Microsoft has a tough challenge ahead, as do most tech companies. Mobile technologies are growing at an alarming rate as people learn they can do more while on the go. No longer are we tied to a computer to accomplish basic tasks such as email, web browsing, and communicating with our friends.
My friends, the paradigm is changing. Desktops and laptops aren’t going away anytime soon, but smart phones and tablets are becoming more and more mainstream as each day passes. Currently we have a multitude of operating systems to deal with and it is quite probable that current users interact with a mix of these operating systems daily. Go home and jump on the computer – Windows or OSX. Grab the tablet and sit on the couch – iOS or Android. Grab your phone and head out for drinks with a friend – iOS, Android, WebOS, Symbian, Windows Mobile, etc. Man, that can get confusing!
Microsoft has seen the future (not that it was difficult) and made a corporate decision to present a consistent user interface (GUI) across all Microsoft products. I can see their reasoning and applaud their attempts. You have to admire Microsoft for this decision – real chutzpah. This is akin to putting all your eggs in one basket though. If the public doesn’t like the final product they won’t buy the OS or products that come with the OS. In the past if you didn’t like Windows Phone you chose another device, but you probably had a Windows based computer at home anyway. Have an Android smart phone? Probably have a Windows computer. In the very near future this may not be the case. By introducing Windows 8 Microsoft hopes to move their Metro interface to the desktop. It is already present on the Xbox and Windows phones and with Windows 8 it will be on the desktop as well – sort of.
Along with the decision to move to a consistent interface has come the decision to focus on a consistent user input method: touch. Wait, your computer doesn’t have a touch interface? Well, not many do – yet.
During the “XP” days consumers wanted additional information available directly on their desktops and developers came to the rescue with products such as Object Dock, Konfabulator, and similar products. Microsoft took note and added desktop gadgets in Vista so we could all enjoy pictures, stock quotes, weather, computer performance, etc on our desktops and gadgets continue to be part of Windows 7 today.
In essence I see Windows 8 as an expansion of the previous gadget functionality in Vista/Win 7 to the point of involving the whole computing experience – effectively turning the desktop into a location where almost everything on your computer can be “live” at any point. No need to open your email app to see if you have new email. No need to open the calendar to see if you have an important event. No need to visit a website to find out the current weather. It’s all presented directly to the user all the time. What could be better than that? A LOT!
Another addition to Windows 8 is something called WinRT or Windows Run Time. The purpose of WinRT is to provide a method to create programs that run across the various platforms Microsoft is encapsulating in the Metro interface. WinRT will allow developers to write one program that will run on desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones. Seems like a great idea at first, and I agree. The problem, as I see it, is the implementation of legacy (i.e., that program you love and use currently) in the Metro environment. There isn’t any!
Microsoft has made some very bold decisions about Windows 8. I think they are on the right track and love the idea of having a consistent user interface no matter what device I’m using. The problem is with the implementation of these decisions. I fear Microsoft could have another Vista on their hands if they don’t carefully examine some of the problems they’ve created in Windows 8. I don’t want to see that from a personal or user perspective!
Hey, what’s going on with my Windows 8?
Let’s look at some of the glaring problems I see in Windows 8 and see if we can come to a solution…
1. Windows 8 does not present the user with a consistent user experience.
This is the big one. Currently all the tiles on the “new” Windows 8 Start screen are Metro apps written for WinRT. If you install a legacy app, such as Word 2010 or Photoshop, that program will run in the desktop. Confusing and not polished!
Listen to music using the app on the Start screen and you’ll be in the Metro interface. Use an program like Media Monkey and you’re kicked back to the old desktop.
Use the Reader app to view a pdf and you’ll be in the Metro interface. Prefer a program like NitroPDF and you’re kicked back to the old desktop.
Love the Start screen and Metro, but want to check which services are running? You’re back at the old desktop.
Love the Start screen and Metro, but want to explore your files or organize your folders? You’re back at the old desktop.
If Microsoft plans to change the mind and actions of the end user they must present a coherent interface to the end user and not a hodgepodge. There should be NO flip flopping between the Metro Start screen and legacy desktop, but a seamless transition.
If legacy programs and Metro apps must run in different environments Microsoft should work diligently to theme or skin the old desktop (that we all know and love) to appear as if it were Metro! The end user should have no idea whether they are in the Metro environment or legacy desktop. If they choose not to update programs for their Metro environment Microsoft should also go to great lengths to skin or theme them so that they appear as if they are Metro apps.
2. How do I start this dang thing?
The Windows operating system is synonymous with a Start button, Start menu, and taskbar. While Windows 8 may have similar functionality it isn’t apparent. It doesn’t stand out to the average user. It’s almost like handing your car keys to a person from a third world country – they have everything they need to make the car work, but have no idea how to go about it!
Microsoft is omitting the Start button/menu in Windows 8 as it takes up valuable screen real estate on mobile devices and they are counting on touch screen technology.
Microsoft should include a Start button in Windows 8. It wouldn’t be too difficult to style it in Metro (I created this one in Photoshop in a few minutes) and they have the ability to determine whether the device is a touch screen device, mobile device, or tablet during installation. Why not add it and only make it show on desktops and laptops? Heck, why not just make it optional?
While the Start screen is supposed to be an always present “Start menu” of sorts it doesn’t exactly fit the bill. Fortunately Stardock has created Start8 to add a start button and Metro style start menu to the legacy desktop. I’ve taken that a step further and created a Metro Start button and menu on the image to the right (click for full size).
I’ve also added a taskbar. I want to visually know what is running. Whether that be a web browser or an antivirus – I want to know! Metro allows you to access this information, but it isn’t readily visible.
3. You want me to touch what?!?
Microsoft has developed Windows 8 with touch devices in mind. The result of this decision is the loss of our friends the Start button and menu as well as many of the familiar mouse actions. Let’s not forget new mouse and keyboard actions for things we’ve never done before – swoop over here to do this and swoop over there to do that – hold these 3 keys to do what was only a mouse click away before!
Microsoft is gambling that most devices will have some touch functionality. I can see that with mobile devices, but I believe touch will always be secondary on desktops and laptops.
Who wants to move their hand at least a foot to touch their screen. For that matter, who wants greasy smudges on their 24″ monitor like those in the image on the right?
I pity anyone who would have to use touch to do precise work on images, videos, or any other application that requires one to make minute adjustments.
Microsoft, Please listen to your users!
At this stage Windows 8 is a preview, or beta to us old folks, and we don’t know what will happen before it is finally released, nor will Microsoft tell us. I didn’t write this to be alarming as I will install Windows 8 when it is released. I enjoy new software and it is part of the DCT job to have experience and knowledge about the latest and greatest.
To Microsoft: I like Windows 8. I like Metro. I like new software. I enjoy technology. I do not like the overall user experience in Windows 8 on desktops/laptops, nor do I feel many will. Microsoft, if you want to do right by your customers please work on the seamless switching between the Start screen and legacy desktop. Please update or skin legacy programs and features so they appear as if they were Metro. Please add a Start button/menu/taskbar to Metro. You’re more than welcome to disable it on mobile devices, but it should be (at least) optional on desktops and laptops. While you’re at it why not add close buttons to your Metro apps?