I’m sorry if I don’t share the wild enthusiasm about the broad direction Windows 8 is taking – as far as I can see, Windows is increasingly being reimagined in iPad’s shadow, and I believe Microsoft is explicitly or implicitly doing so at the expense and minimisation of the traditional desktop experience. Eventually, I think this ongoing narrow super-optimization of Windows will be pushed down onto all end-users no matter their use-scenario and that’s going to hurt us all.
Let’s first establish just how similar is Windows 8’s reimagining to that of iPad/iOS combo:
| ||iPad / iOS ||Win 8 |
|Facts || || |
|Apps run in full-screen / chrome-less mode || || |
|All apps are installed, versioned, and stored independently || || |
|One has to source apps from a single curated App Store (* for the most part) ||* ||* |
|The OS is exposed using native libraries – Cocoa Touch Frameworks, WinRT || || |
|Apps are not compatible or enabled in the traditional desktop environment || || |
|All apps are isolated, and don’t share direct access to each other || || |
|Plugin-free Browsers (to protect the App Store model) || || |
|OS and Apps are Touch-Centric / Touch-First experience || || |
|Two broad-modes available for developing apps – Native and HTML || || |
|Provide/allow abstractions to enable multi-language use – .NET, MonoTouch etc. || || |
|Desktop Environment for Traditional Applications (* only the x86 platform will feature backward compatibility) || ||* |
|Opinions || || |
|The general drift is towards building tightly controlled / closed systems || || |
|There is a systematic effort to enable a generational vendor-lock in || || |
|First-party apps/services favoured above similar third-party apps/services || || |
Obviously, there are small/big implementation, technical, and user-experience differences between the two – and to be fair Windows 8 is offering the traditional desktop environment in addition to the touch-first environment. That is the big/critical differentiator between the two; one Microsoft is obviously hoping will give them a catapulting strategic-advantage over Apple. Now, I absolutely don’t fault Microsoft in going after this market, iPad and broadly touch-first experience is an existential threat to Windows and Microsoft’s overall dominance. However, I feel Windows 8 tilts the balance too far; in that it is doing so at the extreme expense, almost neglect, of traditional desktop applications – the same one that has been its bread-and-butter for ages.
Touch-First Experience Realized : An example
With the understanding that Windows 8 is still not even a beta product, and things will most definitely change – have a look at what is involved in putting the computer to hibernate using a mouse based approach:
Now, to my counting that’s like 7 explicit steps involving three clicks, three separate menus/panels, and requires moving to two extreme ends of the screen. Just to go through the motions – step 1 involves moving to one specific corner of the screen, step 2, wait for the menu to slide-in and then move to the settings menu item, step 3, click on the settings menu, step 4, wait for the slide-in settings panel and then move to the power menu button, step 5, click on the power menu, step 6, wait for the popup menu and then move onto the hibernate option, and finally step 7, click on the hibernate option.
Contrast this with one, the fact that most mobile/tablets are not often shut-down and, two, most of them feature a hardware button that puts the device to sleep – which in some respects rationalizes the logical and spatial layout of the power-down functions. However, mouse based devices are left with the short end of the stick.
Worse still, to my knowledge, there are no keyboard steps that allow you to power down a Windows 8 machine – the other day, my Bluetooth mouse went south and I couldn’t get to the power option. Good thing, I knew the command line argument to restart a computer; but still that points to the fact Windows is being optimized away from the mouse-keyboard combo.
Downgrading the Desktop Experience
It’s not just about the UI, which admittedly is still in flux, but everything from exclusivity of Metro design language within the new immersive experience, exclusivity of the new Windows RunTime (WinRT) again to the immersive experience, and the cosmetic improvements to the traditional desktop side (wohhoo, explorer with ribbon) speaks to the implicit downgrading of the desktop experience. If bullshit walks and money talks – then follow where all the resources are being put into.
You can’t re-imagine windows and leave the desktop experience behind – even though there is a ton of legacy burden to carry forward. For example, the Metro design-language, could equally be applied to the desktop applications, but how many Metro-style desktop applications did we get to see? Rather than Microsoft leading with tools, controls, and examples the enthusiasts’ community is showing us what’s possible:
Further, Microsoft holding off the entire WinRT platform from desktop-applications is a crying shame; especially in light of its infamous proclamation of “our strategy has shifted”. So after the big reveal at Build, what new options do desktop applications gets – well, none new, just more of the same, .NET, Silverlight, and the usual native stacks. There might be some technical reasons not to support desktop applications, but my guess is it’s mostly political or business for that matter. So it seems, after all these years and lots of playing-coy, Microsoft’s desktop UI strategy will remain in the same mess/disrepair it was pre the Build event – @##%!
Couple of months ago Steve Ballmer was belittling the size of the tablet market v/s the PC market size – 20m v/s 350m units (as of last year). And yet, here we are couple of months down the line, and Microsoft is putting the tablet experience at the heart of its flagship. So what just happened? Putting in the tablet experience is not the problem; it’s the relative demotion of everyone else that needs some perspective.
I fully understand and appreciate the value of tablets (personally, I’ve even been accused of evangelizing them), but it has its specific place/use vis-a-vie the traditional desktops – even as we get touch screens the big 20+ inch monitors are here to stay too, especially in the production environment. The so-defined “metro apps” seem out-of-place and forced to me when used in full-screen only mode – in this respect, I think Apple (again) got it correct in Lion, their full-screen mode works relatively seamlessly when paired with a trackpad and also goes around their traditional window-management weakness(es). The critical differences in Apple’s approach being, for one it is optional, second it is designed for pointer based applications, and lastly it feels additive (not exclusive) as with just a simple swipe you can escape the immersive embrace, as it were.
Similar perspective is needed on WinRT – I personally think it’s a validation of Silverlight and .NET’s model. Apart from the managed environment needs, WinRT follows a similar packaging-model, metadata-model, access-semantics, asynchrony approach, designer-developer’s separation approach, multi-lingual model etc. laid down by both Silverlight and .NET. Further, WinRT is being sold as native-native to Windows, well, to me both SL and .NET could/should also have been such native-native platforms; the difference was basically that they were not as good/deep as an implementation as WinRT, they perhaps tilted too heavily on the productivity side, and had multi-platform support constraints that created too high of an abstraction with perf implications. And unfortunately too, Microsoft didn’t have the appetite to fix the issues – so they ran for a greenfield approach. However, given that WinRT comes from the Windows’ team and they seem to be tied to a 3 years cadence, whereas iOS, Mac OS X, and Android all sticking to around a year’s release cycle – will Windows / WinRT be able to keep up? I donno.
I See Green
Credit where credit is due; Microsoft deserves some huge kudos for the big and bold steps they are taking, and even more so for the technical improvements they are bringing to bear at the OS level. Moreover, on the tablet front, after years of struggling they now seemingly have a technically competent platform, plus they and offering improvements beyond the markers already laid down by Apple – that will make them competitive, but then again they are adopting the good with the bad! And, in the big picture, especially when you consider they are betting (and/or exploiting) their biggest strategic assets (Windows) they should be more mindful of carrying the entire ecosystem forward not just a particular segment. I think they are swaying way too heavily to counter iPad, leaving behind their hereto market of desktop applications. That’s a folly and I think it will come back and bite them, just as letting the smartphone market to auto-pilot did; today though, a lot of Microsoft’s decisions makes sense from a specific prism, but that prism is tinted green in Apple’s envy.
Posted by Rishi on 20-Sep-11 1:22 AM, 95 Comments