Posts Tagged: Microsoft

Breaking Windows

Thursday 7th June 2012

Sometime this year (I think), Microsoft will release Windows 8. I’ve just been reading an article from the Windows 8 development blog, about how the design team has changed the user interface for the new release. It’s interesting reading; mostly because the design for the Windows 8 UI currently seems to be a complete mess, so it’s interesting to see the justification.

Here is basically what they’re doing. They’ve noticed that touchscreen tablets and phones are quite popular, so they’re trying to build more touch capability into Windows. Except they’ve done more than that; they’ve designed this new interface – Metro UI – specifically for touchscreen devices. And to be fair, it basically looks great; a tablet with that UI could easily be as good as the iPad, if it had the right hardware. But they’ve made Metro the default UI, for everything. If you have a desktop PC with one (or more) big non-touchscreen monitor, then if you upgrade to Windows 8 you’ll be presented with the same interface as if you’re using a Win8 touchscreen tablet. You’ll have to click an icon to get back to the desktop, and even then the new UI replaces the start menu. So if you want to launch a program, you’ll press the start button and the new interface will open in fullscreen.

I’ve not used the latest version of Windows 8, so it might be better now. But when they released the first beta version to the public a few months ago, I installed it onto a non-touch laptop. My thought was that it’s pretty much unusable. It’s perfectly stable, don’t get me wrong. But they’ve moved everything around, hidden basic stuff (e.g. turning the computer off), and basically messed it up. I think that if I bought a new computer that came with Win 8, it wouldn’t take me long before I gave up and “downgraded” to Win 7 (quotes because it just isn’t a downgrade; Windows 7 is a great OS, much better than 8).

I genuinely don’t understand why Microsoft are going down this route. No-one needs or wants a tablet that can do everything a desktop can, and using an interface developed for touchscreens on a non-touch PC is inherently annoying. And also, touch isn’t always useful; do you really want to be reaching across your desk to touch your display?

I can understand an argument for there being a degree of interoperability; for the two types of system to be able to talk to each other, and easily share files. That’s pretty much a given. But different types of machines – touch versus non-touch, mobile vs non-mobile – really place different requirements for the UI.

Microsoft seem to think touch is the future. I think they’re right, for some cases. I think tablet computers like the iPad (although actually, at the moment it’s just the iPad) could work really well as main computers for a large number of people. I use my iPad a lot (right now, for instance!), and there are really only specific instances where I actually need to use a proper computer. I think Microsoft think that too, hence why they’ve put so much emphasis on Metro.

But, if that’s the case, then people will be using devices that look very different to the computer they use today. And as I’ve mentioned, those devices are designed to be used in very different ways, so the UIs need to be designed differently to cater for that. The backend of a tablet and PC OS might look similar, but there’s no need to require the same interface on both. That is, Microsoft could design one version of Windows, but with two very different interfaces, depending on the device it’s installed on; the difference being that you only install and use one type of interface, rather than having both and flitting between the two. That’d be a bit messy (they should start their tablet/mobile OS afresh, like Apple did with iOS… and like Microsoft have already done with Windows Phone), but it’d possibly be a cost-effective way to provide software to various classes of device, and maintain interoperability between the two.

As it is, Windows 8 is basically a complete mess. If they release it like this, I reckon it’ll get a terrible reception, even worse than Vista got (Vista was actually a pretty decent OS, the problems were mostly not Microsoft’s fault). If that happens, I can only guess as to what’ll happen to Microsoft. Bad things, probably.

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