I have been taking a look at the current Windows 8 Developer Preview (DP). I elected to install the 64-bit version in Parallels 7 on a quad core i7 iMac with 8 GB of RAM, and that went very well. The idea was to size it up from a first-look standpoint, especially in light of Apple’s recent release of OS X Lion.
Apple customers have been in a bit of a tizzy lately talking about how Apple has introduced what it thinks are some of the best ideas from iOS into OS X Lion. I think it’s interesting that the questions of what “the best” means as well as the agenda of Apple doesn’t come into sharp contrast until you look at this new OS from Redmond. There’s nothing like comparing two OSes to put each one into proper context.
Too Many Options
Apple is famous for keeping things simple. It gives the user a feeling of self-confidence and empowerment to be able to do a few things well and not be overwhelmed by confusing options. For example, the iPad, aside from the Settings, presents a very simple user interface (UI). Touch an app, and it runs. Do your thing with the app.
By comparison, the desktop of Windows 7 or OS X Snow Leopard is an imposing place. There are so many things you can do, and for many users, especially new users, it’s hard to know where to start compared to an iPad. Here are the things you can do in Snow Leopard.
- Click on an item in the Dock
- Pull Down a Menu
- Click an item in the Menu Bar
- Double-click a disk icon
- Double-click an item on the desktop
- Launch the widget page from the keyboard
I’ve probably missed a few things, but you get the idea. Confronted with this array of options, many users who are new to a computer feel somewhat dazed, while old-timers just jump in, having never known anything different.
One way to approach this problem, if you agree that it’s a problem, is to introduce yet another layer of abstraction on top of the desktop. Apple did that with Launchpad in OS X Lion, and Microsoft is doing it in Windows 8 with the new Start page that has active tiles. By active, I mean the tiles are mini windows that summarize the information from the full application. For example, when you see “Denver, 72 degrees” in a tile, there’s no doubt that if you select that tile, you’ll get some weather information.
Windows 8 Start Page
More importantly, this Start page gets away from the dizzying array of options I listed above and focuses the user on just a few common tasks, like e-mail, browsing, games, weather, Twitter and so on. If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s what Apple does with the iPad, and it’s Microsoft’s philosophy about how to marry a desktop interface with its sister interface, Windows 8 for tablets. The underlying OS is the same, but tablets introduce the ability to, of course, touch the tile.
Expert Windows users will probably be outraged and insist that this is a dumbing down of the interface that keeps them from getting to work. In Apple’s case, it makes sense to think about an exponentially growing population of new users; just look at the relative sales of iPads compared to Macs. However, for Microsoft to do it, especially when the prospects for the company look like either saturation or mild decline, it gives one pause. But it’s either that or have two distinct UIs.
That all said, my first reaction to Windows 8 on the desktop was one of pleasant surprise. It was easy to get started, and it was easy to move around. I think this is especially helpful when Windows isn’t your “native language.” For example, like an ice skater in the Arctic, you can skate around on the surface of the ice, enjoying the sights and sounds, or you can cut a hole in the ice and explore the depths along with the seals. This kind of gradual exploration and learning is indeed annoying for the expert user, but I surmise that both Apple and Microsoft are setting the stage for a post-PC world and millions of new users.
One of things that I noticed about Windows 8 is that the movement towards an uncluttered interface tends to suppress visible navigation controls. As Mac users, we are very accustomed to an intuitive UI that suggests how to go back, drill down, and escape. Windows 8, at least in this Developer Preview, seems to think that on screen navigation controls are a nuisance. For example, on the weather page, you have to muck around pretty hard to find the “Charms” popup on the bottom left corner in order to escape. Rather than menus at the top, a bar of icons can be made to slide open at the bottom (right click) with some useful options. The evaluation of whether a menu or a right click at the bottom is better or not must be deep in the bowels of Microsoft’s user testing vaults.
Denver Weather (The water is animated)
I have another issue with discoverability plus navigation. The classic Mac OS has rather clear guidelines for how to present navigational controls and how to visually prompt the user that you can click on an item (and something will happen). On the Windows 8 Start page, which I generally like, there’s some text: “Start” on the upper left and the user name on the upper right. Both are naked text on the green background. But if I click on “Start,” nothing happens. If I click on “john.” I am presented with some options.
That idea of naked text, that is, not surround by some kind of button that suggests click on it, is an emerging theme in Windows. It’s beautiful, artistic and unnerving all at the same time. Here’s a great example from the Control Panel page.
Control Panel (Very texty, very unlike OS X icons)
Note that there is indeed a button, called “Browse” but all of that text on the left is also clickable. I am guessing that the motivation is derived from the fact that so much of what we read on the Internet is text that we click on, but even browsers have their UI methods to distinguish plain text from clickable text.
Glimmers of Creativity
Despite my observations above, I can appreciate various glimmers of creativity in Windows 8. A myriad of potential options has been replaced by the tiled Start page. The roller coaster wait-cursor is beyond cute and also mesmerizing. The effort to make menus an option cleans up the UI and adds extra room for those cases when you want to focus on just one task.
The Metro version of Internet Explorer, designed to be plug-in free, comes up by default in the DP. It’s for developer testing for tablet deployment, and if you go back to the standard display of IE in a window, you can’t get back to it except via recalling it from your recently launched apps. I have a feeling that many users may like the Metro version of IE and want to use it in that mode. One irritant, however, is that when you use the Metro mode to install new software, solid visual feedback on what’s happening is rather abstract. In other words, its informational rather than representational. Often, we like to see things go somewhere we can identify.
I liked the idea that devices have their own controls. For example, in the OS X Finder, you have a menu item to empty the trash. The menu is one corner and the trash can is far in the other corner. On the other hand, in Windows 8, you right-click the recycle bin to bring up a contextual menu. Actions for manipulating files remain in the menu bar of the Explorer. The option to shut down is on the start page. So when you start thinking like that, you realize the OS X menu bar could be made superfluous. It’s the long sought benefit of not having the app’s menu pinned to the top of the screen. But it’s not for everyone.
Bizarre UI inconsistencies
Just when you thought that the Windows 8 experience had been cleaned up, top to bottom, you realize that it’s all really just a surface enticement. The cleaner UI at first gets you going, but deep in its DNA, there still lingers some pages that are a shock by comparison. Take a look at this UI for the Explorer.
When you see something like that, you realize the clean look of Windows 8 is intended to make the OS more friendly, but certain Microsoftian ideas about toolbars run deep to the bone. On the other hand, veteran users will feel right a home. There’s no pleasing everyone all the time. Still, some design aesthetics seem to be missing on a page like that shown above.
And don’t forget. OS X has its own bizarre inconsistencies. Like dragging a disc icon to the trash to eject it. Or the historic awkwardness of merely moving a file. All OSes live in their unique glass house.
This first look is not even what we would call a Quick Look review. I didn’t get into any details of the operation of the OS under the hood. I didn’t delve into security. The set of installed applications in the DP is minimal. And it’s not a finished product.
Instead, I wanted to give you a feel for what Windows 8 is all about on the desktop. Most importantly, when one sees how far Microsoft has gone in its evolution of the desktop UI, one can better appreciate the finer aspects of OS X Lion. Mission Control and Launchpad, for now, are optional. The basic elements of the Macintosh UI remain intact. The jump from Snow Leopard to Lion doesn’t seem nearly as great (to me, anyway) as from Windows 7 to Windows 8.
All in all, what we have to remember is something that the iPad taught us. Ninety-nine percent of users spend 99 percent of their time doing something of interest to them. They’re immersed in Twitter or writing a novel with Scrivener. Or they’re researching medical information on the Internet. And so, both Apple and Microsoft are discovering that a lot of the housekeeping and representational items, files and devices and disks and settings are not something that need to be constantly in the user’s face.
Modern OSes are all grown up now. They can generally take care of themselves. So the design of a modern OS, especially a mobile one, leans towards task focus rather than maintenance and visual diagnostics of the state of the OS. I can’t say I disagree with that, and I certainly see that movement in Windows 8.
Indeed, if you drill down far enough in eiher Lion or Windows 8, you get to the real nitty gritty. Modern expert users will just have to either get used to that or find ways to cut through. Given that, Windows 8 is a step in the right direction for users who just want to skate on some very thick and pretty ice. I’ve enjoyed exploring it, for starters. I’ll continue to report on it as it nears launch, perhaps in 2012.