10 must-have features for Windows 9

Desktop users deserve a significant rethink of the Windows 8 gaffes and omissions for the next version of Windows

I've been using Windows 8 for almost a year now, and I constantly bump up against gaping holes in its design. From the beginning, Microsoft has offered users an awkward experience, one that, even when fully baked, has not impressed, leaving desktop diehards in the lurch as to how to make the most of Windows 8.

It's almost as if Microsoft is banking on Windows 8 being a fertile feedback loop for Windows 9 -- where to steer its direction and how to make up for what two-faced Win8 lacks.

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No, I'm not whining about the Start menu. Again.

So with the Windows dev team hunkered down in the Win9 spec (or "Windows Blue"?) process -- when they aren't gossiping about Sinofsky, anyway -- it's due time we diehards speak out. Here are my 10 most important Windows 9 features, from the point of view of a dyed-in-the-wool desktop user.

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 10: "Get out of hell" modal dialogYes, I know the Metro Start screen is part of the package now, and I'll have to negotiate its tiled hoops from time to time. What I really want is some way to scan my system to see under what circumstances it'll jump from the desktop over to the Metro Start screen.

Some of the hell-jump triggers are obvious: Double-clicking on an MP3 file hops to Metro Music, for example, where you're engulfed by advertising for Microsoft's music store. I know I can cure that boorish behavior by installing a desktop music player.

But other jarring transitions aren't so obvious, their cures not so clear. Please, Microsoft, come up with a way to warn me in advance before I'm tossed to the Metro mutts.

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 9: Metro mute buttonIf Metro IE lands on a noisy page or I find myself inadvertently playing a Metro Video that's set to earsplitting levels, it takes a zillion clicks (or swipes and stabs and slides) to turn down the bloody volume.

I know my PC is supposed to have a volume control button. But it doesn't. I have to hover my mouse in the upper-right corner of the screen (or remember Windows-C) and wait for Windows to bring up the Charms bar. Then I have to click on the Settings icon, run my mouse down to the volume control, click on the volume icon, move to precisely the right place, and slide the volume bar down. It's hard to do that when the Web page is showing the start line at a Formula 1 race, at full throttle.

No doubt it's too much to ask for predefined volume keys for the standard keyboard, but just a mute button would come in very handy. Windows-S for "shut up"?

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 8: A Control Panel that controlsWould somebody please tell me why I can't add a new Windows user by going through the Control Panel? Why do I have to jump to the Metro Control, er, Change PC Settings program and find the Users section to add a new name?

Wait, that's only the half of it. If I want to add a new admin account to my Windows 8 PC, I have to add a regular account over in Metro, then switch back to the desktop, crank up the Control Panel, go into Users, and change the account over to an admin account? That's plain ridiculous.

Windows 9 deserves a Control Panel that controls everything. If Microsoft wants to split off idiot-proof, er, user-friendly subsets of the Control Panel and stick them in the Metro interface, that's cool. But don't castrate the Control Panel to do it.

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 7: Let me choose my chrome, thank you very muchMicrosoft dropped Aero and Glass because they pushed graphics too hard, draining the battery to create their shiny effects. Those poor little ARM chips (which happen to come from the most advanced video chip manufacturers) couldn't take the load. So we were told that Microsoft has "moved beyond Aero Glass -- flattening surfaces, removing reflections, and scaling back distracting gradients," calling the Aero Glass interface "dated and cheesy."

Bah.

I like Aero, I like Glass. If you don't, fine -- that's what makes a horse race. But I spent two hundred bucks on a GTX 660 with 960 cores, 80 texture units, and 2GB of GDDR5 memory sitting on a 192-bit bus. It can render Aero like a hot Surface melting butter and generate Bitcoins by the bushel.

Why can't it give me Aero Glass? Hey, Microsoft, if you want to hobble your interface just to run on some wimpy processor, I won't begrudge you the effort. You can make the Windows 9 interface look even more like Windows 3.1, if you like. But let me get back the chrome I had in Windows 7, OK?

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 6: Metro apps at iPad standardsHa.

Put any of Windows 8's built-in Metro apps up against their iPad counterparts. There isn't one of them that's close to the competition -- not one. (My InfoWorld colleague Galen Gruman, however, does see some wins for Metro apps vs. those on the iPad.)

Metro Mail won't even connect to a POP email server, for heaven's sake. Metro Pictures can't correct red-eye. Navigating any folders, anywhere, is almost as easy as typing CD on a DOS command line. The Xbox Music and Video apps are mere extended ads, with minimal functions. The Windows iTunes program (which I personally swear at on a frequent basis) had more features nine years ago. The Metro apps are so bad they're embarrassing. Don't get me started.

While I'm on the topic, why isn't there a Metro calculator that's as good as calc.exe?

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 5: Desktop Charms that do somethingRight now, the Charms just sit there.

Search pops me over to the Metro Start screen. Oh boy. It won't even run a Bing search inside Internet Explorer 10 -- useless.

Share is comical; it can't pick up what's in the clipboard, much less attempt a fancy Metro-style Share contract. "Nothing can be shared from the desktop," it says. So why are you on my desktop?

Devices invites me to install a second screen -- golly. Why can't Devices give me access to my, you know, devices, the way Windows 7 does with the Devices and Printers applet? That way I could see if any of my printers are jammed or a network-attached scanner isn't responding. Instead I get an insipid offer to extend my horizon to a monitor that doesn't even exist.

And Settings ... oy! I can choose Internet Access and get a sliding panel notification that's completely useless. I can play footsie with the volume slider or turn the machine off -- although I can't log off the current user or switch users, both of which require the Metro Start screen. I can bring up the Control Panel -- the stunted Control Panel, which doesn't control everything. Be still my beating heart.

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 4: Meaningful notificationsAt least the toaster notifications in Windows 8 are cool -- in fact, the name "toaster notification" is so quintessentially right-on that my hat is off to whomever came up with the idea.

But why can't I get notifications about things that matter?

If my Internet service provider suddenly dies, why can't a toaster notification tell me the Internet's, uh, toast? If my connection to the server goes shiny side up, why doesn't Windows notify me? If my 4G turns to 2G, I'll realize it sooner or later, but why can't Windows watch out for me and warn me proactively?

More than that: SMART, aka Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology, has been around for almost two decades. Why in the world can't Windows monitor the SMART status of my hard drives and tell me when they're hiccupping? Why can't I get a temperature warning for my CPUs or a notice that one of my fans has failed?

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 3: Dual monitor with Metro on the sideI've tried and tried, and there's no way to put a small monitor on the side of my big screen that'll catch the trips to Metro land. Someone could make a fortune creating 10-inch touch-sensitive monitors that are designed to sit next to big, classic monitors, with the sole purpose of showing the Metro Start menu. If I do something stupid and flip over to Metro, my big screen stays on the desktop, but the little screen helps catch my stumble -- and lets me tap-tap my way back to sanity.

Win8 has good multimonitor support. But it isn't smart enough to keep Metro on one screen and the desktop on the other(s). It should be.

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 2: MultibootNo, I don't mean multiboot in the sense that you mean multiboot.

I mean it should be drop-dead easy to tell Windows, in the Control Panel, that you want to boot to the desktop or the Metro Start screen. It also wouldn't hurt to have the Windows key re-assignable so that it goes straight to the desktop, instead of the Metro Start screen. I doubt that idea will get any traction.

Windows 9 must-have feature No. 1: And my most direly desired feature request ...... bring back the Start menu. OK, I lied. I said I wouldn't moan about the Start menu again. But I can't help it.

There's a precedent. If you've been using Office for a while, you've actually seen a similar morphology.

Office 2003 had menus: text in a row near the top, with drop-down text options in columns that appeared when you clicked on the column header. Click on File, for example, and you saw New, Open, Close, Save, Save As, Print, and so on -- you know, regular old menus.

Office 2007 introduced Ribbons. Instead of menu text at the top of columns, Microsoft gave us "tabs." Click on a tab, and a bar of icons appeared, running across the page, not down. This, I'm told, was Progress (with a capital "P"), but Microsoft was forced to make compromises.

For example, an Office 2007 user still had to open files. Instead of using a "File" menu column header, Office 2007 users were expected to magically understand that they had to click the Office orb in the upper-left corner in order to perform File-style actions. It's kind of like knowing you have to hover your mouse in the lower-left corner of the Windows desktop in order to get to the Metro Start screen or right-click in a Metro Internet Explorer screen to bring up a new Web page.

I call it alacrity through obscurity.

By the time we got to Office 2010, Microsoft apparently discovered that normal folks like you and me were mystified about clicking an unmarked orb floating in the upper left in order to open or print or save a file. So we got a modified "File" menu back. Click on the Office 2010 File menu (er, sorry Julie, File tab) and you see many of the old File functions: Save, Save As, Open, Print and so on. They're all listed, in text, on the left side of the screen, like a good little menu, although they're in a jumbled-up sequence unlike the menu items in Office 2003.

Now in Office 2013, we get a File menu with most of the old Office 2003 menu items back in order: New, Open, Save, Save As, and Print are all there, and they all appear as text, running down the left side of the screen.

We've come full circle, at least with the File menu in Office, from fully visible and usable to highly inscrutable to usable again but oddly rearranged to a near-complete restoration of the old menu items. I would even argue -- please don't shoot me -- that the Office 2013 File menu is better than the Office 2003 File menu.

Perhaps we can beg for the same thing in Windows 9?

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