When I first heard about the strategy for Windows 8, it made a lot of sense: common platform, share the content, tailor the experience to the device. For example, I could view and consume content on a phone or tablet, maybe make some simple edits, but then take it to the full desktop for more intensive keyboard + mouse editing. You would have a minimal GUI (Runtime/Metro/Modern) for the tablet, and a traditional windowed app desktop for the PC.
The Problem with Windows 8: Modes
However, when they released it they made a fundamental error. For the PC, roughly 99% of the Windows install base, Win8 defaulted to the tablet/Modern mode. If you figured out how to get to the desktop, you’d still go to the Modern interface next time you started. The fun starts when you launch a file from the desktop (PDF, images, music, etc.) which by default associated with the Modern app, and unceremoniously threw you out of desktop mode into full screen Modern mode. Good luck finding your way back, since all the affordances were hidden in screen corners or side-swipes.
A company called Stardock, which made desktop manager utilities and games, essentially “fixed” the problem for traditional desktop users with 2 applications. Start8 brought back the Win7 Start Menu and file associations, and ModernMix ran Modern apps in desktop windows. So now you could get the Windows 8 performance benefits — like the totally awesome file transfer process and radical Task Manager (yeah, exciting for nerds like me, not really a mass marketable feature).
Microsoft rushed out Windows 8.1, which more or less brought back the Start menu; now there was an affordance (Windows icon) to click, and context menu to access the frequent administrative tasks.
Windows 10 (yeah, they skipped 9) might look a little flatter, but it’s pretty much the same visually as Win8. Start menu is back, Modern apps run in windows on the desktop.
There is no way I can see to get into full ‘Runtime’ mode, though I did find the ‘Aero Snap’ setting (see below). So I couldn’t tell if the ‘side-swipe’ charms or application options could be accessed like Win8. So they are all collected in a ‘hamburger’ menu on the app window. At least there is a discoverable affordance now.
Like I mentioned, you’re always in desktop as far as I can tell. You can still ‘snap’ apps to side-by-side by dragging to a left or right edge. Note in the technical preview Microsoft is asking you to share feedback — even providing some ‘games’ to help you explore. Interesting usability practice — gives them an opportunity to do task-based exploration rather than just a free-play beta test.
So the graphical user interface isn’t a real departure, more a refinement. The real change is infrastructure — integrating your experiences over phone, tablet, desktop, and game console; through the cloud (OneDrive). The Cortana assistant is included in the preview, but I don’t have enough content in my VM to make use of it. It will likely be the ‘last’ OS release, as Microsoft announced it is a free upgrade to Win 7 +, and once you’re on it you will continue to get free upgrades for the life of the device. This is the new phone/tablet OS lifecycle, where you don’t have to hire the Rolling Stones to announce a new release.
For the desktop, I don’t see a lot to complain about yet. Mostly my impression is: ‘Well, I thought you were going to do that in the first place!’ However, seems like some Windows phone users are complaining about the new design (I love this quote: “Maybe the smart UI designers were transferred to different projects.”). Comments indicate they’re going from a unique interaction design (panoramas and pivots) specific to the phone, to one more standard with the industry (Android, iOS). Likely it’s more to maintain consistency between desktop and mobile.