At some point, you will need the next version of Windows. But that’s down the road a ways. The question Windows users need to ask before October 26 is whether you need Windows 8 right now? The answer begins with “that depends…”

Fortunately, you may not have to worry about that question much longer. Although Windows 8 will look like a foreign city to many everyday Windows users accustomed to the way things have been since 1995, this may be the last colossal mindset shift in the operating system’s history. Microsoft is moving to a service-based model of software distribution. Once enough users are on board the train – having transitioned from “customers” to “subscribers” – changes in the environment should appear more gradual. The concept of “versions of Windows,” as we know them today, will be irrelevant.

In the meantime, though, Windows users have to ask themselves plenty of questions:

First Question: Why Is There Windows 8?

Before Windows 7’s release three years ago, when folks asked whether they’d need Windows 7 right away, I answered, “Yes.”  Then they asked, “Wait, don’t you need to know what computer I have now?”  I said, “No.”

Windows 7 remains the best operating system Microsoft has ever produced. It was the culmination of the company’s best ideas that never came to full fruition with Vista.  But moreover, it was a vast improvement over Windows XP – which most folks were still using – in almost every department, especially security.

The philosophy shift Microsoft adopted with Win7 was so great that it still shocks people even today. One of the key reasons for Vista’s market failure emerged from Microsoft’s logo program – the deal that enables PC makers like Dell and HP to glue on Windows badges. That arrangment was engineered to convince consumers that they could not get a full “Vista experience” without buying entirely new systems. But customers didn’t like being told they had to spend  $1,000 on stuff that, three years down the road, will be landfill.

Windows 7 broke that bargain completely: Invest in Windows 7, Microsoft said, and you will make the computer you already have better.  And it did. Even now, analysts are shocked, shocked that Microsoft is acting independently of Windows hardware makers. But Microsoft had little choice, because in a world where consumers’ expectations are being defined by Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Toshiba, HTC, and oh yeah, Apple, Microsoft can’t afford to make binding exclusivity agreements about the future of consumer devices with the likes of HP, Dell and Acer.

So you can see the vital need for Windows 8 to break with its manufacturer’s earlier roadmap… from Microsoft’s perspective.  That’s not the same as yours.  The question that matters most to you is, “Do I need this system now?”

And the answer this time is not black-and-white, yes or no. Instead, it begins with, “That depends.”

Second Question: Whom Does the Change Benefit More?

Does Windows 8 improve the PC you have today, the way Windows 7 did?  From a usability perspective, I would argue no.

The Windows 8 interface (no longer being called “Metro” for legal reasons) is foreign, confusing and impractical in the context of a PC. The Start Screen is the way it is because Microsoft must present a near-uniform environment for all Windows devices (PCs, tablets, smartphones and maybe even HDTVs) if it wants to sell Windows as a subscription service that individuals can use in multiple places. Windows 8 is the company’s first try with that concept, and it’s understandably less than perfect. 

Although it’s a second-class citizen now, the Desktop remain the center of the PC work environment. This does not change with the new Office 365 – there are no Web apps in the new Windows 8-style UI. The changes people will notice most in their everyday work will still be realized on the Desktop. There are improvements to the operating system kernel in Windows 8, and there’s a new and vastly improved Task Manager. But the lack of a Start menu on the Desktop, in the same place where your work is in progress, remains an issue.

Case in point: It’s impossible to maintain your PC without the file manager program. The file manager – still, for inexplicable reasons called “Windows Explorer” – is launched (as of the last Release Preview) from the Desktop, specifically from the Taskbar. To move files between two locations accurately (especially between two computers on a network), folks often use two file manager windows. Since the Taskbar was last redesigned for Windows 7, clicking on the Taskbar icon activates the current file manager window. Without a Start menu, the only way to launch a second file manager on the Desktop is to right-click the icon and select “Windows Explorer” from the jump menu. Suffice it to say that Windows 8 artificially handicaps its own Desktop to make its vastly redefined Start Screen appear more convenient for those tasks it performs.

So now we have the truth: Windows 8 is about Microsoft changing its business model more than about customers changing their usage model. That’s not really evil. The iPod was about Apple changing its business model and, well, that plan pretty much worked out for everyone. But if Windows 8 changes the way you work and play, will those changes at least benefit you as much as they do Microsoft? 

The response comes in multiple parts, each of which depends on where you are and what you’re doing. We’ll take a closer look at those issues in Part 2 of this explanation of how much Windows 8 really matters. Look for it soon.