Microsoft's Bet of the Century

Awhile back, Microsoft decided that it would compete in the tablet space with a next generation Windows, called Windows 8. The design compromises Microsoft had to make for this to happen may end up further stalling Microsoft's progress in the post-PC tablet era, causing the company to fall further behind instead of reversing the fortunes of Windows. It's the technology bet of the century.

A careful analysis of the Windows 8 User Interface (UI) has been published, and it is scathing. While the Apple community has been discussing the finer nuances of skeuomorphism and UI/UX improvements that might come under the supervision of Jonathan Ive, Microsoft appears to have made wholesale blunders in the those elements of Windows 8.

At the core of this issue is whether an OS can serve two masters, the desktop/notebook and the tablet. As we know, under the tutelage of Steve Jobs, Apple leveraged from its Unix/Darwin core to create a new, tablet GUI. That GUI makes absolutely no concessions to the operational usage of OS X. The iPad is a thing unto itself, designed to be pure* tablet, and nothing to hold it back. If, someday, iOS matures sufficiently and forces OS X into irrelevance, that would only have a relatively minor impact in Apple's total revenues.

What's at stake here is the prospect of building and maintaining two OSes, and so, some background is in order here. There was a time when Microsoft had two very distinct OSes with different foundations, Windows 95 and Windows NT. The company fought mightily to follow in Apple's footsteps and move to a single OS for all. (Except for specialized Windows Server variants in the enterprise.) Once Microsoft achieved that holy grail, in Windows 2000, there was no going back.

Apple, meanwhile, took a different approach as it contemplated the mobile OS in circa 2005. Apple would retain the core functionality, the overall architecture of BSD Unix ("Darwin"), but also pull off an interesting trick: Remove some daemons, continue modification of the underpinnings to be more modern with, for example, Launchd, and adjust frameworks for a touch and gesture experience. Nowadays, Apple can be thought of as having two OSes, but it's really just one core Unix OS with two different presentations to the user.

That allows Apple to envision and instantiate a pure tablet experience, one that users have come to appreciate in the iPad.

Microsoft's Dilemma

Back to the future. Faced with the enormous technical and financial ties to Windows, Microsoft had no choice but to carry Windows forward as both a tablet and PC OS. (Well, the company did have a choice. It was called Courier, But Steven Sinofsky, when he was still with Microsoft, deep-sixed it.)

Now, here we are in November, 2012, and Microsoft has launched Windows 8. How has this unified OS made the transition to the tablet space, namely the Surface RT tablet?

Let's take a look.

Jacob Nielsen is a web usability consultant. He holds a Ph.D. in human–computer interaction from the Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen. Recently, he posted an analysis of Windows 8 derived from his own experience and credentials combined with user testing with 12 experienced PC users. Here's a link to his analysis, but for the sake of the discussion, I'll just cite a few of the issues he discovered.

  • "The product shows two faces to the user: a tablet-oriented Start screen and a PC-oriented desktop screen. Unfortunately, having two environments on a single device is a prescription for usability problems..."
  • "...the product's very name has become a misnomer. "Windows" no longer supports multiple windows on the screen."
  • "The Windows 8 UI is completely flat.... There's no pseudo-3D or lighting model to cast subtle shadows that indicate what's clickable.... Icons are supposed to (a) help users interpret the system, and (b) attract clicks. Not the Win8 icons."
  • Simplification for the tablet user is extreme. "As a result of the Surface's incredibly low information density, users are relegated to incessant scrolling to get even a modest overview of the available information."
  • Live tiles are good for weather and calendars. "Unfortunately, application designers immediately went overboard and went from live tiles to hyper-energized ones.... the result makes the Surface start screen into an incessantly blinking, unruly environment that feels like dozens of carnival barkers yelling at you simultaneously."
  • "The tablet version of Windows 8 introduces a bunch of complicated gestures that are easy to get wrong and thus dramatically reduce the UI's learnability...The UI is littered with swipe ambiguity, where similar (or identical) gestures have different outcomes depending on subtle details in how they're activated or executed."

There was more, and I could go on, but this is enough to whet your appetite to read the entire article and appreciate the tremendous compromises Microsoft had to make to turn Windows 7 into a tablet OS.

As a final punctuation of this theme, that the transition of Windows to a pure tablet OS has been botched (for the time being), it's also worth reading the observations of an experienced technical writer. Yes, Mr. Siegler is a long-time iPad user, but my take here is not so much that a potentially biased iPad user found the Surface RT alien and frustrating as it is how a user with years of experience on a pure tablet reacted to Microsoft's tablet vision using Windows. It was not a happy experience.

As a final, glorious condemnation of the Surface RT, there's an image of the tablet in Mr. Siegler's trash can.

Credit: TechCrunch. Paid for with personal money. For effect, yes, but sharply so.

As Dr. Nielsen notes, Microsoft learns from its mistakes, and Windows 9 will likely address many of these problems. But the core of the issue remains: Microsoft, in a world soon to be dominated by pure tablets with OSes uniquely designed for tablets -- Android and iOS -- has staked its future on the idea that Windows 8 can carry the company into the tablet era and has made the corresponding concessions in design.

Considering this market share evolution of Windows, in the sand chart below, that's the technology bet of the century.

Image credit: Asymco. Some are still not counting Atari out.


* I define a pure tablet as one that works equally well in landscape or portrait mode and isn't sold with a keyboard.

Dice image, with artistic magic added by Bryan Chaffin, via Shutterstock.