Understanding Windows 8 app compatibility and the Metro user interface

We answer some questions about Windows 8 application compatibility and the new Metro user interface, whose name Microsoft has quietly dropped.

Now that Windows 8 has been unleashed to the world, many organizations are beginning their evaluations in earnest. One of the most notable differences between Windows 8 and previous versions of Microsoft's operating system is its new application environment, known as the Metro interface.*

There are some things that IT administrators absolutely need to know about Windows 8 applications on a desktop, the user experience and app compatibility. Here's what to watch for as you begin your evaluation.

What do I need to know about the new Windows 8 application style and environment? What will my users find different?

  • The Windows 8 application environment is full-screen and very focus-oriented. Users can get lost, particularly if they're accustomed to traditional windows and don't make applications full-screen. Switching between Windows 8 applications is a little different. The mouse is not as much of an ally, so users will need some training. There is no support for dragging and dropping items in the Windows Mail Metro app, for example. Right-clicking works in some cases, popping up a context menu as you would expect. In other cases, right-clicking brings up a small, touch-oriented options panel along the bottom 10% or so of the screen, requiring a move of the mouse to select any of those options. Metro is absolutely touch first, keyboard and mouse second -- don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
  • New-style Windows 8 applications are primarily loaded from the Windows Store, a service hosted by Microsoft. The Windows Store is the center of the Metro apps universe, much like the Apple Store and the iTunes App Store. Free applications are available, and Metro apps can also be sold on the Windows Store for developers interested. If you have written enterprise applications as Metro apps that you wish to load onto users' machines without first having to upload them to the store and then receive approval from Microsoft, then you need to have Windows 8 Enterprise on your desktops. Side-loading of Metro apps into other editions of Windows 8 is prohibited. You can also disable access to the Windows Store through Group Policy. Finally, if you're interested in running a full, corporate-approved desktop image off a high-capacity USB stick, know that, by default, Windows Store access is blocked in Windows to Go.
  • The traditional Office 2003, 2007 and 2010 applications are not Metro. Users may initially find that switching among Metro-style apps, including new line-of-business applications written as Windows 8 applications and prior desktop office suites, can be confusing. The cut/copy-and-paste commands and all traditional Windows tools still work between the two environments, so little true functionality is lost, but admins must stay close to users during the initial Windows 8 deployment to head off some orientation problems.

What other Windows 8 compatibility problems should I be aware of?

  • Metro apps can run on both x86/x64 chipsets and Windows RT machines, which run on ARM chipsets and are sometimes known as system-on-a-chip hardware. These Metro apps must be recompiled by internal development teams for the same app to run on both the standard x86/64 Intel-based hardware and the Windows RT ARM-based world that many Windows 8 tablets will live in.
  • The Metro-ized version of Internet Explorer is really designed only for browsing and is severely locked down. It does not allow for plug-ins or add-ins, including Java and Flash. Silverlight works for now, but Microsoft will update this version of IE when it decides that all users of IE Metro should have them. Thus, if users want to open IE in Metro to gain access to internal Web applications, you may well have some compatibility problems if they're all but the most basic, HTML-based Web pages.

Many printers won't work with Windows RT. The new chipset requires printer manufacturers to completely rewrite their drivers. Microsoft is working on a universal print driver for Windows RT to alleviate this concern, but many multifunction devices and printers that require software support on the attached PC will not function until well after the release of Windows 8 tablets running on ARM.

*The Windows 8 applications were known as "Metro" apps until August 2012. They are now known as "Windows Store" apps.

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