October might have been the biggest month in Microsoft's 37-year history. The company released its first computer (the Surface tablet), a new phone operating system (Windows Phone 8), and, believe it or not, two PC operating systems.
I'm not talking about Windows 8 and Windows RT, which are, in fact, two new and distinct operating systems from Microsoft. I mean the two different worlds within Windows 8 alone, one designed primarily for touch screens, the other for mouse and keyboard. Individually, they are excellent — but you can't use them individually. Microsoft has combined them into a superimposed, muddled mishmash called Windows 8, which went on sale Oct. 26 at prices ranging from $15 to $40, depending on the offer and version.
You can easily imagine how Microsoft got here.
"PC sales have slowed," some executive must have said. "This is a new age of touch screens. We need a fresh approach, a new Windows. Something bold, fluid and finger-friendly."
‘'Well, hold on," someone must have countered. "We can't forget the 600 million regular mouse-driven PCs. We also need to update Windows 7 for them."
And then things went terribly wrong.
"Hey, I know," somebody piped in. "Let's combine those two Windows versions into one. One OS for all machines. Everybody's happy."
Let's tackle each version one at a time. (A note: I have written a how-to manual for Windows 8 for an independent publisher; it was neither commissioned by nor written in cooperation with Microsoft.)
This is my name for the traditional Windows: the land of overlapping windows, menus, and the taskbar across the bottom. Here, you can run any of the 4 million traditional Windows apps, which Microsoft calls desktop apps: Photoshop, Quicken, tax software, games.
Windows 8's desktop is basically the well-regarded Windows 7 with a few choice enhancements, like faster start-up, a Lock screen that displays a clock and notifications, and more control over multiple-monitor arrangements.
You can now log into any Windows 8 PC with a Microsoft ID. Boom: Your wallpaper, online mail accounts, contacts, photos, and SkyDrive contents are instantly available. (SkyDrive is Microsoft's free 7-gigabyte online hard drive.)
The Task Manager now offers a table of open programs, showing which are the memory and processor hogs. File Explorer (formerly Windows Explorer) now has a collapsible toolbar. A new Refresh option lets you restore Windows to its virginal, factory-fresh condition without disturbing your programs and files.
There's a superb new feature called Family Safety, which provides you, the all-knowing parent, with a weekly summary of how much time your offspring have spent on the PC and which websites, searches, programs and downloads they've used. You can also set time limits for weekdays and weekends.
Finally, there's no more Start menu. The taskbar is still there, but the Start-menu icon isn't on it. More on this in a moment.
The enormous, controversial change in Windows 8 is the overlaying of the second "operating system," intended for touch screens.
(It's not really called TileWorld. But Microsoft doesn't have a good name for it. Insiders know it as the Metro interface — that was its code name — but Microsoft simply refers to it as Windows 8, which is so infuriatingly confusing you feel like firing somebody. I'm going to go with TileWorld.)
TileWorld is modeled on Microsoft's lovely Windows Phone software. It presents a home screen filled with colorful square and rectangular tiles. Each represents an app — and, often, that app's latest data.
For example, the Calendar tile displays your next appointment. The People tile (your address book) shows the latest post from your social networks. The Mail tile shows the subject line of the latest incoming message.
TileWorld is absolutely fantastic for tablets. The tiles glide gracefully with a swipe of your finger. You can "pin" frequently used tiles to the Start screen: programs, websites, playlists, photo albums, people from your contacts list, mail accounts or mailboxes, icons from Desktop Windows, and, of course, apps. The tiles are fun to rearrange, resize, cluster into groups and so on.
Swiping inward from the edges of a touch screen makes panels full of useful controls appear. A quick downward swipe on a tile is like right-clicking — a panel of relevant commands shows up.
TileWorld requires all new apps, and there aren't many available yet. They're generally not as complex as regular Windows programs; they're more like iPad apps than, say, Adobe or even most Microsoft programs. They're full-screen, touch-friendly, mostly menuless. And they're virus-free, since Microsoft controls the single source of them: the Windows Store.
Microsoft starts you off with apps for messaging, calendar, news, contacts, music and video playback, maps, weather, mail and photo viewing (pictures from Facebook, Flickr, your SkyDrive and other sources). It's easy to split the screen between two TileWorld apps, so you can, for example, chug through email as you watch a video.
DESKTOP AND TILEWORLD
TileWorld is fantastic for touch screens. Yes, there are mouse and keyboard equivalents for the touch gestures, but those are clearly afterthoughts.
Conversely, Desktop Windows is obviously designed for the mouse. Most of the menus, window controls and buttons are too small for finger operation.
Unfortunately, in Windows 8, you can't live exclusively in one world or the other.
Even if all your programs live in TileWorld, you'll still have to use Desktop Windows to work with files or disks, connect to networked folders or open the Control Panel. And even if all of your programs live in Desktop Windows, your PC still starts up in TileWorld, and you still have to use TileWorld to perform tasks like searching and address-book lookups.
The free program Pokki helps a lot. It restores the Start menu to the desktop and can even take you straight there at start-up.
Even so, two worlds means insane, productivity-killing schizophrenia. The Windows 8 learning curve resembles Mount Everest.
For example, you have what feels like two different Web browsers, each with different designs and conventions. In TileWorld, the address bar is at the bottom; in Desktop Windows, it's at the top. In the desktop version, your bookmarks appear as a Favorites list; in TileWorld, they're horizontally scrolling icons. TileWorld has no History list at all (only autocomplete for recently visited sites).
Settings are now in three different places. In TileWorld, basic settings like brightness and volume are accessible from the panel that appears when you swipe in from the right. A second set of settings appears when you tap Change PC Settings on that panel. A third, more complete set still resides in the Control Panel back in Desktop Windows.
The Help system is a scattered mess, too. On the Desktop, you have the regular Windows Help browser. In TileWorld, Microsoft has hidden the Help command in Settings for some reason, and at the Start Screen, it offers only three canned topics (like "Rearranging tiles on Start") and no Search command.
In some apps, like People and Mail, Help offers two links to Windows 8 discussion forums, and that's it. In others (like Maps, Weather and Camera), the Help command doesn't appear at all.
Look, maybe it's really not that confusing. All you have to understand is this:
There are two new versions of Windows, called Windows 8, for regular PCs and some tablets, and Windows RT, for cheaper tablets and laptops (not to mention Windows 8 Pro, which adds corporate features). Each edition has two environments, which Microsoft calls the desktop and Windows 8. In the Windows 8 environment, you can run only Windows 8 apps from the Windows Store. The Windows 8 version of Windows runs both desktop apps and Windows 8 apps; Windows RT runs only Windows 8 apps. Older apps' icons can show up in both the desktop and the Windows 8 environment, but Windows 8 apps appear only in the Windows 8 environment. The Windows store sells both kinds of apps but is the only source of Windows 8 apps.