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Windows 8 Preview Elevates Touch and HTML 5 and JavaScript

In a press release from Redmond today, we get a little preview of what is to come with Windows 8 and it is HTML 5 and JavaScript.

I have mixed emotions about all of this. Some may say that it’s like putting lipstick on a pig, but in fact I don’t think Windows 7 is a pig at all. It beats any other desktop OS, bar none, and no, I don’t want to hear it from the Mac crowd (see my previous post). For me, it feels like putting an enhanced Windows Phone 7 wrapper on the desktop OS. This is great news for the upcoming Windows 8 tablet user and market. For me, for now, it feels like my phone UI is getting in the way of my desktop UI. I’ll probably get used to it later, but for now it just feels strange.

In any case, the press release and the little demo video seems to answer three primary and critical questions. Here are my first impressions and a few key frames from the video to tease you into watching it.

What is a Windows 8 App?
Based on this press release and quick demo, we can assume that a “Windows 8 App” is a touch enabled HTML 5 and JavaScript application running locally on the IE 10 engine. This seems to directly integrate IE technology into the OS. I wonder if Eric Holder will care. I assume that if I can still make another browser my default, we’ll all be safe from the clutches of the U.S. Justice Department.

The touch enabled Start Desktop

What is Windows 8?
Aside from assumed improvements in the kernel, driver infrastructure, etc., we learn from this demo that the primary target UI is the touch interface with cool split thumb-friendly touch keypads for all platforms. Of course support for the 20th century input devices formerly known as the keyboard and mouse continues to be available. Behind the new touch enabled "Start screen" with smart app tiles, the old "Start button and menu" and desktop interface can be found underneath the covers. So you can have your touch-cake and eat your mouse and keyboard driven app-cake too. Smart.

Dragging the next desktop pane into view. Note the distinctly non-Windows 8 Word icon.

What Should a Developer Know About Windows 8?
In addition to your bag of tricks you currently maintain, you'll need to add HTML 5 and JavaScript if you don't already have them. And if you are not already learning HTML 5 and getting past the 'alert' statement/method in JavaScript, you are standing on the dock and the boat is hoisting anchor. Get with it. Buy some books. Watch some tutorials. And start writing your own "Hello Touch World" Windows 8 App now.

Tweet in your Windows 8 App while balancing the budget in your mundane Excel spreadsheet.

It will be fun to watch this latest incarnation absorb some of the best of its competitive predecessors. It will be more fun to read about their indignation. It will be less fun if Microsoft prematurely releases and we have a Vista-like PR disaster regardless of the basic goodness due to a few unpolished bits. Either way, I’m heading back to my HTML 5 and JavaScript study group.

Third Party UI Libraries Can Be Overkill

The question of the value of third party UI libraries has often come up in my career. At one time I was an eager advocate of using a comprehensive UI library. Now my attitude is a bit more pragmatic.

Third party UI libraries are sometimes a boon and sometimes a bane. Even for well seasoned UI frameworks. UI libraries for web applications tend to be particularly troublesome because they so often have a clumsy, heavyweight configuration and API that end up requiring more time to use than they save while the vendors race to win the feature count contest.

For some years, the trend seemed to lean toward the use of UI libraries because building a UI by hand was hard regardless of whether you were working with spaghetti script or with Win32 and MFC. Now Microsoft's toolset supports a much richer set of UI paradigms making the delivery of a great UI much easier right out of the box. The trend seems to be gravitating away from reliance on third party controls toward a more simplified user interface style with a more elegant framework relying more on convention than a feature bloated configuration and black box API.

One area where UI libraries seem to continue to do well, in my view of course, is with Silverlight and WPF (XAML) applications. These UI frameworks and their supporting third party UI control sets seem to have been made for each other. Both rely heavily on the powerful UI declarative language XAML. The rich user interfaces that can be spun up using Silverlight or WPF can be intoxicating.

Ultimately, we need to use UI libraries judiciously, being careful not to overuse them where requirements and the effort needed to learn and configure them are not warranted. One could argue that the limited way in which many third party controls are used in a variety of applications provide us with a bountiful set of examples of the gratuitous overuse of these libraries. Sometimes all you need is a good closet and the kitchen sink that comes with that room builder toolkit is just plain old overkill.