Windows 8 Is For Touch Screens. Period.

Steve Ballmer Office 15 demo
Steve Ballmer at yesterday’s Office 2013 introduction.

[credit provider=”Matt Rosoff, Business Insider”]

Now that Microsoft’s entire product vision for Windows 8 is coming together, it’s finally starting to make sense.Windows 8 plus Office 2013 on a touch screen tablet could be a great product for a certain class of user — busy information workers who spend a lot of time in Office apps like Outlook and Excel (which aren’t available on the iPad), who want a tablet for media consumption and casual gaming, and who don’t want to carry two devices.

Call them busy BYOD (bring-your-own-device) workers.

(The BYOD opportunity for Windows 8 was detailed on Business Insider Intelligence last month.)

I’ve been using a Windows 8 tablet with the new touch-enabled version of Office since yesterday afternoon, and for the first time since testing Windows 8, I’m a little bit optimistic about Microsoft’s chances.

This is not meant to be an in-depth review, but here are some first impressions.

Windows 8 Is For Touch Screens. Period. 
This was the biggest revelation.

Using Windows 8 on a traditional laptop with a trackpad was an exercise in frustration — the gestures weren’t intuitive, the functions were confusing, and the flow of the experience (like swiping left to go “back” one screen) just didn’t make sense.

On a tablet, it’s a lot better. For instance:

  • Swiping from the edges to reveal extra functionality seems like a normal action. You might even discover how to do this on your own without being coached.
  • Switching between environments was no big deal. Because Metro and the traditional desktop are so different when using a keyboard and pointer, switching between them felt jarring. But the differences aren’t as noticeable on a touch screen because the traditional desktop works pretty well with touch. There are still some odd surprises — like closing Office and finding yourself marooned on the desktop (sweep from the right to get back to Metro) — but at least it’s not jarring and annoying like it was with a laptop.
  • The on-screen keyboard is as good as the iPad’s. I sent emails and used several Office apps extensively and never felt like I had to plug in the keyboard, although I’d probably want to for writing long documents.

Windows 8 tablets will still require a little training — I had to use the Help function to remember how to pin applications to the Start screen. (SPOILER: you go to the Apps menu, swipe down on the app icon to reveal a menu bar across the bottom of the screen, then pin it from there. I can think of a lot more intuitive ways to do that, but nobody asked me.)

But unlike the case with the Windows 8 laptop, I could actually get some work done. It even felt a little bit fun, which has been sadly uncommon in Microsoft products outside the Xbox. And it’s certainly the best Windows-on-tablet experience Microsoft has ever created. 

Office Is The Selling Point
Microsoft should give the Office team a raise and some extra vacation time.

Not only has Office 2010 been responsible for most of Microsoft’s revenue growth for the last year and a half, but the crew has done a fine job reworking Office 2013 for touch screens in a very short amount of time.

Without going into too much detail, here’s an illustrative anecdote: I took a spreadsheet I’d created for BI Intelligence, added a column of made-up numbers, and was able to update the chart simply by dragging the active-chart-area box over the new numbers. Changing the chart style was as easy as touching different boxes with visual options. Done! It was actually faster and easier than doing it on a laptop.

After pulling my hair out in frustration over Excel for Mac 2008 for the last few months, it was a great reminder how much better Excel for Windows is — and how Excel on a touch-screen tablet might actually make sense.

I had similarly pleasant surprises with PowerPoint and OneNote (which is Microsoft’s underrated note-taking app, and is especially sensible on a tablet using a — gasp! — stylus.)

I didn’t even get to Word, which has all kinds of promising features like PDF editing and the ability to embed YouTube videos. Or the embedded Skype functionality, which tells you which of your contacts are online and available for a call right now.

There are still some frustrating areas, and some functions really require a keyboard and mouse — particularly option menus, as Peter Bright of Ars Technica points out. These are not touch-first applications. 

But at least I can see the direction Microsoft is moving now, and it makes sense.

The Cloud Isn’t Just Lip Service
Microsoft has finally integrated cloud-based storage directly into the operating system, like they should have done back in 2007 when Microsoft’s online storage service SkyDrive was first unveiled. 

As long as you’re signed in (which you can set up to be automatic when you turn on the PC), then whenever you save an Office document, the first option is to save it to SkyDrive. When you want to open a new document, SkyDrive is listed as an option. You don’t have to think about it.

There are other cool features enabled with the cloud, like Resume Reading, which lets you pick up a document where you left off even if you’re on a different PC.

I can’t believe it took Microsoft five years to get to this point, but glad they finally made it. 

What Still Needs Work
Both products are still in beta and have some fit-and-finish issues, and there aren’t enough apps yet to make Windows 8 truly compelling.

But even with those understandable and fixable caveats, sometimes the annoying old Microsoft just gets in the way.

For instance:

  • Lack of coordination between groups. Windows 8 has a built in contacts app called People, which can automatically import all your email and social network contacts and arrange them in one place. It works great with the free built-in Windows 8 Mail and client. But with Outlook 2013 — which is a paid product, part of Office — you have to connect to social networks separately, and it couldn’t see all the contacts I’d already imported from my Business Insider Google Mail account. The only way to get my contacts in was to export them as an Outlook CSV file, just like I’ve had to do in past versions of Windows and Office. There were a few moments like this, where Microsoft needs a single design guru with the authority to force the product groups to work together and pull the whole experience together for users. Microsoft still needs a Steve Jobs, in other words.
  • Insane product naming. Microsoft thrives on market segmentation — its standard design practice is to create a full-featured software product to sell to its richest enterprise customers, then strip out features for lower-priced versions to sell to small businesses and consumers. But this leaves an insanely confusing legacy of brand names for consumers to figure out. Do I want Office 365 Home Premium or Office 365 Small Business, and how does Office 2013 differ? Is SkyDrive OK, or do I need to upgrade to SkyDrive Pro? Or maybe if my company has SharePoint, I don’t need either? I just want to know what product to buy, what I get, and how much it’ll cost. Maybe if I buy Surface, Microsoft will just bundle the stuff I need and I won’t have to think about this. (Ah: but which version of Surface?)

The Bottom Line
Microsoft is going to have a hard time selling Windows 8 on regular laptops, and will probably have to allow PC makers to keep selling Windows 7 on those devices for years to come.

Enterprises will probably continue to standardize on Windows 7 as well. In fact, Microsoft has basically said that its strategy is to get companies to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7, then drive them to Windows 8 (or a successor) later on.

Windows 8 will face challenges in the consumer market. The iPad is still the industry standard: easy to use with hundreds of thousands of apps. The Google Nexus 7 also wins on ease of use, although it does a lot less.

But there is a class of information worker who rely on PCs and spend large parts of their days using particular Office apps. For those folks, a Windows 8 tablet or Surface device running Office 2013 is worth a serious look. Eventually, those workers could bring Windows 8 into companies, where they’ll discover how it just “plugs in” to new back-end apps like Lync 2013 (Microsoft’s videoconferencing product).

It’s not a sure win, but at least Microsoft has an answer to the problem posed by the iPad and its slow and steady march into the enterprise. Microsoft may never dominate the workplace again like it did a decade ago, but it’s not going to slide quietly into irrelevance either.