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Windows 8's Split Personality Could Rip OS Apart

It hit me while performing a three-finger salute on Microsoft's "reimagining" of Windows. I was shutting down an unresponsive program using Windows 8's new Task Manager--this is a developer preview, after all --and I noticed two icons for Internet Explorer, one white and the other blue. Yes, the OS has two browsers, both named Internet Explorer 10. One is designed for the more touch-friendly Metro interface, and the other is optimized for desktop mode (keyboard and mouse). That's not all that makes these browsers different.

The desktop IE program supports Flash, and the Metro version does not. In fact, the full-screen Metro IE nixes plug-ins of any kind. Microsoft argues that going plug-in-free improves battery life, as well as security and reliability. But the company also admits that about 38 percent of sites don't automatically fall back to HTML 5 for playing video when Flash isn't detected.

This is only one of many ways in which Windows 8 is a two-faced OS. But will users appreciate Microsoft's dual-pronged approach or just get confused?

It’s clear that Microsoft is banking on a one-size-fits-all approach with Windows 8, attempting to combine a touch-friendly front end with a traditional desktop computing experience for accommodating legacy apps. This is the complete opposite of Apple’s strategy, which for now has segregated its laptops and tablets by powering them with different operating systems: Mac OS X Lion and iOS 5.

There certainly are instances where Microsoft’s integrated approach feels right. For example, when you drag an app onto the screen from the left, you can snap it and then resize it, making it easy to view two open applications side by side—regardless of whether it’s a Metro or desktop app. I also like that interface elements of Windows 8 remain persistent in desktop mode, such as Settings, Devices, Share, and Search.

However, in the preview build of Windows 8 I can share a web article in the Metro version of IE10 using apps such as Tweet@Rama. But in the desktop version of IE10 I can only share screenshots. Why? This needs to change before launch.

Another good example of Windows 8's split personality is settings. In Metro mode you'll see a few options when you hit the Settings button (Network, Volume, Brightness), but to access more you'll need to open the slick new Control Panel, which lets you tweak some but not all of your PC's settings. Right at the bottom of that screen you'll see an option that says More Settings that will dump you into the desktop environment and open the classic Control Panel.

I'm glad that Microsoft is making over many of its apps to be more modern and touch friendly, but using two different apps to tweak settings feels odd.

The new Task Manager is an example of an app that delivers the simplicity Windows 8 is striving for but also the depth that power users demand. By default, the utility presents a very simple interface that displays the names of apps that are running and an End Task button. If you want to dig deeper, you can click the More details button to see everything from what percentage of the CPU and memory programs are eating up to how much data certain apps have used (good for those on metered wireless plans).

Too bad this utility forces you into desktop mode. You shouldn't have to leave the Metro UI to close an app.

The biggest schism looming for Windows 8 has nothing to do with its interface. It’s the fact that ARM-based devices won’t be able to run traditional desktop apps at all. It’s Metro or nothing. That’s not a bad thing in the sense that users will have less of a reason to leave Microsoft’s sleeker interface, but it puts an enormous amount of pressure on developers to ensure that the most popular apps are Metro-ized by the time Microsoft’s OS launches.

Otherwise, consumers could literally have two different Windows 8 experiences depending on the chip that powers their tablet or notebook. Nvidia, Qualcomm, and TI can’t afford to see their vendor partners put Windows 8 Lite stickers on their machines.

Overall, Windows 8 does a lot to move computing forward, especially the Live Tile interface and the way the cloud enables your apps and settings to travel with you from one device to the next. There’s a lot of cool stuff that I haven’t yet played with, such as the ability to play Xbox Live games against others on the Xbox or a Windows Phone. Windows 8 is a powerful and versatile platform, but Microsoft needs to do a better job of bridging the old and the new.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.