I’ve just installed the Windows 8 Developer Preview. These are some first impressions:

Installation of the preview was quite smooth and didn’t take too long. It took a few minutes to extract the files onto a virtual image, but feature installation then seemed to happen almost instantaneously (according to the feedback on the screen). The installation routine then went into a preparation cycle that took two or three minutes. Then the virtual machine rebooted and after a couple of minutes more preparation, up came the licence terms page.

Having agreed to the licence, I was immediately taken into a racing-green slidy-slidy set of screens that asked me to personalize the installation, including entering my email address. I entered my work alias. I was then asked for another alias and password for access to Windows Live services and other stuff. There was a useful link for signing up for a Windows Live ID. I duly entered the information. Only on the next screen did I spot an option to not sign in with a Live ID. I didn’t try this, but I felt a bit peeved that the use of a Live ID had appeared mandatory until that point. I suspect the idea is to try to entice users to get a Live ID, even if they don’t really want one.

A couple more minutes of waiting, et voil%u00e0. The Metro Start screen appeared, covered in an array of tiles. Simultaneously I got an email (on my work alias) saying that a trusted PC had been added to my Live account. I clicked the confirmation link, signed into Windows Live and checked that my PC had indeed been confirmed. Then Alan started chatting, but that is a different matter.

Of course, Oracle’s Virtual Box (and my Dell notebook) haven’t quite mastered the art of touch yet. For non-touch users a scroll bar appears at the bottom of the Metro UI. I had a moment’s innocent fun pretending to swipe the screen with my finger while actually scrolling with the mouse. Ah, happy days. Then I discovered that the scroll wheel on my mouse does the equivalent of finger swiping on the Start page.

I opened up IE10. Wow! I thought IE9’s minimal chrome story was amazing. IE10 shows how far short IE9 falls. There is no chrome. Nothing. Nadda. Of sure, there is an address box and some buttons. They appear when needed (a right mouse click without touch) and disappear again as quickly as possible. It’s the same with tabs which have morphed, in the Metro UI, into a strip of thumbnails that appear on demand and then get out of the way once you have made your selection. Click on a new tab and you can navigate to a new page or select a page from a list of recents/favourites. You can also pin sites to ‘Start’, which in this case means that they appear as additional tiles on the Start screen. I played for a minute and then I suddenly experienced the same rush of endorphins that hit me the first time I opened Google Chrome a few years back. Yes, sad to say, I fell in love with a browser! A near invisible browser. A browser that is IE for goodness sake! A browser that does what so many wished IE would do years ago. It gets out of your way.

Do you like traditional tabs? That’s not a problem, because the good-ole desktop is just a click (or maybe a tap or a swipe) away. There is even a useful widget on the now-you-see-me/now-you-don’t address bar that takes you to desktop view. It is a bit of a one way trip, and results in a new IE frame opening on the desktop for the current page. On the desktop, IE10 looks just like IE9. It is, however, significantly more accomplished, and has closed much of the remaining gap between IE9, the full HTML5 spec and some of the additional specifications that people incorrectly term ‘HTML 5’. Microsoft has more than doubled its score on the (slightly idiosyncratic) HTML5 Test site (http://html5test.com/) and now just pips Opera 11.51, Safari 5.1 and Firefox 6 to the post for HTML5 compliance (it beats Firefox by just2 points, although it is 1 point behind if you take bonus points into consideration) by that measure, although it still falls behind Google Chrome 13.

Pinning caused me some issues which I suspect are simply bugs in the preview. Having pinned a site, every time I went into the Metro version of IE10, I found that I couldn’t click on links, hide the address bar, view tabs, etc. I eventually had to kill my IE10 processes to get things working properly again. I noticed that desktop and Metro IE10 processes appear with slightly different icons in the radically redesigned task manager.

One slight mystery here is that the beta of 64-bit Flash worked fine in Desktop view but not in Metro. No doubt this will long since have become a matter of history by the time all this stuff ships.

For a few minutes, I was rather confused about the apparent lack of a proper Start menu in the desktop view. If you click on Start, you go back to the Metro Start page. And then the obvious dawned on me. In effect, the new Metro Start screen is simply an elaboration of the old Start menu. In previous version, when you click Start, the menu pops up on top of the desktop. It is quite rich in previous versions, and allows you to start applications, perform searches for applications and files or undertake various management and administrative tasks. Windows 8 is really not very different. However, the Start menu has now morphed into the new Metro Start page which takes up the whole screen. Instead of a list of pinned and recent applications, the Start screen displays tiles. Move the mouse down to the bottom right corner (I don’t know what the equivalent touch gesture is), and up pops a mini Start menu. Clicking ‘Start’ takes you back to the desktop. Click on ‘Search’ to search for applications files or settings. The settings feature is really powerful. In fact, in Windows 7, searching for likely terms like ‘Display’ or ‘Network’ also returns results for settings, but you get far more hits in Windows 8. The effect is rather like ‘God Mode’ in Windows 7.

The mini Start menu is available in the desktop as well. In this case, if you click ‘Search’, the search panel opens up on the right of the screen and results then open up to take over the rest of the screen. As I experimented, I found that while things were fairly intuitive, the preview does not always work in a totally predictable fashion. I also suspect that the experience is currently better for touch screens than for traditional mice (I note Microsoft is busy re-inventing the mouse for a Windows 8 world – see http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/en-us/products/touch-mouse/microsite/). This is hardly surprising given that Windows 8 is clearly in an early state and is unfinished. I suspect the emphasis to date has been on touch, and not on mouse-driven equivalents.

Once I grasped the essential nature of the Metro Start page and its correspondence to the Start menu is earlier versions of Windows, I began to feel far more comfortable about the changes. Sure, all the marketing hype is about the radical new UI design features. However, this really is just the next stage of the evolution of the familiar Windows UI. Metro is absolutely fabulous as a tablet UI (better than iOS/Android IMHO, which after all, are really just the old ‘icons on a desktop’ approach with added gestures), and I think it will actually be quite good for desktops, once it is complete. I note, though, that people have already discovered the registry hack to switch Metro off (see http://www.mstechpages.com/2011/09/14/disable-metro-in-windows-8-developer-preview/), and I think MS would be wise to offer this as a proper setting in the release version. I anticipate, though, that I will not be switching Metro off, even on a non-touch desktop.

Shutting down presented a little difficulty. I am used to using the Start menu to do this (the classic ‘Start’ to stop conundrum in Windows). I couldn’t find a ‘Shut Down’ command on the Start screen. I eventually did Ctrl-Alt-Delete (or rather, Home-Del in Oracle Virtual Box) and then found a Shut Down option at the bottom left of the screen.

Booting the VBox image takes 20 seconds on my machine. 20 seconds! I’ll say that again. 20 seconds!!!! Yes, 20 seconds, just about exactly. That’s on a virtual machine on my notebook. On the host, it would be significantly faster. This is Windows like we have never known it before. Frankly, it is the ability to boot fast and run Windows happily on ARM devices (I’ll have to take that on trust as I haven’t yet seen it for real) that are the really important changes. Almost more important than the Metro UI. The nay-sayers and trolls say it can’t be done. I think Microsoft has done it, though.

My last foray into Windows 8 this evening was to launch Visual Studio 2011 Express and have a quick peek at the templates for Win8 development. I have a lot to explore.

The say first impressions are the most important. When I saw the on-line video of Windows 8 a couple of months back, I almost fell off my chair in surprise. Now I have got my hands on an early version I am really quite impressed. Like everyone else, I couldn’t see how Microsoft could possibly compete against Apple and Google in the tablet space. Now…well…I look forward to seeing if and how Apple and Google will respond. If it is true, as Steve Ballmer states, that Microsoft had 500 thousand downloads of the preview in less than 24 hours, then tectonic plates have already shifted and Microsoft is firmly on track to become a major contender in the tablet space. OK, that’s only one in every 14,000 people on the face of planet earth, and yes, the release version of Lion had double that number of hits in the first 24 hours. Nevertheless, it is a huge figure for an early technical preview of an operating system that won’t ship for another year. It means people are very, very keen to start developing for Metro (I know we are at SolidSoft). And if Windows 8 succeeds on tablets, what will that mean for Windows Phone which also uses the Metro concept? Don’t ever, ever underestimate Redmond.