Microsoft talks up multi-monitor Windows 8 experience

22 May 2012

The multi-monitor workspace that may become common in the era of Windows 8, BYOD and affordable monitors

In the run up to the launch of Microsoft’s Windows 8, the software giant has begun espousing the potential of the operating system as a multi-monitor operating system. Microsoft, which has a penchant for wearing the wrong outfit to the party, may actually be right about something this time.

A few years ago I remember pointing out to a Microsoft staffer what quintessentially Microsoft got wrong with the operating system most people would like to forget – Windows Vista. Vista followed on the heels of perhaps one of the most beloved operating systems Microsoft had ever produced, Windows XP. XP was loved for its simplicity and elegance and in terms of multimedia capability brought the game forward in leaps and bounds.

Vista was too much for the computers out at the time. It felt over-engineered, complicated and I struggled constantly with simple things like just getting Wi-Fi to work.

To the dumbfounded Microsoft employee I pointed out one thing: technology creators often assume that the buying public has access to the same high-value computers and equipment you use. Often they don’t. It took a moment for the penny to drop and the executive admitted I may have been right.

I’m happy to say by the time Windows 7 arrived Microsoft had learned an important lesson about user experience and returned to the virtues of elegance, simplicity and basically something that works. Hence Windows 7 has been its best-selling OS to date.

Apple easily skirts around this problem by bringing its hardware and software out in unison and if an OS or machine is performing too slowly you can shrug and say ‘well, it’s old, I need to buy the latest version’. In the PC universe things are a little more chaotic with multitudes of manufacturers just installing Windows licences on machines of varying quality and capability. And also there’s those who will upgrade the OS on their existing hardware provided it meets minimum capabilities outlined by Microsoft.

Having dabbled with the consumer demo of Windows 8 I am certain of two things: firstly Windows 8 intends to create a multi-screen experience in the sense of multiple devices such as phones, tablets and PCs working in unison, a single experience so to speak; secondly, to enjoy the Windows 8 desktop experience in its entirety, it lends itself beautifully to the big screen. One of my favourite apps is a Bing mapping app I stumbled upon.

UX is the technology world’s new religion

I think in the past if Microsoft were to urge users to bring multiple monitors to work or enjoy at home they would be guilty of making the first mistake I spoke of – assuming life outside Microsoft is the same as inside Microsoft.

But things have moved on – we are now in the era of bring your own device (BYOD) for one thing, and people in many jobs will demand or insist on having two large screens or more in front of them to give them the desktop real-estate they need to get their jobs done and multitask.

In a blog post this morning by Mark Yalovsky, a lead programme manager on Microsoft’s user experience (UX) team, outlined the virtues of a multi-monitor experience on the new Windows 8 OS. He gracefully acknowledged that while 14pc of desktop PCs and 5pc of laptop PCs run with multiple monitors, these tend to be in the enthusiast-leaning space.

But Microsoft may actually be on the money because UX is now a religion for technology companies, monitors are getting cheaper and its Metro apps can live and breathe in this multi-monitor environment.

He said the key is allowing for side-by-side Metro-style and desktop apps, move them to any monitor, etc.

One of the killer apps to watch out for is multi-monitor desktop personalisation and Windows 8 will come with a background customisation feature customisable on each monitor users have, including showing a different background on each monitor, having a multi-monitor slideshow, span desktop backgrounds across all monitors, as well as creating a multi-monitor taskbar with support.

For multi-monitor taskbar use, Windows 8 will come chock full of new taskbar options with some slick capabilities, such as switching back to recently used apps from any monitor.

It’s an interesting approach Microsoft is taking. But it’s a realistic approach at the right time. My gut says Microsoft’s on the right track with this one.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years