-centric tablets and PCs are fundamentally different experiences requiring different interfaces?

The public beta version of Windows 8 is due out in late February, but if you’d like to give the developer preview a try you can download Windows 8 here.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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