This holiday I went over to my relatives and amongst the massive amounts of holiday cheer, there was a bunch of hate over Microsoft’s latest OS. Up until now I’ve kept pretty quiet about Windows 8. I’ve been using it since the user preview has been available and while I wasn’t floored by it I thought it was at least a serviceable OS. I have to say though this Christmas with the family has taught me that things are not okay and the folks over at Redmond have a serious problem on their hands.
The Tale of Two OSes
When I first installed Windows 8 public beta on my desktop computer I commented on the Disengage Auto Pilot Facebook page that the start screen was very jarring. Every time I hit start if felt like I was being thrown into a completely different experience. It felt that way because it is that way. Windows 8 is in fact two operating systems fused together like conjoined twins. You have the standard desktop, which is a minor update to Windows 7, and then you have the tile tablet interface that began it’s life in Windows Phone 7. Unlike most conjoined twins though they don’t really talk to one another. Each operates completely independent of one another. This leads to stupid redundancies like duplicate versions of internet explorer are needed one for the desktop and one for the tile UI. The larger problem though is it leads to complete confusion for the user as to how the computer actually works. I first got the inkling of this problem when I told my fiancé to print a pdf for me. Let’s start with the good news, although I hadn’t installed anything on the computer specifically to read pdf’s Windows 8 immediately recognized the file and opened it. This is the end of the good news. Sadly the default viewer opened in the tile UI and since the tile UI has no menu buttons she was completely lost as to how to print the file. The reason why she was printing in the first place was because I was preoccupied at the time. She is quite capable with a computer, so when she came to me and said she couldn’t print I was incredulous, which made her quite annoyed with me. It wasn’t until I saw the screen and realized she was in the tile UI that I knew what happened and immediately apologized. Without any appearance of the menu bar there was no way to know how to print.
Gestures are worse than Hotkeys
To print the PDF I just hit CTRL+P the universal print command for windows for more than 15 years. Which if you’re a certain kind of user is by far the most obvious thing in the world. Here’s the problem, most users aren’t the type to memorize hotkeys. Most users need visual cues to guide them to the tasks they want to perform. Asking most users to rely on hotkeys is like asking them to drive cross country by memory. Windows 8 makes an even greater demand. It asks you to memorize a series of gestures for basic operation. This is like asking people to drive cross country by memory, at night, with the sign posts removed.
The biggest issue with the tile UI is that it breaks the essential paradigm of a Windows machine. This is where my relatives come in and how I came to realize how badly Microsoft has screwed up. All my cousin wanted to do was play solitaire while watching Netflix. Something a laptop purchased 5 years ago would have little trouble doing. The problem is solitaire on Windows 8 is a Tile UI app. Tile UI programs like most tablet apps are designed around a full screen experience. This means only one Tile UI app can run at a time. In a very real way Windows has become singular. On a tablet this isn’t such a big deal because the hardware would usually make running two programs at once a horrendous experience (check out the reviews of the Galaxy Note 10.1). On the other hand a computer with an Ivy bridge based Core i7 being forced to run one program at a time is not just highly wasteful it’s downright stupid.
The Promise of Windows 8
Windows 8 was supposed to be the no compromise solution for everyone. Microsoft has always wanted to be everything for everyone. Ever since the pocket pc days, Microsoft has been trying to make one interface that worked on all platforms. Windows 8 was finally supposed to bring that dream to reality. Programs made for Windows 8 could, with very little modifications, run on the desktop, tablet, phone, even in some cases the xbox. This uniformity was meant to make things easier for programmers and users alike. With one interface users always interact the same way. Unfortunately Microsoft has yet to realize, NO ONE WANTS THIS. Different platforms demand experiences. Microsoft should have known better. They’ve screwed this idea up too many times. All their attempts at tablets and phones floundered as niche devices while competitors created mainstream successes for the same reason; they tried to force users to use these devices like they use their desktops. Now Microsoft is trying to force users to use their desktops like tablets and phones.