Windows 8: The End of the Beginning

As sure as day follows night, as sure as eggs is eggs and as sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is shit… ~ Simon Pegg, Spaced

That was the rule: every odd-numbered Star Trek movie sucked. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was weak; Wrath of Khan was awesome; Search for Spock was abominable; The Voyage Home seemed better at the time than it does now; the Final Frontier may as well have had Captain Kirk in a leather jacket water-skiiing over a circling fin; The Undiscovered Country was clever and well written; Generations was just… weird; First Contact was a brilliant showing for the TNG crew; Insurrection was very, very dull. Then Nemesis, the tenth film, tried to ruin the whole thing by being possibly the suckiest Star Trek film ever. But that didn’t disprove the rule, which stated that the odd-numbered movies sucked, not that the even-numbered ones didn’t. And then JJ Abrams came along and rebooted the franchise, with a movie that is either number 11 or number 1 but is definitely odd-numbered either way, and is utterly fantastic.

So now I keep seeing tweets and blog posts and articles in journals I respect expressing the worry that Windows 8 is going to be “another Vista” or “another ME”, as though there were a rule that every other Windows release has to be a turkey. Thus I am compelled to post this, by way of respectful disagreement with these idiots. I’ll get onto why I don’t think Windows 8 is, or will be, a failure, but I’ll start by asking this question:

Was Windows 7 a success?

Commercially, Windows 7 has done extremely well. Critically, it was well received, and widely described as “what Vista should have been”, and that is probably true. Vista was slow and bloated and broke nearly all the promises that were made early on in its development (such as WinFS), or detached those promises and made them available in Windows XP as the .NET Framework 3.0 (which, itself, was hideous and quickly replaced by 3.5). Windows 7 was fast, even on older hardware, it looked good, it was stable and secure; it was all the things that Vista wasn’t.

But in all the joy of finally being able to upgrade from XP, there was a stated aim of the Windows 7 project that was not delivered: touch. Yes, there were multi-touch APIs, and I worked on a couple of WPF projects that did cool and interesting things with touch screens, but the fact is, Windows 7 was not a touch-based operating system.

You can’t touch this ~ MC Hammer

It was traditional Windows which would, if you had a touch screen and could successfully tap or poke the tiny area of screen with the checkbox or the menu item or the bit of window chrome you wanted, would respond. But its heart wasn’t in it. That’s why, more than three years after Windows 7 was released to manufacturing, you still don’t have a touch screen device waiting eagerly for Windows 8’s honest-to-goodness touchability. No, in that respect, Windows 7 did not succeed. And then the iPad happened, and that respect became a whole lot more important.

And then the world changed

The iPad changed the way the general public thought about personal computing. It made everyone who thought they needed a computer, for email and Facebook and shopping online, realise that they probably didn’t, after all. They just needed a device that could do those things, and until now, that had meant a computer. In April 2010, less than a year after Windows 7 manufacturing and only a few months after it had become generally available, Apple showed the world how a touch UI on a larger form factor should work, and in the first month, it sold a million iPads, and less two and a half years later, they’ve sold more than 84 million. You don’t even need a PC or a Mac to make the iPad work any more: it can update its own OS and back everything up to iCloud. You can go whole days without touching a physical keyboard and not miss a thing.

Except, of course, you still needed a “proper” computer for the less trivial things, like writing anything longer than an email, or creating any of the content that people are using iPads to consume, or doing actual work. None of that stuff has gone away, and it’s not going to any time soon. Computers are still around, and Microsoft still make operating systems for them, but in the post iPad world, people are starting to wonder why their computers aren’t, you know, more iPaddy. Apple themselves are making OS X more like iOS with every update, in increasingly odd ways, none of which actually help at all. Meanwhile, Microsoft have made Windows 8.

Enter the Metro Modern UI… whatever

If Windows 8 were just another iteration on the WIMP + Start Menu paradigm of Windows 95, with maybe a Launchpad-type-thing thrown in, and bigger checkboxes and menu items and bits of window chrome, then it would be a failure, and in another three years there would still be no touch devices waiting for Windows 9, and Microsoft’s share of the consumer market would have collapsed like a Romulan mining vessel in a black hole. Windows 8 had to have a touch-centric UI if Microsoft’s OEM partners were going to be persuaded to invest in producing touch-capable devices.

Now, I am not a User Experience expert, but I’m pretty sure it would be hard to make a proper touch UI that was also dreamy to use with a mouse. The two things are so far removed from each other. Fingers are imprecise, but far more intuitive and flexible and numerous than a little arrow-shaped pointer on a screen. If you design for that pointer, you’re missing out on all the cool stuff fingers can do, like swipe in from off the side of the screen, or flick things, or pinch stuff, or any of the other perfectly natural and intuitive gestures you now have to pay patent royalties to use. Of course, if you make those finger gestures the only way to activate certain functionality, then you’ve got a whole world of users out there without touch screens who just can’t use your new operating system, and that would be a shame because there’s a bunch of other neat stuff in there that’s got nothing to do with the UI.

At this point, you might deliberately and with incompetence aforethought decide to start making two completely separate operating systems, one for tablets and one for keyboard and mouse, and immediately lose a market position it’s taken you the best part of twenty years to build. Or, you can compromise, and design a UI that works really well for touch, and OK for a mouse, and an OS which still runs a vast back catalogue of applications by falling back to the more traditional UI that works really well for the mouse and, all right, let’s be honest, hardly at all for touch. It won’t be perfect, it never could be, but it’s a transitional step in the right direction. Unfortunately, like all the best revolutions, this one will not make everybody happy (and some people are losing their heads).

Start Menus are so 1995, you know?

By far the biggest gripe with Windows 8 is the removal of the Start Menu. Having used Windows 8 as my primary OS for most of this year, I’m here to tell you: that’s the thing that matters least.

If you’re a power user, here’s how you use the Start Menu in Windows 7: you hit the Windows key and you either click something you’ve got pinned to the main menu, or you start typing the name of the lesser-used application you’re looking for.

Here’s how you use the Start Screen in Windows 8: you hit the Windows key and you either click something you’ve got pinned to the Start Screen, or you start typing the name of the lesser used application you’re looking for.

That’s it. If you’re using a keyboard and mouse, the only thing that’s changed is that the Start Menu is maximised now. Who moved my cheese? No, wait, there it is: an inch to the left.

But if you’re using a tablet or a touch screen, well, now you’ve got a Start Menu you can actually use, because it’s got tiles so damn big Homer Simpson could launch the right app. They’re so huge, you can read your email in them. They tell you important stuff without you needing to touch them. I’m unfriending unattractive people on Facebook because their pictures are uglying up my People tile.

It works, in both worlds. Get used to it and move on.

So there is some non-great stuff

The new UI does have its share of problems. The method for “closing” a Modern UI app, which is to swipe it right down the screen with your finger, is clunky when you do it with a mouse, where you have to push the cursor right up to the top, click and hold the mouse button, and drag it all the way down to the bottom. But Alt-F4 still works, and Microsoft say we need to stop worrying about closing apps anyway because it’s got so good at suspending them you can just jump back to the Start Screen and load the next one. You can also do the snapping thing, where you dock one app to a side of the screen and another takes up the rest of it, with Win+. (snap to right) and Win+Shift+. (snap to left).

The mouse-into-the-corner thing for bringing up the Charms (I hate that word; makes me think of bracelets and witches) is probably the least awful of a hundred that they tried, and it works better in the RTM version, but you should learn the Win+C shortcut for it anyway. And Win+Z to bring up the App Bar for the current app, that one’s really useful. It’s ironic, really, that the UI which brings Windows up-to-date in terms of the Natural User Interface should also bring us full circle back to remembering keyboard shortcuts.

Probably the worst thing about the new UI, and one that is particularly noticeable to the MSDN and TechNet subscribers downloading the oven-hot RTM builds to play with, is that it does not play nicely in Virtual Machines. I use a MacBook with Parallels, and running in a window, it’s really hard to hit the corners with the mouse; running full-screen, any time the cursor gets near the top of the screen (to, the bloody Apple menu bar drops over it. Fortunately, in Parallels full-screen, the Windows Key shortcuts still work so all the functionality is still accessible, but if your VM software doesn’t trap the Windows Key, you may be in for problems.

Far worse than any of the sins of the Modern UI is the fact that there is still a bunch of stuff that you have to fall back to the old-style desktop to do, especially in terms of settings and the Control Panel, and very little has been done to make that even a little bit more touch-friendly. Checkboxes, menu items and bits of window chrome are still too small to accurately hit with even the pointiest of fingers, and resizing windows is challenging, to say the least (which is, of course, why the Modern UI doesn’t have windows).

Aero’s gone, to try and reduce the dissonance between Modern and Desktop, but that’s no great loss and be honest: you don’t spend that much time looking at the title bars anyway.

That’s about it, at least in terms of things that are Microsoft’s “fault”. Of course, my 2011 HP Envy laptop doesn’t have updated drivers available which will let me use the AMD GPU that is now gathering dust inside it, but that’s between me and what HP laughably call “support”.

Windows 8 will succeed

It may not shift as many units in the corporate world as Windows 7 has, because it really doesn’t offer a compelling reason for corporate IT departments to go through all the pain of rolling it out to hundreds of under-specced budget boxes with 17” monitors. But I think it will shift lots of units in the consumer market, on form factors like the Surface tablets and Lenovo’s Yoga pad, things which bridge that gap between highly-portable consumption device and notebook PC. It will be pre-installed on all new notebooks by the end of this year, and most people will probably grumble for a day or two until they get the hang of it. And in two or three years, touch screens will be the norm, whether on tablets, hybrid devices, or the next generation of Ultrabooks. Maybe we’ll even see some new form factors, like desktop touch-screens tilted low, maybe as part of an over-and-under dual screen arrangment, and real-world, affordable interactive coffee tables.

That will be Windows 8’s success: enabling the next generation of hardware, and clearing a way for ubiquitous computing, which is where we’ve really been heading all this time. Windows 8 may not quite be the first of a new generation of operating systems, but it is, at least, the last of the old generation. So have fun with it, and get back to me in a couple of years, so we can argue about which is better: Project Glass or Kinect Shades

It’s gonna be the future soon, I’ve never seen it quite so clear ~ Jonathan Coulton


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