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Paul Allen's Review of Windows 8: 'Elegant' and 'Puzzling'

Microsoft Cofounder Paul Allen has published a favorable, but critical, review of the "release preview" version of Windows 8.

The extensive review, posted to his blog in late September, explains the "bimodal" user experience of Windows 8. The operating system has a "Windows 8 style" view that accommodates the needs of tablet users with a touch-based user interface (UI), while also having a more traditional "Desktop" interface that's similar to Windows 7.

The "Windows 8 style" term appears to be Allen's own. That's what he uses in his blog post to describe what Microsoft used to call the "Metro" experience of Windows 8. In August, Microsoft inexplicably suggested that Metro was just a code word to be changed later. Supposedly, Microsoft will start using a new term for Metro closer to the Windows 8 product launch, which is scheduled to take place this month on October 26. Some of Microsoft's blogs now use the term, "Modern," instead of Metro, but nothing official has been announced.

In any case, Allen doesn't hold back about the "confusing" aspects of the Windows 8 bimodal experience. He reviewed an older release of the product, so possibly some of the quirks he described will be fixed by product release. But he does provide useful advice on changing some settings to smooth over how files are handled between the Metro and Desktop modes to avoid some jarring experiences. For instance, Outlook runs on the desktop, but it will open a URL link sometimes in the Metro mode used by Internet Explorer 10, which isn't Allen's preference. It's possible to change the settings so that Internet Explorer always opens on the Desktop side, he explained.

A peculiarity in Windows 8 is that IE 10, which ships with the OS, is available on both the Desktop and Metro sides, affording slightly different user experiences. What's worse, bookmarks saved on the one UI side aren't available in the IE 10 browser on the other UI side. "One can hope this will be fixed in a future release," Allen said about this IE 10 behavior.

Allen encountered the absence of the start button, which has been a disturbance to many reviewers of Windows 8. However, he described the use of the start screen in Windows 8 as a substitute for the start button as "a more engaging and useful entry point to Windows." However, later he bemoans the lack of menu hierarchies within the live tiles that make up the start screen of Windows 8. Microsoft's design team for Windows 8 long ago explained that people weren't using the start button, and that Microsoft decided to eliminate menu systems and just put access to all applications flat out on the desktop when they devised the Metro UI. Allen's admission that he misses menu "hierarchies" in Windows 8 suggests that Microsoft's Metro design may have eliminated something that many people consider to have been useful, both in past Windows releases and in Windows 8.

Allen found "puzzling aspects" to the Windows 8 UI, with some oddities associated with using multiple monitors and finding the "Charms." The Charms are control settings associated with an active application, but they were hard to access with a mouse in setups using multiple monitors, according to Allen's review.

Allen also noticed that Desktop apps can be difficult to access via touch, noting that the scroll bars in Outlook were too small and "nearly impossible to use." These limitations can also be found when using other Office 2010 apps on the Desktop UI side of Windows 8. However, Microsoft may be addressing that limitation in the near future. In July, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed some menu improvements in Office 2013 running on the Desktop side of Windows 8 that added touch enhancements. For instance, space was added around menu commands to make them easier to select by finger.

As a major Microsoft stock holder, Paul Allen might not be expected to be the most objective reviewer to turn to when looking for critical opinions about Windows 8. But he does offer a fair review of Windows 8 that doesn't overlook its quirks. At least he had a lot more to say than Cofounder Bill Gates, who tersely said of Windows 8 that it is "a very exciting new product."

For a review of the newer "release-to-manufacturing" version of Windows 8, check out this Windows 8 review by Brien Posey here. Posey is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and is used to tinkering with complex pieces of software, including Windows Server. The ultimate UI test of Windows 8, however, will no doubt happen when consumers start getting their hands on new OS later this month.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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