Wednesday, October 31, 2012

SkyTools and Windows 8

I haven't posted here much recently, but that is likely to change in the coming months. So to start things off...

With the release of Windows 8 it is time to say a few things about the impact Windows 8 will have on SkyTools users, now and in the future.

First and foremost: SkyTools 3 will continue to work on the Windows 8 desktop just as it has with Windows 7. We have found no compatibility issues. If you are still running ASCOM 5, I do recommend upgrading to ASCOM 6 prior to upgrading to Windows 8.

Windows 8 and the Future
Windows 8 brings some major changes. A lot of confusing things have been written and said about them. The difficult thing to grasp about Windows 8 is that it is at once a bold new operating system, and at the same time the old Windows 7 we are familiar with. This is important to keep in mind when you hear or read broad sweeping statements about it.

Imagine if Microsoft released a whole new version of Windows with only one change: a redesign of the Start button. For most current desktop/laptop users this is all the upgrade to Windows 8 will initially represent. The Win 7 Start button opens a menu that lists all of your programs and is used to start them. In Windows 8 the Start menu has been turned into a full-screen with icons that you use to start programs. Once a traditional Windows program is started you go right back to the desktop. What startles people is that they are greeted by this new Start screen when the computer is booted rather than the familiar desktop. By doing this it literally throws the new Windows features "in your face." But rest assured, the Windows desktop is still there.

In addition to replacing the Start menu, the new screen also launches a new kind of Windows program. These programs are optimized for the touch screen, although a mouse will still work fine, and are meant to be used full screen, like a game, the SkyTools Interactive Atlas, or the "apps" that we have become used to on phones and tablets. The point of all this? It enables tablets and other touch devices to run Windows 8.

Microsoft has made new versions of most of their software, such as Office, Mail, etc, that work with the new interface. Many other developers are in the process of creating similar programs. This leaves developers such as myself with a quandary. Some say that this new "Modern UI" interface is the future and the old Windows desktop will ultimately be replaced, in the same way that DOS was replaced by Windows itself. But I'm a little skeptical about that. It may be that the new interface will not be powerful enough for certain types of applications--those driven by the precision that only a mouse can provide.

An example of what I'm talking about is the way that SkyTools identifies objects as the cursor passes over them. This obviously isn't possible without a mouse. On the other hand, a touch-based Nightly Planner would provide a natural jumping off point for opening charts, logs, and other SkyTools functions. It would also provide a great way to control a telescope in the field.

At the moment the way forward for SkyTools is not yet completely clear. Will it continue to be a desktop program or be ported to the new interface? I can say this for the near term: there will be "companion apps" for SkyTools that use the new interface for use in the field on tablets and other touch devices. But only time will tell if the entire program will eventually be ported to the new interface.

New Windows 8 Hardware and SkyTools
If you are purchasing a new Windows 8 tablet, it is important to be aware that there are two "flavors" and what the differences are. The less expensive "Windows RT" tablets only run programs written for the new interface. They will not run SkyTools 3! These tablets will eventually run the SkyTools "companion apps" which will be available for the next full version of SkyTools.

The more expensive tablets/convertibles will offer the full version of Windows that desktop users have. These will run SkyTools 3 on the traditional desktop.

Should You Upgrade?
Some people are going to hate Windows 8. There is no question about that. I think it comes down to how you approach change. An example of something that is bound to drive old timers like me nuts is the way the Esc key doesn't back out of the new-style programs as we might expect it to. Instead, we are going to have to accept that the "Start/Windows" key (which I personally have ignored for years) is going to become our new friend. Still, I did eventually get used to it (after a few hours spent cursing). There are also times when using the new interface that you will think, "I could have done that with a lot fewer movements and clicks!" But I have found that in most of these cases there are ultimately better ways to do the task, such as a keyboard shortcut. It is often my natural desire to do things the way I'm used to doing them that is the cause of most of the trouble.

Some have claimed that Windows 8 will have big problems like Vista did, and it is popular to claim that they won't have things ironed out until Windows 9. The reality is a bit more subtle than that. On the desktop things are pretty solid, although there are some weird issues that crop up. One of my computers didn't shut down properly using the Windows 8 preview version (there was an easy work around) and sometimes system error messages appear on the desktop where you can't see them. But in general I don't believe that upgrading a desktop/laptop to Windows 8 will cause people anywhere near the problems they had with Vista. This is primarily due to the fact that for most users it's really still Windows 7 under the hood. When Vista appeared I counseled people not to upgrade their existing XP machines, but I see little reason not to upgrade to Windows 8, particularly when it can be easily done as a download for $40.

On the other hand, the picture may not be so rosy for the new Windows RT tablets. This is where most of the new aspects of Windows are concentrated and it has had the least testing on this hardware, so this is where people will likely see the most trouble. At the moment there aren't enough quality apps available to make these tablets as useful as they should be. As an example, Microsoft's Mail app doesn't have many of the features people expect, crashes constantly, and I was not successful in getting it to send mail to my outgoing mail server. On a desktop/laptop many other options are available, but I feel a bit sorry for the early adopters of Windows RT tablets. I'm looking forward to owning one of these myself, but I'll wait until things are sorted out.

Although I've been testing the new OS for months, the first computer that I officially upgraded was my laptop. It does boot a bit more quickly and runs a bit faster. Overall I'm happy with it. Multi-monitor support has been improved and I like the new Task Manager. But for many there may not be any compelling reason to upgrade right away. This is the future of the PC, and only Windows 8 will give us access to the new software designed for the new interface. It's sort of like having a new toy added to the old OS. But some will see it as a useless appendage that only gets in their way. There are also the inevitable problems and annoyances that come with any major change to your computer. In the end, the most compelling reason to upgrade an existing desktop/laptop in the next few months is that the $40 upgrade may only be available until the end of January.

Personally, I would certainly go ahead and purchase any new computer with Windows 8 pre-installed.

Regardless, I urge even the most tech savvy to review the basics of the Windows 8 interface before trying to use it. This will make the transition go a lot more smoothly.

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