When Microsoft first outlined its strategy 32 months ago to bridge the old style of PC computing with the new world of tablet computing, we were optimistic. Although Apple had revolutionized computing with the iPad, creating the fastest-adopted technology ever, its approach walled off the tablet from the PC, with two different operating systems, user interfaces, and applications. Instead, Microsoft promised a unified, adaptive approach that would satisfy everyone.

But that’s not what Microsoft did. In fact, it did the opposite: It created a horribly awkward mashup of two fundamentally incompatible approaches that worked poorly on both PCs and tablets. Microsoft made a peanut butter and pickle sandwich, and the world has recoiled at the thought ever since, with Windows 8 falling behind even Microsoft’s other big failure, Windows Vista, in adoption. As InfoWorld’s Woody Leonhard famously wrote in his review of Windows 8, “Yes, it’s that bad.”

[ See Windows Red visualized in InfoWorld’s slideshow and read Woody Leonhard’s assessment of Microsoft’s Windows “Blue” 8.1. | Windows 8, “Blue,” and Red: The full coverage. | Windows 8 book authors dish on Windows 8. | Stay atop key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

It doesn’t have to be that way. Despite its unworkable marriage of desktop and tablet, of traditional input and touch input, Windows 8 has many compelling notions that deserve widespread adoption.

The answer is not Windows “Blue,” aka Windows 8.1, which (based on what we’ve learned so far) offers only superficial changes. No, the answer is Windows Red, InfoWorld’s proposed redesign of Windows 8 that takes the best of Windows and Windows Phone, eliminates the unworkable aspects of the Desktop and Metro (aka Modern) mashup, and provides a road map for Microsoft to achieve its original Windows 8 aims.

A team of InfoWorld editors — Galen Gruman as project lead, Eric Knorr, and Doug Dineley — worked with Woody Leonhard, a noted Windows book author with unmatched experience in Windows, and illustrator Ben Barbante to conceptualize and design Windows Red. You can see our Windows Red results in the companion slideshow.

Here’s how Windows Red fixes the flaws in Windows 8 and accentuates its strengths.

The marriage of Windows 7 and Metro is annulled
Theoretically, creating a dual OS for use on legacy PCs, modern PCs, and tablets was a good idea. But Microsoft’s approach was fatally flawed, ignoring its own UI guidelines. It didn’t so much integrate the traditional PC with the modern tablet as slap both approaches onto both devices.

On a tablet, the Windows Desktop simply doesn’t work. All the controls are too small for gesture use — as Microsoft’s own UI guidelines make clear. Everything is too small to touch and often too hard to read.

We had assumed that the Windows 8 Desktop would provide contextual adjustment when apps were running on a tablet — essentially enlarging buttons, menu controls, and the like, as well as using the option of a simplified menu to reduce screen clutter, a more intelligent take of Microsoft’s “most recently used” menus that frustrated Office 2000 users. We didn’t expect that most traditional Windows applications would require users to manually invoke the onscreen keyboard when in text fields.

On a PC, the Metro environment is too big and too simplistic. We had assumed Metro would scale its density to take advantage of the larger screen and finer selection capabilities of mice. But that didn’t happen either.

Part of the challenge Microsoft faced in running traditional Windows applications in the Desktop on a tablet was that many Windows apps use very old code bases. Even if Microsoft had created contextual DLLs for UI elements and automatic onscreen keyboard display, many apps don’t use the Microsoft DLLs, or at least not current ones.

Microsoft prides itself on maintaining app compatibility for decades, which has let developers save effort. But that timeless legacy support has also created a ball and chain that keeps Windows from moving forward in the dramatic way that Metro was meant to do. Worse, the environment that Microsoft wants developers to switch to — Metro — provides a poor experience on traditional PCs, discouraging user adoption and thus developer investment.

There are also serious questions as to whether Metro can support more than widget-style lightweight apps. After all, Microsoft didn’t deliver Office for it, yet both iOS and Android have serious Office-like apps. Metro apps are so weak that users are avoiding them in droves.

Given these realities, the solution is to not mix the Desktop and Metro. In Windows Red, we don’t. Instead, we’ve split Windows Red into three versions: Pro, Mobile, and Duo.

Windows Red Pro is an enhanced version of Windows 7, and it runs only on desktop and laptop PCs. It includes the Desktop advances made in Windows 8, such as multiple copy threads, enhanced Task Manager, built-in Microsoft Security Essentials, improved system recovery, Hyper-V, and Windows to Go. Windows Red Pro also drops touch support. Touchscreen PCs are simply a terrible idea and ergonomically dangerous to users; they shouldn’t be enabled. Touch belongs on a horizontal surface in comfortable arm’s reach.
Windows Red Mobile is a Metro-only operating system that runs only on tablets. It’s a sibling to Windows Phone and a cousin to Windows Red Pro. In a sense, it’s an enhanced version of the current Metro-only Windows RT, though RT has a bunch of dumb limitations, such as the inability to be managed through Group Policy, that Windows Red Mobile fixes.
Because there are hybrid PC/tablet devices in the market, we felt we had to accommodate them. That’s our third version: Windows Red Duo. As the name implies, Duo delivers two Windows Reds on the same device.

But they do not operate simultaneously, as Windows Desktop and Metro do in Windows 8. When your hybrid’s screen is detached, making it a tablet, only Windows Red Mobile can run. When your hybrid is in its laptop configuration, only Windows Red Pro can run. A reboot is required when you switch configurations. Though inelegant, it’s necessary to prevent a repeat of the “Windows Frankenstein” mashup that is Windows 8. Nor is it as inconvenient as it might sound because Windows Red Pro still runs Metro apps — only you drive them with a mouse and physical keyboard, not via touch. (More on that below.)


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