Friday (Oct. 25) is the official coming out party for Windows 8, a radical do-over of Microsoft's computer operating system. Because it represents a new paradigm for how we use computers, there will likely be many perplexed users early on. But they'll be out of luck if they try to find help in the operating manual — there isn't one.
Like legions of frustrated users before, they'll have to rely on one of the many third-party books now rolling off the presses that attempt to guide users through the Windows wilderness. Many of them will be turning to Andy Rathbone's "Windows 8 For Dummies" (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).
Rathbone has the been the explainer-in-chief for the Windows world since he took over the "Windows for Dummies" franchise 20 years ago, shortly after Microsoft kissed the command line goodbye in favor of the graphical user interface.
There's a simple explanation for the popularity of Rathbone's series. He's one of us. And he feels our pain and knows how to explain away our Windows woes.
I'm not really a techie
"I'm not really a techie," he told BusinessNewsDaily. "I don't know all the command lines and a lot of the really advanced Windows stuff. I would say that I know more about technology than the average person, but I'm mostly better at the user interface and how things interact with the user than with the mechanics of Windows."
Rathbone's secret is that he avoids getting too far under the hood. Instead, he tries to get inside users' heads and understand how they feel when they're in front of a computer and looking at Windows.
"That's actually a pretty easy mode to get into when a new version of Windows comes out because everything is new," he said. "Microsoft has moved everything around so I've got to find out how to do stuff that was so easy to do in the previous system."
Many of Rathbone's readers are people who view computers as a necessary evil. They have to use them but they're not particularly happy about it.
"There are a lot of people who use computers on a day-to-day basis, but really don't like to use them," he said. "They have to use them in an office setting. They just sit down in front of their computers and do what needs to be done and then they just want to get away from the computer. They're just looking for something that will walk them through the steps of what needs to get done."
He knows these people well
He knows these people well. As he writes in his introduction, "You want to get your work done, stop and move on to something more important. You have no intention of changing, and there's nothing wrong with that. That's where this book comes in handy. Instead of making you a whiz at Windows 8, it merely dishes out chunks of useful computing information when you need them."
Windows 8 is designed to work both with touch-screen computers and tablets that you navigate by touching tiles on the screen as well as desktop and laptops computers that use traditional keyboard and mouse navigation. To the dismay of many users, those steps are not immediately intuitive.
As David Pogue, a tech columnist for The New York Times, puts it, "The Windows 8 learning curve resembles Mount Everest."
Two operating systems
With Windows 8, you really have two operating systems, Rathbone said. There is the old desktop side, which is still easily accessible through the tile icons on Window's 8 new start screen. And you have the tile interface, which was designed to work with tablets and other touch-screen computers and make them easier to use. Credit: Andy Rathbone photo courtesy of John Wiley & Sons
Rathbone thinks that Windows 8 and its tile menu will do well on tablets and be, in fact, easier to use than Apple's rival iPad.
"The buttons are bigger and easier to touch," he said. "It's easier on your eyes because you can see things easier. It works like a piece of paper. You can slide the piece of paper around to see more of what you have."
People who don't have touch screens, though, are just going to head to the desktop and ignore the new start menu.
"Once you've got a mouse and a keyboard, you really don't need the large tiles on the start page," Rathbone said. "The large tiles are actually a little unwieldy when you're using a mouse."
Though Microsoft has taken some flak for apparently being late to the tablet party, they were actually among the early pioneers in early mobile computing with Microsoft Tablet PCs and a version of Windows that supported those devices.
"They were just ahead of the times when they came out with the first tablets 10 years ago," Rathbone said. "Then came the iPad and Microsoft found themselves left out of the tablet market and the phone market. Mobile computing is really where the market is."
Windows 8 is designed to bridge that gap and support devices ranging from smartphones and tablets to laptops and desktops.
The two great challenges users will face in using Windows 8 in all its permutations are the whole ecosystem of apps on the new start page and navigating the start tiles with a keyboard and a mouse, Rathbone said.
The ecosystem of apps
"The whole start system and its ecosystem of apps are completely new," he said. "The touch screen works a lot like a smartphone, but with a bigger screen. You think everyone has a smartphone now, but a lot don't. And that's going to be new to them."
Users without touch screens are also going to initially stumble navigating the new interface, but Rathbone's book offers them a path out of the wilderness.
"Using the start screen with a mouse and a keyboard is really going to be a challenge, because it was really designed for touch," he said. "That's where it really shines. It's a little awkward with a mouse and a keyboard. And you've got to learn a lot of new tricks like clicking in the corners to bring up menus. All four corners bring up something. For the desktop people, I wrote a section on how to keep Windows 8 from moving to the start screen all the time."
A lot of the initial criticism of Windows was misguided, Rathbone said.
"I think a lot of the problem with the initial perceptions of Windows 8 came from the power users who were trying to use the start page with their mouse and keyboards," he said. "They were trying to use it to create content, and that's not what it was designed for. It was designed to make it easier to access content that has already been created.
The genius behind the design of Windows 8 truly shows up when it's installed on tablets. It comes to close to offering ubiquitous computing.
Best of both worlds
"With the tablet, you've got the best of both worlds," Rathbone said. "You have the start screen interface, which makes it real easy to get your email in the back seat of a taxicab. Then, when you get to your destination, you just plug in a mouse and keyboard and you've got all your desktop applications. You can really start creating what you need to. And you don't have that power with the iPad; it's meant for consumption. With a Windows tablet you only have to carry one device."
Though in many respects it may be neater than sliced bread, upgrading to Windows 8 should not be on everybody's to-do list, Rathbone said.
"I don't think people should upgrade to Windows 8 with their existing computer," he said. "It's not going to do that much for them. Windows 7 does a lot of things very well. It's going to be around 10 years from now just as XP is. Windows 8 works better with newer computers that have touch screens. Unless you have a touch screen, there's really no need to upgrade."