Windows 8: Features, Not Bugs

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ZDNet posted a story today that listed 10 things that are wrong with Windows 8 tablets. I agree with some of the points made and disagree with others, and there were a few that I thought are worth some additional discussion.

After having used Windows 8 consistently (including Windows 8.1), I’m finding myself a bit surprised at just how much I’m liking it. While I’m not using it on a tablet at the moment, I did try out a few tablet or hybrid devices for a few weeks and so I know enough about them to be dangerous. And so, here are a few thoughts, with a central theme—some of the things ZDNet complains about are features, not bugs. You just have to look at things from the right perspective.

Desktop Mode
The ZDNet piece complains that desktop mode doesn’t work well with tablets, being not terribly optimized for capacitive touch. I think that’s true, but it misses the point: what we call “desktop mode” is really where you get the real work done in general, whether it’s in Windows, OS X, or even Linux. The casual, simplified apps made for the touch-based interfaces of Android, iOS, and Windows 8 “modern UI” mode are simply not substitutes for high-octane productivity apps like the Microsoft Office suite, Adobe’s Creative Suite, and hundreds of thousands of “legacy” apps that might require a keyboard and mouse for full productivity, but provide a richness of features that casual mobile apps simply can’t match.

Windows 8 Desktop Mode

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a huge fan of tablets, having owned and extensively used one or another since the Motorola Xoom was first released. I’ve owned or used Android tablets, an iPad 3, and as I already mentioned, Windows 8 in tablet mode for well over two years (infinity in technology time), and find the form factor indispensable.

The thing is, they’re far better suited for consumption of information and media than they are the creation of it. I’m not saying anything new here, but I think it needs stressing. Yes, you can do some serious writing on a tablet with the right software and a good keyboard, and draw some nice pieces of art with the right stylus or pen, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about richly formatting a document into something that can be handed out to a customer, from scratch (not just editing a document created on a real PC), or using a 100,000-row spreadsheet to analyze a market, or editing and encoding a 4GB high-def video.

No, for those things you need not only serious horsepower, which today’s Windows 8 tablets can provide (especially incoming Haswell-based devices), but also complex apps that simply don’t translate well to touch-only interfaces. At least, they haven’t yet. Android and iOS tablets simply can’t match “real” PCs in terms of creating anything other than raw content, and I don’t consider that a flaw any more than I consider it a flaw of Windows 8 tablets that they can do real work.

Note that I’m explicitly excluding Windows RT tablets from this discussion. Windows RT is a seriously conflicted operating system, mainly because it’s really just a tablet OS but squeezes in desktop mode for the exclusive purpose of running Office apps. And when I say “exclusive,” I mean it—desktop mode is useless for anything other than running Office, although things are complicated further by the fact that some system settings are available only in the desktop mode Control Panel app

In fact, that’s where the real flaw likely lies in Windows 8 tablets. It’s not that desktop mode doesn’t work well with touch—that’s the nature of the beast, and so use a keyboard and mouse with desktop mode and you’ll be just fine. It’s that desktop mode is sometimes required to do certain things, like change some settings that aren’t available in the modern UI (including in Windows 8.1), and if you’re in tablet-only mode then it’s definitely a pain to get those sorts of things done.

Generally speaking, though, desktop mode is a feature, not a bug. It provides an environment where real, precise, complex work can be done, and so far that requires a keyboard and mouse no matter what machine you’re working on. I doubt that there are many professionals who don’t own a desktop or notebook (or both) that they use for the bulk of their work, and tablets are used sporadically when light editing or review is required. Windows 8 tablets let you do both, and that can’t be said for Android or iOS.

And by the way, I don’t expect desktop mode to ever get perfectly usable with capacitive touch alone. I simply don’t know if that’s possible.

Driver Support
The ZDNet article goes on to discuss how the need to manage device drivers (and I’d add, a whole slew of other system settings) is a negative for Windows tablets. This one misses the point in a major way: the reason why Windows 8 tablets require driver management is because they support the hundreds of thousands of devices out there that are manufactured for full-blown desktops and notebooks. Windows 8 tablets support any printer, scanner, external storage drive, etc., etc., that “real” PCs support, and this is a good thing.

Peripherals require drivers, and Windows 8 has them where Android and iOS do not. That’s a huge check in favor of Windows 8 tablets.

Headphone Support
This is an odd one. I’ve had issues with headphone support in Windows machines before, but those were always machine-specific. In general, Windows 8 handles headphones as well as any OS, full-blown or mobile. I think the writer had some specific issues he wasn’t able to address, and simply extrapolated that to an issue with Windows 8 tablets in general.

Conclusion
Some of the issues noted in the article, such as a lack of apps and tablet-specific peripherals (cases, mainly) are entirely valid. Some are shared with iOS, such as the lack of widgets and customer keyboards. I haven’t delved too deeply into the Windows content ecosystem (music, movies, books, etc.) so I can’t comment on that part. I’m inclined to think both iOS and Android have Windows 8 beat here, but I’m not certain about it.

So in general, yes, Windows 8 tablets are at a disadvantage. But the ability to run legacy Windows apps and utilize the incredible depth and breadth of 3rd-party peripherals are both tremendous strengths of the platform, not weaknesses. You just have to recognize that desktop mode works best with a physical keyboard and mouse, and that peripherals need drivers—something that’s no different than any other Windows machine and far preferable to not being able to use the peripherals at all.

What are you thoughts? Leave some in the comments.

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