Interview with the authors of Windows 8 Secrets – Paul Thurrott and Rafael Rivera

There have been quite a few Windows 8 related interviews on this site but I have to say this is one I have been looking forward to.

I met Paul Thurrott and Rafael Rivera at the BUILD conference last September and was impressed by how technically proficient they both were while somehow staying (relatively) normal and unassuming.

Paul Thurrott is a seasoned tech analyst/veteran and the brains behind the tech repository – Windows Super Site ( He has covered Microsoft almost as long as the company has existed ( kinda feels that way at least).

Rafael Rivera is a security clearance holding technical guru. He is a contributing Writer at WPCentral, an Executive Director at The Within Network, LLC and an independent blogger at his site – Within Windows.

In 2009, these gentlemen successfully published a 1080 page monster of a book called Windows 7 Secrets and that book is widely regarded as an excellent (if not definitive) guide to Microsoft’s Windows 7 Operating System.

Here we are 3 years later and these masochists are about to do it again. They are currently writing the next book in the “Secrets” series, this time for Windows 8.

I had an opportunity to interview these guys and without further ado, here it is..

Onuora: Guys, thanks for making the time to do this, let’s get started. How did you guys decide to hook up and write a book?

Paul: As far back as 1996, when my WinInfo news digest went from a local community college email-based newsletter to a web-based, publicly available web site, I always envisioned being part of a team. It just never worked out that way, and the companies and people who’ve published my writing over the years have always preferred to promote me as a singular voice or personality instead. But I’ve kept trying to collaborate, and you can see that in Mary Jo Foley joining the Windows Weekly podcast and of course with Rafael and Windows Secrets. I’m looking for quality and complimentary capabilities.

Rafael: I remember Paul springing the question on me in a hotel room, while lying in bed, in the Galapagos. Or no, sorry, I believe it was at a Microsoft event. At any rate, I was both excited and terrified at the prospect of working with Paul on his Windows Secrets line of books. Excited that I would have the opportunity to translate my in-depth technical knowledge into readable characters on a printed page; and terrified that I had to produce work that someone as prominent as Paul would approve of.

Onuora: Why did you want to write this with each other?

Paul: I come across a lot of different people, and personality types, at industry functions, and while they all have their pros and cons, Rafael stood out for his technical expertise–which is second to none–and complete lack of ego. Too many people in this line of work are far too eager to tell you how smart they are, but Rafael is the real deal, and I knew he could bring a deep technical understanding of the underpinnings of Windows to the Windows Secrets books and provide them with an important advantage over competing books. Liking Rafael, and being able to work with him, was key as well. It’s really worked out.

Rafael: I was new to publishing. So the opportunity to work with a great friend who has vast experience in this area and is also passionate about Windows and technology was one I could turn down. And he bribed me with some excellent bagels.

Onuora: How would you describe the collaborative writing process so far?

Paul: One of the few things I can honestly say about myself is that I can write. And I don’t mean that as in “I can write well,” but rather than I can write in volume. But that’s grunt work in many ways. We collaborate on the table of contents (TOC) and we review each other’s work. We’re constantly discussing everything that happens with Windows 8 and how that impacts the book. The whole thing is collaborative and, oddly enough, the actual writing of the book is in some ways the least of it.

Rafael: As Paul mentioned, he can write, not just well but in volume. Because of that, I have to work extra hard to ensure my work is of comparable quality and length, otherwise the book will just appear patchy. It helps a lot, however, that we do maintain constant communication and collaborate on a daily basis via various channels.

Onuora: So far, what’s been the hardest part of writing this book?

Paul: Right now, it’s the waiting. We can’t be sure what Windows 8 is, exactly, until we’ve seen the Consumer Preview (previously called the Beta), thanks to Microsoft’s secrecy policies. We’re eager to really dig in, and the lag between milestones is killing us. (Microsoft promised they’d update the Developer Preview, by the way. They never did.)

Rafael: Ditto. We’re in a holding pattern until we have something tangible to write about. This affects the schedules of everyone in the chain – not just us – and well, you know what they say rolls down hills.

Onuora: What were your first impressions of Windows 8 when you first saw it?

Paul: My reactions to Windows 8 have followed a predictable, almost traditional series of steps. First, excitement: It looked like Windows Phone, which is revolutionary and excellent. Then, confusion and doubt as you learn more and think, wow, this isn’t going to work. Then, finally, acceptance: This is OK, and I can do this. But really, the biggest initial impression I had, and the one that is most telling, is seeing this bank of Windows 8 tablets at BUILD and thinking that people would see something like that in Best Buy or whatever and just want one. Windows 8 is just so pretty. It makes the iPad (software) look drab and boring by comparison.

Rafael: Rafael: I also went through Paul’s above Steps to Assimilate New Microsoft Technology, but I think the most prominent thought I had at the time was: Oh my god, this is totally going to work on slates.

Onuora: You’ve both been working with Windows 8 for a while, can you tell us something about the OS that would surprise the readers?

Paul: Metro works just fine with a mouse and keyboard. Sorry, haters.

Rafael: Windows 8 can boot up from scratch in less than 8 seconds. That’s crazy.

Onuora: What’s the difference between blogging and technical book writing in terms of difficulty and how you approach the material?

Paul: I write for many different types of publications, and I think of each differently. The quickest and easiest are blog posts: These I can rattle off quickly and they’re designed to be concise and to the point.

Next up the food chain, so to speak, are the news stories I write for WinInfo each day; they’re meant to condense what’s going on in the tech world down to just the 1-3 stories that are most important that day for Windows users.

Then there are the full-length articles I write for the SuperSite for Windows–which is not a blog, by the way–these are longer, often much longer, and involve more time and work.

After that are the articles that are less timely, like the weekly editorials I write for Windows IT Pro Update and the monthly column for the print magazine called Need to Know. Those are edited by others and there’s a round of feedback.

Books… well, books come after that. They’re tough because they require a lot of research and a lot of time, and they pay the least, by far, from an hourly basis. They require the most feedback–at least three rounds for each chapter, with different types of editors weighing in, and you must deal with each item of feedback.

The book must be definitive and valuable, and written to a certain style. And books are hard because they’re final: If there’s a mistake, you can’t fix it, at least not until a future revision that may or may not come. It’s just a different thing all-together. If someone finds a mistake in a blog post, news article, or web article, I can fix it immediately. Not so with books.

Rafael: Cutting down on technical verbosity is the most difficult for me. On Within Windows, for example, I can write with the assumption that readers know certain technical terms and topics. But Windows Secrets is targeted to a slightly less technical audience, requiring me to decrease the depth but increase the breadth of my writing.

Onuora: How much of the book is complete as of right now?

Paul: Maybe 10 percent. Each chapter is completely laid out, though that may change when we see the Consumer Preview. I’ve written bits of background material in some of the chapters. Consider the chapter about the new Metro-style user interface. That UI may change between now and the final release, but the thinking behind it and the history of the thing is something I can write about now. So I’m trying to get as much of that done as possible before we get to the nitty-gritty of the actual how-to/explanation content.

Rafael: It’s actually impressive how much we have done, given how little information we really have. We’d probably have more if I helped too. Doh!

Onuora: Are you on schedule or behind and why?

Paul: Behind, of course. Any author who tells you differently is deluded or a liar. But part of the reason, of course, is Microsoft. We expected to be writing off a Beta release in January 2012. But now we’re waiting until the end of February, and the Consumer Preview, to get going actively.

Rafael: We’re on schedule… a new schedule that aligns with Microsoft’s late release of updated Windows 8 bits.

Onuora: You’ve probably been deeper into the OS than most civilians, how easy is this going to be to use?

Paul: Talk to me in a month. 🙂 Right now, the Developer Preview is like using Windows 7 plus this weird Start Screen that you trigger inadvertently. But with a ton of Metro-style apps coming, and a hopefully feature-complete Consumer Preview, the experience the experience is going to get a lot better. And perhaps very different. We’ll see.

Rafael: Well I think we can all agree that on slates, Windows 8 is going to rock. Let’s just hope that ugly Desktop mode doesn’t bleed off some of that coolness.

Have Microsoft been supportive of the effort?

Paul: Yes. At the BUILD Conference, we were temporarily given Samsung slate computers but were supposed to return them after the show. I approached Microsoft and its PR folks and asked if I could hold on to mine throughout the pre-release cycle for purposes of writing the book, and they were immediately supportive of that. I regularly talk to various people at Microsoft (and its PR companies) about Windows 8, including some who may surprise you. They understand what we’re trying to do, and that this book will be a positive thing for Windows 8. We’re enthusiasts, and yes, we may raise questions. But ultimately we love Windows and our heart is in the right place.

Rafael: Very supportive. I’m a very blunt and outspoken kind of guy. For Microsoft and its PR folks to boil away my craziness and see me as a value to the Windows community; it feels good to be validated, you know? And I can’t thank them enough for doing so.

Onuora: Microsoft get a lot of props for a design that’s different from Apple (IOS) and Google (Android), how intuitive is the new OS to use?

Paul: I feel very strongly that the Metro-style UI is excellent and something that will work very well across Windows PCs and devices, servers, Xbox 360/living room devices, and Windows Phone. In fact, I can’t wait to see Windows Phone 8 pick up some key Metro improvements in Windows 8, especially around multi-color and more configurable live tiles and the horizontal (rather than vertical) navigational model.

Rafael: I’m a big Windows Phone fan, so to see this metaphor translated to the PC makes me happy inside. I can’t speak to its intuitiveness though; I haven’t used it enough or on the form factors that I feel matter more (e.g. slates).

Onuora: Paul – are you still really using Windows 8 as a primary PC for all your work?

Paul: Yes. Every single day.

Rafael: I’m still trying to wake him up to the fact that you can play games on the PC too. And it’s far superior. <ducks>

Onuora: Will the book cover Windows Phone or Windows Server 8 in any way? Integration?

Paul: Yes to both. Server won’t get the same coverage as the Windows 8 client, of course. And yes, from the perspective of integration especially.

Rafael: Absolutely. I think that’ll be a very valuable part of the book.

Onuora: What’s the book going to be called?

Paul: Windows 8 Secrets.

Rafael: It will actually feature spine and cover stickers that say Windows 8 Secrets. But they can be peeled off to reveal  _____________ in which you write the last minute OS name, should it change prior to book publish. (I’m kidding, of course.)

Onuora: Who’s the audience for the book?

Paul: Any Windows user who wants to know what’s new in Windows 8 and master those new features. The expectation this time around is that the reader already knows Windows. They just want to know about the new stuff.

Rafael: I’ve found that everyone learns something from the Windows Secrets line of books. But it’s geared towards an intermediate audience of folks that want to exploit Windows 8 to its fullest potential, to fit their needs.

Onuora: When can we expect to buy this book and where?

Paul: The plan is to ship the book “day and date” with Windows 8, meaning that it should appear in bookstores at roughly the exact time as Windows 8 is generally available. Right now, the plan is for that to happen anytime between September 2012 and January 2013, but I’m ready to push it to make an earlier date if Microsoft really surprises us. (They won’t.)

But much of the actual schedule for this book is on the back-end and unrelated to what we do. And the actual heavy writing time will be about three months or less, I bet. It will be sold at major book stores, both retail and electronic, and will be made available in all the major eBook formats (Kindle, etc.) as well.

Rafael: Borders. Oh wait.

Onuora: Thanks for your time. 

Paul: Thank you!

Rafael: Invoice in the mail, buddy 🙂

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