Various beta versions of Windows 8 have been with us for what seems like an eternity. Microsoft has just pushed out a final, release-to-manufacturing preview, recently confirming a full product launch for 26 October.
Now that early-adopting enterprises and their employees are starting to think about phasing in Microsoft's latest generational OS refresh, it's time for ITPP to get under the hood. Specifically, we want to see how the new release functions in a tablet environment and reach some conclusions about its viability as a work solution.
We tested out Windows 8 on a Samsung Series 7 slate – not a cutting edge piece of kit, but a still-acceptable device – and, tellingly, one that has been marked down by some reviewers for the failings of Windows 7 in a touchscreen setting. So what sort of marks will Windows 8 be looking at come October?
The standout new feature has to be the Metro-style UI. Designed with the fast evolving world of multi-touch in mind, it's a bold move on Microsoft's part and one that's positioning the company for the next 15 or even 25 years, rather than the next five. In the short term, this strategy involves a gamble, because most onlookers – especially those familiar with enterprise situations – would contend that there's not much wrong with Windows 7.
In a desktop sense, this is true, but the fact that it doesn't run well on touchscreen devices is an obvious handicap. This feature alone makes Windows 8, with its dedicated touch UI, an improvement on the previous iteration. And of course reversion to the more traditional desktop mode is always an option for the faint-hearted.
This makes Windows 8 an OS with a lot of potential. What ain't broke hasn't been fixed, but something new to help power the convergence of desktop and mobile worlds - devices dedicated to work and play - has been created. Even if the Release Preview version is quite clunky at times, the building blocks to the future are now in place.
This charming bar
The Charm Bar is one of the areas that falls into the clunky category. Forgetting the fact that the name is better suited to a crass drinking den in downtown Dublin, it's a nice idea on paper, not least because it gets rid of a lot of the clutter associated with the Start menu.
More importantly, the foregrounding of Device management and the creation of a Share feature highlights how core functionality is often the same at work as it is at home. This is one reason why many believe we are heading to a one-device world: the streaming of content, for instance, is crucial whether it's the latest Disney flick for your child or an infographic on mobile adoption in Africa for your boss. Similarly, creative and media sectors are likely to find streamlined access to social networks as useful in the office as on a night out, whether to get feedback on a new logo design or, in ITPP's case, share a breaking news story with the world.
But there's a problem with the Charm Bar in its current form. A swipe from the right-edge brings up the bar as expected, but once you have selected an area you can't get back to the previous menu screen in an intuitive fashion. Rather than a back swipe taking you to an earlier screen, it does nothing. You have to swipe out of the Charm Bar altogether, which is annoying if you make an early mis-tap – going to Devices when you want to go to Share, for instance – but could be a more serious productivity issue if you are a few clicks deep.
What I want from Wi-Fi
People familiar with tablet devices won't have much difficulty getting to the connectivity screen on Windows 8. As you would expect, it's just a swipe and a click deep via the Charm Bar. So my issue with accessing Wi-Fi isn't so much a criticism as a personal preference.
Basically, I'd like the process to be even quicker. In fact, having a dedicated Wi-Fi tile on the Start page would simply be more convenient, especially if you're on the road and having to frequently switch to different Wi-Fi hotspots.
Alternatively, the box that appears in the bottom left corner of the screen - after swiping up the Charm Bar - could have been made touch-reactive. Since it displays the wireless signal strength, battery power, and the time and date, it's an intuitive point from which to not only quickly select one of the Wi-Fi networks in my vicinity, but also to go straight to my calendar or power settings.
It's not that connecting via Settings is a major hassle, but it would mirror the ease of access present in desktop mode, where a double-click brings up available connections. Desktop mode is, of course, what most Windows users are familiar with. App developers may want to take note as this is an area where they could provide a slicker solution, if Microsoft fails to do so itself in the final product.
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Microsoft has made quite a scene over its new password feature, the "picture password." The idea is that you pre-program a series of three gestures onto your log-on screen image. Does it work? Well, yes, to an extent.
Personally, I find it difficult to remember a series of swipes and will continue to prefer alphanumeric combinations or, even better, the nifty fingerprint scan on by my Dell Vostro V131. The thing about password protection from an enterprise perspective is that the process shouldn't just be secure, it should be quick. But the picture password seems hypersensitive, so that even a slight over-swipe or wrongly angled drag leads to it being declined.
Of course, your alphanumeric password ultimately overrides everything, but that then begs the question: what's the point? Maybe creative types prefer it, but for the average employee it's a superfluous touch that demonstrates that Windows 8 is multi-touch ready, but does little else.
Ultimately, the big question is whether Windows 8 represents a viable option for people who want to take care of all their computing needs on one device. There is little doubt that it will - sooner or later - be a decent entertainment option, but what about its viability as a workplace tool and desktop alternative? To a large extent this depends on the viability of tablets as an enterprise solution.
With a docking station, Bluetooth keyboard, and mouse, a Windows 8 tablet can set up identically to a notebook device, so even dinosaurs like me who recoil at touchscreens for work purposes could conceivably deploy it with a few basic connections. The obvious benefit is that it doubles as a personal hub, which is where tablets really excel. In other words, I can quickly undock if I want to catch up on the news during my lunch break or transition into domestic mode at the weekend and browse recipes. Mobility here emerges as a clear strength: the work-life balance is becoming increasingly blurred in some professions, so it's helpful having all of your basic computing needs available on a single device.
Yet it has a major shortcoming from an enterprise angle as well. Outside of creating dedicated docking areas at home and at work, how can a mobile worker write up a report or file a story on the go? Only with great difficulty, unless you fancy lugging keyboard and mouse around in your satchel, all the while cursing yourself for not having opted for an Ultrabook instead. That said, Microsoft's Surface tablet, with its built-in, fold-out keyboard and prop, looks likely to offer a solution of sorts. But that still means that possession of a 24/7, multi-location work device is restricted to people who opt for – and can afford - Surface.
I left Amsterdam and TechEd Europe 2012 as brainwashed as the next hack. Now that I've spent some time with the Windows 8 Release Preview, I'm slightly more sceptical. Some of the problems I've noticed are pretty basic, and a lot should be fixed by the time the final build arrives in autumn. From a consumer standpoint, it may seem a little bit clumsier than Apple's UIs, and the occasional lack of intuitive operation means that my mother is unlikely to ditch her iPad anytime soon. Two weeks into operating, I'm still getting to grips with the basics myself.
On the enterprise front, it is a genuine option for those who want to run a full OS on a tablet, albeit one I personally won't be taking up at this stage. The basics may be in place, but nothing really seemed to shine on the Samsung Series 7. Nothing screamed 'killer feature' or made me think: "Know what, Jimbo? You just can't go on running Windows 7." Surface, of course, is likely to be a game changer, and much will also depend on the apps that are developed and how other tablet manufacturers position their new products. With just the core functionality currently in place, it only really looks like an option if you're a bleeding-edge type who thinks that single-device ownership is the coolest thing since the arrival of CD-ROMs.
For me, it's all about the potential of Windows 8 to help spearhead device convergence. The faults evident at present may well be smoothed out as early as October, or it could take Microsoft a bit longer to bring it up to the same level as other touch-friendly operating systems. In the meantime, Windows 8 is, at the very least, something for businesses to keep an eye on. It may not look game-changing at present, but Surface's arrival – and the production of devices with similar capabilities – is likely to change all that. Until then, immediate adoption by tablet and total convergence fanboys rather than businesses is more likely.