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Windows 8 Release Preview: The Dueling Operating Systems

Still a work in progress before it rolls out as the next version of Microsoft Windows, Windows 8 Release Preview features the prospect of two versions of Windows built into a single package.

The Windows Start menu, now expanded into its own Start screen, comes with its own eco-system of apps. The Start screen is so full of features, it could almost work as its own operating system. In fact, the Start screen forms the bulk of Windows 8’s Windows RT version, which will be built into most Windows touchscreen tablets sold at the year’s end.

Although the Start screen functions well on its own, few people are ready to give up the traditional Windows desktop. And that’s where Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro come in, offering both the Start screen and the traditional desktop.

But by bundling two operating systems into one computer, Microsoft’s left some critics wondering if the one-size-fits all package will work outside of Microsoft’s laboratories.

With Windows 8, people will need to deal with two control panels, two versions Internet Explorer, two file managers, and two media players. That’s twice as many new things to learn.

Separate but intertwined — Windows 8 desktop and Start screen

Although the Start screen and the desktop mostly work as separate, self-contained ways of using a computer, they’re intertwined in unpredictable ways. Instead of keeping the two worlds separate, Windows 8 constantly shuffles you between them.

For example, you can create a new user account from the Start screen’s control panel. But changing that account’s settings requires a visit to the desktop’s Control Panel. Need to add a user account from the desktop’s Control Panel? Windows drops you back off at the Start screen’s control panel to finish the job.

The tendrils between the two systems work in unexpected ways. When you click on a song in your desktop’s Music library, for example, you might expect the desktop’s Media Player to play the song. Instead, Windows switches to the Start screen, and the Music app begins playing the song.

Plug in your digital camera while on the Start screen, and the desktop appears for Windows Explorer to import the photographs.

Microsoft tries to make these switches as graceful as possible, but some people will find the constant bouncing between the two worlds to be a distraction.

Fingertip versus mouse pointer

Another criticism comes from combining the large, finger-sized Start screen with the tiny, menu-packed desktop. When moved from the Start screen to the desktop, a fingertip doesn’t offer as much control as a mouse.

Many tablet owners will simply drop a small mouse into their computer bag, and call the problem solved. Touchscreen laptop owners will simply move their fingers onto their touchpad when the desktop appears. But many desktop owners complain that they’re being forced to use a touchscreen system with an unwieldy mouse and keyboard.

But no matter how the public reacts to Windows 8, one thing’s for certain. By removing the desktop’s Start button and intertwining the two operating systems, Microsoft’s trying to wean a generation of computer owners away from the mouse and toward touchscreens.

By making the desktop just another app, Microsoft’s preparing customers for a new world of only touchscreens and apps. Those that don’t like the concept can simply hang onto their Windows 7 computers. Those that prefer the Start screen ecosystem, will embrace Windows 8.

Note: At the time of this writing, Microsoft hadn’t yet completed Windows 8. Some of these details could change when Microsoft releases Windows 8 later this year.

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