KELLNER: A second look at Windows 8: Proceed with caution

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 8 operating system, which debuted at retail at the end of October, is, at best, an acquired taste. Should you chow down until you like it or should your response be the same as the famous toddler confronting a plate of greens in an old “New Yorker” magazine cartoon: “I say it’s broccoli and I say the hell with it!”

If you’re buying a new computer for the holidays, you may have little choice: Media reports indicate that most, if not all, of the new Windows-based computers to be offered on Black Friday that kicks off the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa shopping season will come with Windows 8 installed, and no other option. “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black,” Henry Ford said of his Model T in 1909, and, so, black it was.

Windows 8 is no Model T, not by a long shot. The “new and improved” Start screen offers a host of “tiles” that supposedly lead into various applications and features, such as news, weather or financial information. There’s a Windows 8 desktop that looks like the traditional Windows workspace, but pressing what used to be the “start” key on the keyboard won’t bring up a menu, but instead take you back to the “tiles.”

Die-hard Windows users may well chafe at these improvements, removing, as they do, familiar and, more important, keyboard-friendly interfaces — press a key, pop up a menu — in favor of touch-screen interplay. On a touch-friendly Windows 8 computer, you can start a program by touching the tile or a traditional desktop icon or shortcut. That’s where computing is headed in the future, even if you or I, personally, may not be there yet.

Microsoft, of course, is billing these changes as evolutionary, saying: “Windows has been reimagined to be all about you” with the new start screen and tiles offering “instant access to your people, apps, sites, and more, so you can spend less time searching and more time doing.”

But do I want a bunch of tiles from which to choose things, when my old Windows desktop and icons were good enough? Is Microsoft, noted for its keyboard and mouse as well as its software offerings, driving us toward a post-mouse world?

Well, if Microsoft isn’t, the smartphone/tablet age is. Few of us use a mouse to navigate these new devices, and while there are plenty of keyboard options for, say, Apple Inc.’s iPad (and an optional, snap-on keyboard cover for Microsoft’s own, new, Surface tablet), I’m guessing the majority of tablet owners are letting their fingers do the walking, both to navigate the program icons and to type using an on-screen keyboard. And while Microsoft promises mouse-friendliness with Windows 8, I have the feeling I know where the future is heading.

And that’s OK, I guess. We’re not — most of us, I’d suspect — using old CRT monitors anymore, or daisy wheel printers or 300-baud dial-up modems. Time marches on, and technology advances. It would have been nicer, though, if Microsoft had offered a bit more coherence between the two worlds, to sort of ease the way as we all make the transition.

I’ve had very limited testing with Windows 8, chiefly on an Apple iMac where, thanks to the latest version of Parallels Desktop software (http://www.parallels.com/), Windows 8 not only runs, but can also be configured to run its applications alongside Mac apps. This coherent mode (there’s that word again) gives users a rather nice multitasking ability.

So far, Windows 8 has run what I’ve thrown at it, most notably the OpenOffice.org productivity suite, which is file-compatible with Microsoft’s Office programs, but, unlike those, is free for the downloading. I’ve used the Internet Explorer 10 browser, and sampled such embedded tiles as weather, news and Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Everything has worked just fine. It seems speedy enough running under emulation; by the time you read these words, I should have a PC or two with Windows 8, installed to test and gauge its responsiveness in a “native” setting.

But here’s the bottom line: If buying a new Windows-based PC is on your holiday shopping list, absent a chance discovery at a retailer, you’d probably need to special-order a Windows 7 system to get one. Most of the new machines will feature Windows 8, and as with the infamous Borg collective of “Star Trek: Next Generation” fame, resistance is futile. The good news is, it’s not all that bad.

Email mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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