Yesterday, I opened my review of Windows 8 with an introduction to the new user interface — the main difference between Windows 8 and its predecessor. But while the UI is a pretty major change, Windows 8 signifies an even bigger change to the Windows 8 ecosystem.

So, when October 26th comes, should you upgrade to Windows 8? Read on to find out.

The new Windows ecosystem

We have entered the age of the ecosystem, with the most-complete options coming from Apple, Google, and now Microsoft. An ecosystem spans hardware, (phones, tablets, PCs, gaming consoles), software (email, calendar, apps, documents), and even entertainment (iTunes, Google Play, Xbox Live). Each of these ecosystems takes a slightly different approach, and most of us use pieces of all of them, plus a few things besides.

Apple’s idea of an ecosystem is to provide all of the hardware and then customize the software (or allow developers to customize) for each platform. The data syncs, but the software that manipulates it is tailored to the unique strengths of each device. It is by far the most complete ecosystem, because you can buy only Apple hardware, buy all your software from Apple (most of which could be made by Apple), and buy all your entertainment from Apple.

Google’s idea of an ecosystem is the cloud. Google doesn’t particularly care whether you use a Macbook or a Windows PC; it let’s you log into your Google apps from anywhere. However, it also has the biggest share of smartphones through its Android operating system, and it will soon start manufacturing its own phones and tablets through its acquisition of Motorola. You can’t stick completely with Google, but you can come close. (I’m leaving out Chrome OS devices, which are viable only for the most adventurous cloud users.)

With Windows 8, Microsoft is bringing its own ecosystem together, and it looks a little different. Like Google, Microsoft primarily makes software, not hardware. Through Windows and Office, it has a huge share of the PC market (yes, Macs are PCs, too, and plenty of them run Office). It even has a slice of the smartphone market with its Windows phones. Unlike either competitor, Microsoft is unifying its ecosystem on a single OS, so that you can do the same work on a phone or tablet that you can on a PC.

This makes for a bit of a disjointed experience, as I explained yesterday. Windows 8 feels like it has a bit of a split personality. Still, it promises a much more complete integration of your mobile and desktop computing. With an iPad, it’s still awkward to do basic things like edit Word documents. On a Windows 8 tablet, that will be basic.

Still, the success of Microsoft’s approach is going to depend on third-party developers. The trick to making mobile work is not giving people to their traditional software on a tablet. Microsoft has been trying that for years, but using Word with your fingers just plain sucks. It’s much better to have touch-optimized versions of traditional software. Look at Garage Band, Keynote, iPhoto, iMovie, and Photoshop Touch for iOS, for example. These are powerful apps that stand on their own, but that also have compelling desktop software counterparts. Unless developers put together compelling apps for Windows 8, it will fall flat.

And that’s where Windows 8 is weakest right now. If you want to get an idea of the strength of the Windows 8 ecosystem, just click on the Top Free tile in the Windows 8 store. How many of those app do you recognize? Did you find apps from the things you use every day, like Facebook or Twitter? Yeah, no. This could change significantly by October 26th — and it better.

Should you upgrade to Windows 8?

It’s easy to see why Microsoft felt like it need to create the Surface tablets. Without them, it’s hard to see the point of Windows 8. The apps, which are build with touch in mind, not a mouse cursor, feel out of place on a PC, where the desktop UI paradigm still makes the most sense. But they would feel right at home on the Surface, and the Desktop app — where you can still get to your traditional software — becomes something you use only when you have to get traditional things done.

Unfortunately, unless the Surface turns out to be mindblowingly better than I anticipate, it isn’t going to be the kind of thing you want to use for getting legal work done. I can’t imagine drafting a brief on a 10″ screen using a keyboard cover.

Windows 8, then, is as much a statement as it is an operating system: Microsoft thinks mobile devices like the Surface will be as much a part of our computing as PCs. Unfortunately, in Windows 8, the getting-real-work-done portion of the OS — the part you will use for drafting contracts, briefs, and bankruptcy petitions — feels like it has been shoved into a back room. (Which, ironically, leaves Apple’s OS X as a more friendly user experience for getting real work done.)

So, if Windows 8 puts most legal work into the second-class citizen portion of the OS, should you upgrade?

It depends. If you are using a version of Windows that is older than Windows 7, then you should absolutely upgrade. You are already putting your data at risk by using an out-of-date OS. Get with the program.

But if you are using Windows 7, Windows 8 is not a very compelling upgrade — unless you want to join the Windows ecosystem. If you have your sights set on a Surface tablet and/or a Windows phone, upgrading to Windows 8 should be a no-brainer.

In the end, though, I think Windows 8 is similar to Vista. Not in the sense of being a crappy version of Windows, but in the sense of being a transitional version of Windows. I think I can see where Microsoft wants to take Windows, and I think it is onto something. But the direction Microsoft wants to go will require buy-in from the developer community. Traditional software and apps will need to merge — or at least cooperate — in a way they don’t currently. So while Windows 8 looks good, I think it mainly serves as a signpost pointing the way to Windows 9.


  1. shg says:

    I miss DOS, when users had to know more than which pretty picture to click on.

  2. Gene says:

    “So while Windows 8 looks good, I think it mainly serves as a signpost pointing the way to Windows 9.” I have to agree on this. Windows 8 seems to act as a sort of publicity and hype mechanism (like Vista was) for the next big thing. Also, I’m more excited about Google products than anything Microsoft comes out with these days.

    • Sam Glover says:

      Not so much hype and publicity as a heads-up to developers. Kind of like the Retina MacBook Pro. It lets developers know where things are going to be in a couple of years so they can start designing software and apps for the new normal.

  3. Clay says:

    Also completely agree that Windows 8 is a partial move. I really like that Microsoft is innovating and improving its design. I love the layout of the start menu and the new But underneath it all (as proven by the desktop icon), Windows 8 is still Windows. It doesn’t feel clean and light like another OS that I won’t mention in a blog’s comment section. I am impressed by it’s performance though. The sooner they get rid of the menu bar, control panel, and the same boring design they’ve had for 10+ years the better. PC desktops need to move forward and iOS is not the right direction.

    I really hope they do a good job on the mobile front. Hardware is the weak point of Windows products.

  4. Paul Majors says:

    On a touchscreen PC Win 8 works great. If you do legal work in Windows 7 you certainly can continue to do legal work in Win 8. One of the biggest advantages of Win 8 that Sam never mentioned is that it is much faster that Win 7. Its not a tweak of Win 7 its a completely new interface. Win 8 finally fulfills the promise of true multitasking.
    I don’t see much reason to purchase a Win 8 phone or tablet any time soon since I suspect it will be quite some time before there will be an abundance of Win 8 applications. Even though you could do legal tasks on a phone or tablet doesn’t mean that you should or that it would be practical. (It’s also true for IOS and Android phones and tablets.)

    • Sam Glover says:

      I didn’t mention a speed difference because I didn’t notice one. Windows 8 boots a teeny bit faster, maybe, but that’s about it.

      As for “true multitasking” — how is it that you were prevented from multitasking in Windows 7, exactly?

  5. Drew says:

    One question: Are editing briefs/memos/other Word documents going to be substantially easier/more practical on a Windows 8 tablet vs. an Ipad or Android-based tablet?

    Another way to put this: Does the Surface come with MS Office built-in (or apps that are the functional equivalent–or “lite” versions–that work transparently with MS Office/desktop files)?

    Given the broad popularity of 10-inch tablets (let’s face it, many would prefer not to lug a laptop to the coffeeshop or into court), this would seem to me to be the most compelling reason to buy into the new Windows ecosystem, built around Windows 8. The fact that the Surface facilitates “real” work by more naturally accommodating a keyboard (with that slick magnetic locking feature, and even an upgraded keyboard with key travel available) would seem to reinforce this.

    I hasten to add that I do not own an Ipad, so am ignorant of whether there is an MS Office-like app available for it to edit iOs MS Office files now, and, if so, if people do so in large numbers.

    Until/unless I can get “real” work (meaning editing text, Excel, and heavy-duty MS Outlook work) on a tablet, I see no compelling reason to upgrade to Window 8, since I’m just going to be working from my Dell Vostro laptop running Windows 7 ultimate + Chrome + Dropbox + Google Apps Sych anyway….

    • Sam Glover says:

      Yes. Surface comes with an actual copy of MS Office. I think that’s actually what Microsoft is counting on to sell these things.

      But Windows 8 itself runs everything Windows 7 does. You may want to upgrade to Windows 8 even if you don’t get a new computer. I’m finding it a little faster on my old-as-hell Dell desktop.

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