The best thing about Windows 10 is that it marks the end of the bipolar world of Windows 8, which provided but did not effectively integrate both mobile and desktop computing environments in a single product. I’m looking forward to Windows 10, and think that the changes it brings will help spread the universal app platform. But it’s still unclear how well this system will perform on touch-first devices like phones and tablets.
Previously, I described Windows 10 as an almost magical, impossible upgrade, one that combines the best parts of the mobile platform we previously called Metro with the desktop environment users know and prefer. And it is … on traditional PCs—desktops, towers, laptops, and other machines that are not touch-first. On touch-first devices—phones and tablets, of course, but also 2-in-1s and other PCs that will be used primarily with touch—Windows 10 is very much an open question if not an outright cause for concern.
Now, Windows 8 wasn’t actually the first version of Windows to awkwardly combine two different user experiences: All non-NT versions of Windows comingled MS-DOS and Windows, providing two separate places to run apps, with only minimal (user experience) integration. But Windows 8 was unique in that it was almost universally loathed by users. So while I and some others were able to successfully use Windows 8 and be productive, the majority of users found it difficult, foreign and unlikeable.
Microsoft worked to fix this over subsequent updates, and Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update 1 (8.1.1) both offered important concessions to desktop-based users. Third party applications, like Stardock Modern Mix, which let you run Modern apps in windows on the desktop, and various Start menu replacements, helped fill the void as well.
But Windows 8 was fundamentally broken. I think the big success of Windows 10—again, on traditional form factor PCs—is that it erases the barriers between the two environments. Now, universal apps—the successor to Metro/Modern apps in Windows 8.x—run right on the desktop on these PCs, and next to Win32 desktop applications, web apps, Adobe Air apps, and other apps. They look and work more familiarly, and are designed to work with traditional inputs in addition to touch, not as an afterthought.
We can—and will—quibble about the details. Hamburger menus. Replacements for suddenly beloved Windows 8 interface elements like app bars. New controls that many—myself included—think are ugly and inefficient. But broad strokes, Microsoft has gotten Windows 10 right for traditional PC users.
The trouble is, that’s only part of the audience.
Windows 10 will also run on phones and phablets. On tablets of all sizes. And on hybrid devices like 2-in-1 PCs that can transform between different form factors. And from what we’ve seen so far—and we’re quickly moving past any “it’s early days still” excuses here—Windows 10 does not work so well on touch-first devices. Some will argue that it is as fundamentally broken as was Windows 8 on traditional PCs.
These critics have a point. They also have history at their back, as Microsoft tends to overreact to negative feedback and then overshoot in the opposite direction. Is that what they’re doing with Windows 10 on phones and tablets?
We should know for sure by next week. For months now, I’ve cautioned anyone who is freaking out too much over Windows 10 to wait for Build, wait for Build, everything will be revealed at Build. Well, Build is next week. So we’re going to learn then whether substantive changes are coming. Or whether what we see now is what we get.
It better be the former. Because the more I look at Windows 10 on touch devices, the more I come around to the notion that this system is simply broken.
Of course, we’re also kind of talking about two different things. The version of Windows 10 we will use on phones, phablets and small tablets—anything with a screen size under 8 inches diagonally—will be called Windows 10 Mobile and is most correctly thought of as an upgrade for Windows Phone. The version(s) of Windows 10 we will use on larger tablets and 2-in-1s is the same software we’ll use on PCs. And both have horrible shortcomings as I write this.
The phone release is horribly unfinished, with mismatched UI elements. We have no idea how this will look or work on small tablets. The PC version, meanwhile, is not optimized for the tablets on which it will also run and it lacks the convenient side-gesture shortcuts—Switcher and Charms in Windows 8—that worked so well in the previous releases.
Will they fix any of this? Surprise us all? Or is this another Charlie Brown with the football moment? Stay tuned. Next week really is going to be make or break for Windows 10.