Eight ways Microsoft can improve Windows 8

Windows 8 is the most controversial version of the operating system Microsoft has released. It doesn't have to be that way, though. Here are eight ways Microsoft could improve Windows 8.

Let users log into the Desktop

The new Windows Start screen has clearly been designed for touchscreen devices. Its large-tiled inteface means that it's now harder to see all of your apps at a glance and launch them. Its horizontal orientation is ideally suited for swiping, but not all all suitable for using a mouse and keyboard. Overall, it's harder to navigate to find what you want to do next. For content-consumption-focused tablets, it's quite useful, particularly the live tiles. For creation-focused traditional computers, it's awkward.

There's a simple fix: Let users head directly to the Desktop when they log into Windows. That way, they can bypass the Start screen entirely, and only head there when they need it. Many people will live on the Desktop. This simple fix will make life much easier for them.

Bring back the Start button

Killing the Desktop's Start button was one of the most baffling decisions Microsoft made in Windows 8. The Start button is a model of simplicity and efficiency, letting you quickly find applications to run, files to open, and utilities to use. It also offers quick access to Search and other important features.

Microsoft should bring it back, and let users turn it on or off. In fact, some manufacturer are bringing it back on their own. Samsung, for example, has built a Start button that users can turn on if they want, on the company's upcoming Windows 8 PCs.

Improve Desktop-Start screen navigation

Windows 8 is essentially two different interfaces, bolted uneasily together. Navigation between them is extremely confusing. For example, the "hot corner" thumbnail method of navigating between all open windows doesn't even show all open Desktop apps, and so you can't navigate to them. Meanwhile, the traditional Alt-Tab method of navigation does show all open Desktop apps. This is just one example of how poorly the Start screen and Windows 8 native apps is integrated with the Desktop.

Interface guru Jakob Nielsen performed tests of people using Windows 8, and he found this was a serious problem. According to the New York Times, Nielsen found that people had "a lot of struggles" with Windows 8. The Times noted:

Mr. Nielsen said they appeared to become especially confused when shifting back and forth between the modern Windows 8 mode and the desktop mode.

This is something Microsoft needs to fix. It would go a long way towards making people far more comfortable with Windows 8.

Power up Windows 8 native apps

The apps that ship with Windows 8 are an underpowered bunch. They're much more like simple tablet apps than fully powered traditional computer apps. The Mail app, for example, doesn't include threaded messaging, and won't let you filter incoming mail. The Photos app doesn't include even basic photo editing. As for the SkyDrive app, it doesn't sync files, and isn't even as useful as merely visiting SkyDrive on the Web.

If Microsoft wants people with traditional computers to use Windows 8, it should deliver apps that they'll use. That means powering up anemic Windows 8 native apps.

Improve syncing

Windows 8 syncs settings among multiple devices. So, for example, you can have the same Lock account picture, the same colors and background, the same browser settings, and so on.

That's nice, but rudimentary. What's really needed is the ability to sync files among multiple devices. You would expect that because there's a SkyDrive app on Windows 8, that the app would sync your files. But it doesn't. It's just a basic front end to your SkyDrive storage.

Microsoft already has very good syncing software, the SkyDrive client, that you can download for free. Those capabilities should be built right into Windows 8. And SkyDrive should be improved upon. The SkyDrive client doesn't integrate with the basic Windows Libraries file structure, for example. That should be fixed. You should also be allowed to determine on a folder by folder basis which should sync.

Make the two versions of Internet Explorer play nice together

Using Internet Explorer in Windows 8 is exceedingly confusing. There's a Windows 8 native app, and a Desktop app, and they don't get along particularly well. Open Web sites in one, and they won't be opened in the other. That means you'll have two versions of IE open, with different sites open in each.

That's far too confusing. Microsoft should make them work together better. And when Microsoft is at it, the Windows 8 native app version of Internet Explorer needs to be improved. It doesn't, for example, include a way to manage Favorites. You can only save them as tiles on the Start menu, which is essentially worthless.

Improve search

Windows 8 features a much simpler search feature than previous versions of Windows: simply type your search term when you're on the Start screen. You can then search for files, apps, settings, and within apps.

That simplicity is much welcomed. However, it's also too basic. Microsoft should include more powerful search tools from the Start screen, such as being able to easily filter by file type, date, document author, and so on.

Improve the Windows Store

If you want to get Windows 8 native apps, you're going to have to get them via the Windows Store. As of right now, you'll be disappointed with what you see there. There simply aren't that many apps available, especially compared to the hundreds of thousands for iOS and Android. As I write this, there are only 76 business apps, for example, and only 29 security apps. That's not enough. Microsoft has plans to get more apps written, but it needs to ramp that up.

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