Microsoft Has Strong Reasons to Induce Users to Adopt Windows 8 Tiled UI

NEWS ANALYSIS: A lot of tech pundits are criticizing Microsoft for preventing users of Windows 8 from bypassing the tiled start screen to go directly to the desktop. By doing this Microsoft is signaling that it needs to stick with its plans to compete in the tablet era.

Tech news Websites and blogs have been buzzing the last few days with news that Microsoft is going to block Windows 8 users from booting directly to their desktop without having to use the tiled start screen. But it's apparent that Microsoft needs to take this step to truly compete in the tablet computer market.

By forcing Windows users to work with the graphical user interface formerly known as "Metro," Microsoft risks alienating people raised on the classic Windows interface and will make it very difficult for enterprises to adopt Windows 8, which would inevitably involve retraining hundreds or thousands of employees. Nonetheless, the tiled UI is optimized for the touch screen and that is where personal computing is headed, even in the enterprise.

Microsoft announced recently that it was dropping Metro as the name for the Windows 8 UI, apparently because of a potential trademark issue with a retailer in Germany called Metro AG. However, Microsoft hasn't announced a new name for the UI.

Although Windows 8 can run on a computer with a mouse and keyboard, a Microsoft Web page for developers of software applications to run in Windows 8 urges them to "design for a touch-first experience."

"First and foremost, design your app with the expectation that touch will be the primary input method of your users," Microsoft states. When the Windows 8 Release Preview was rolled out on May 31, it offered the new, tiled UI, which until just a few days ago was dubbed "Metro." However the preview included an alternative called Windows 8 "Classic," which is the interface millions of Windows users have been working with as far back as Windows 95.

Windows 8 Classic displayed the Start button in the lower left corner with application icons arrayed across the screen. The Release to Manufacture (RTM) version of the OS, announced Aug. 1, blocks the ability to boot past the tiled UI start page, although some Websites have reported there are workarounds to that.

But why would you want to, asks Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the research firm Enderle Group? Bypassing the tiled start menu to go to the desktop takes the user to what is called the "compatibility layer," which enables applications designed to run in the previous OS to run in the new one. Windows 95 had a compatibility layer tied to Windows 3.1. Windows XP had one for Windows ME. But the compatibility layer on a Windows 8 machine may not be the user experience people would expect from Windows 7 as it exists now.

"You're getting a limited version of Windows 7 if you're bypassing Metro," Enderle said. "Your user experience would be worse in that scenario than it would be with [the present] Windows 7." It would be worse because users wouldn't be able to take advantage of some of the features of Metro that they might find useful if they tried them out, he said. By in effect sticking with Windows 7, they're missing out on the opportunity to "move forward," Enderle suggested.

"It is kind of a forced march because some people don't like change," Enderle noted.

As for enterprise adoption, they, unlike consumers, can order new desktop or laptop computers that are still shipped with Windows 7 preinstalled. As it is, many of them are still preoccupied with migrating to Windows 7 than away from it.

In order for Microsoft to compete in the tablet space already dominated by Apple iOS on the iPad and on the range of tablets running Google Android, the company needs to maximize the opportunity for Windows 8 and the tiled interface to catch on in the mobile market by giving users every excuse to work with the touch interface on the latest devices.