A Pragmatist's Take on Windows 8

It’s been an interesting week - I’m back at work, the kids are back in school (and, of course, it took them all of a few days to catch a cold again), and Microsoft finally did something bold and overarching regarding Windows - and, again, I recommend watching this if you care one whit about UX and UI design, since it is by far the most interesting presentation I’ve seen on it.

And, of course, copious amounts of punditry have already been spouted with gusto from either side - largely because, as usual, people are taking sides.

I’m a fan, with caveats

My take on it? Well, it’s pretty simple, really. I think Metro is great, and I already have more than a passing interest in developing apps for Mango devices - plus a lot of personal history using Microsoft tools and environments.

The only question for me is whether final hardware will be good enough to compete with the next iPad - and by that I mean really good, not the “meh” kind of “good” that Android tablets have achieved so far, with slow response times and mostly hideous industrial design at pretty poor value for money1.

That Windows 8 will run in ARM is a given (the kernel and most of the subsystems have done so for ages), and it being self-contained and sandboxed like iOS is even less of a surprise - I’m curious as to how Microsoft is going to handle OEM customizations, but Metro is sure to go a long way towards lessening the visual impact of such (usually pitifully poor and shoddy) “value added” efforts from traditional PC manufacturers.

Having spent a couple of days setting up a Windows box again, I’d love to get my hands on one of those Samsung tablets they gave away, but I don’t think that’ll happen anytime soon.

As to the UX paradigm, and slow as it is on an old netbook with 1GB RAM, I’d say it’s tempting, but still a poor and confusing experience when running pre-Metro apps - something that, let’s face it, nobody is likely to want to do anyway in a few years, and especially not if the ARM tablets take off.

And despite the hype regarding the death of the Wintel alliance and “the world” - notice how pundits always try to make their point of view a global one - “finally entering the post-PC era” a year and change after the iPad came out, I think the future is bright for the tablet form factor first and foremost.

So yeah, I think they have a winner on their hands, if they:

  • Manage to avoid getting caught up in the traditional infighting that Microsoft has honed to a fine art
  • Set up a good software line-up for their app store launches (and that means Metro editions of Office that can work offline sanely, regardless of whether they are cloud-based or not)
  • Deliver it on time, and on good ARM hardware (I couldn’t care less about standard PCs)

I think they’ve got the other stuff (developer community, OEMs, etc.) down pat, and that the product will hold its own regardless - although the emphasis on the consumer space and Microsoft’s own cloud services are sure to make IT departments uneasy.

Alas, I don’t expect them to do something as obvious as getting rid of the scourge of Windows Activation and the ridiculously insane amount of “editions” of their OS. Nor to price it as sanely as Apple, simply because there is a huge amount of cash associated with the currently licensing model, and Microsoft doesn’t change busines models easily.


So, should Apple “steal back”?

I don’t think so, really. For one, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Metro UX specs had gaping holes where “obvious” functionality that Apple patented is lurking, and of course I expect Microsoft to patent their own innovations to the hilt.

But there are three things that I don’t think Microsoft can patent, and which deserve further consideration:

  • Edge gestures (also employed in the Blackberry Playbook, in case you forgot about that)
  • Tiles (which are, to all intents and purposes, widgets or ultra-minimized views of an app)
  • Split screen (which is damned useful)

Tiles appeal to me a lot in a tablet context, not just because you can get live information from an app (at the expense of CPU and battery life, which is something I’m sure will be a problem in early devices), but also because they allow for better notifications.

Sure, iOS 5 will have a revamped notification UI, but the point here is that it’s hard not to look at an iOS home screen after spending time with an Android device and wonder why Apple doesn’t allow for some sort of widget engine3.

I loathe Dashboard and everything associated with it, but there are some things that I wouldn’t mind having carried over to iOS, and even if apps like Flipboard and Pulse seem to me the best place to put “live” news data, I’m betting that a lot of people wouldn’t terribly mind if tiles (or widgets) became a common UI component in iOS - although I don’t see Apple doing it just yet, since it breaks the fundamental tenet that icons should be appealing but not overly distracting (and icon badges are already bad enough sometimes).

Edge gestures, now, those I have to wonder why they’re not in there yet - not only do they make more sensible use of real estate (all that wasted bezel space), they seem more intuitive than the current implementation2.

Time will tell how these pan out.

As to split screen, well… I’m not a fan of Lion’s brain-damaged full screen modes - primarily because they blank out secondary displays, but also because I’ve long felt that tiling windows are more practical than overlapped ones.

That feeling starts to set in when you get over the (now amazingly dated) desktop metaphor of stacking documents on top of each other, and full screen just doesn’t cut it because you always need something else besides the one app you’re typing in.

Old UNIX hands are likely to chime in at this point and point out that they have always had the choice to use tiling window managers and stuff like focus follows mouse, but let’s face it, most overlapping window managers are insanely arcane pieces of garbage as far as user experience is concerned, and Microsoft neatly vaulted over that usability minefield by limiting the amount of tiles to two - which makes a lot of sense, since over the years that’s likely to be the average number of apps I really needed to have on the same screen at any one time.

There’s nothing like it for the Mac or iOS - although it should be noted that there are currently no iOS devices with an aspect ratio where it would make sense.

On the Mac, Moom makes do, but there are times where I’d gladly get rid of overlapping windows and just have something tile windows automatically for me.

We need to focus on other stuff

But those seem like minor niggles against the lack of Android-like intents and activities in iOS, even in version 5. So I’m with Marco Arment on this one - Apple should steal stuff like contracts.

Anyway, all things considered, Apple and Microsoft are still worlds apart (if only because one will have new hardware out much sooner than the other), and Microsoft deserves credit for having come up with Metro.

Let’s wait and see.

  1. It’s always a matter of scale and balance, and so far Apple seems to have a better manufacturing pipeline and the forethought to go with it, so I expect Windows tablets to take a while to catch up - probably more than a year. But still. ↩︎

  2. It should be noted that I use iOS 4.3 gestures extensively and find them more efficient and natural than using the home button, but have always tended to start swipes from outside the screen area. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the reason they are a developer-only feature in current devices turned out to be lack of support for edge gestures in current hardware, if you catch my drift… ↩︎

  3. This is not new, but most people writing about iOS seem to be completely blind to other platforms. ↩︎

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