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Where are the windows in Windows 8?

Issue #1208 – As we see the launch of the much-talked-about Windows 8 by Microsoft today, we have to say, “It’s a really good thing Microsoft does not make printers!” Why? Simply because Windows 8 is sadly lacking its Windows! User interface designer and software developer Dave Maude takes a look at some of the technicalities of Windows 8 that seem to have been overlooked in the media so far.

Windows 8 screenshot

Now, if you ask any of my family or friends, I’m sure they would tell you that while I like what Apple does, I am by no means an Apple fan-boy, a Linux nerd or a Microsoft geek, but that I am a huge techie. Having used a variety of different operating systems across multiple platforms in near equal moderation in the past, I see strengths and weaknesses in each.

So what are the strengths of Windows when considered in the company of Mac OSX and Linux Ubuntu for example? Well, in the Mac we have simplicity of use and ease of maintenance meaning Apple’s recent mantra of ‘It just works’, more often than not seems to compare well with the technically more complicated Windows and Linux. But, then again, Linux does have extraordinary flexibility and the app store with centralised update management ensuring security updates are managed at an OS level for third party apps as well. I am aware Mac OSX is moving in this direction but the availability of Mac apps on the app store is still somewhat lacking. So where does Windows benefit? Well, that would have to be in its ubiquity. There is no other single operating system family that is as widespread in its contagion in both the business and personal computer markets.

I mean, you only have to look at the fact that Windows 7 has sold 600 million licenses globally since its release to realise that as much as Apple might consider itself to be the messiah of the digital age, Microsoft still has dominant market control with roughly 84% of the market. So, let’s put that into perspective. There are circa 2.27bn global internet users, meaning that more than 664 million worldwide users of the internet are using a version of Windows older than Windows 7.

That’s a lot of upgrades, even when not taking into account all the Windows 7 users, most of whom are more likely to be early adopters of Windows 8 than those still using Windows XP. Now, with this in mind, wouldn’t you think Microsoft would concentrate most on what would work best for the nearly 2 billion users of their current operating system when putting together the user interface architecture for its new Windows family member?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to anyone, let alone just under 2 billion people, but I’m here to tell you that Microsoft was not thinking about you, the Windows user, when they developed Windows 8. Instead they got hooked on Apple juice and developed for the much hyped ‘post-pc era’.

Now, clearly you can’t argue that mobile computing is not extraordinary in its success and the speed by which it seems to be developing. It is just recently reported that over 100 million Android devices were sold during Q2 2012. So we shouldn’t ignore this sizeable market either. But Microsoft’s fatal error is to attempt to develop a one size fits all operating system for both tablets in the mobile computing sector and desktop PCs.

You may ask, why is that such a problem? Surely my iPad or Galaxy Tab can do most of what my desktop PC can do! Or maybe you’re even one of the few who have completely abandoned desktop computing for your shiny new tablet. But consider this; using your finger or even a stylus to design the next Airbus colossus; or attempting to touch-type that 20,000-word report on a touchscreen device for your boss due by the end of the week; or writing the code for the next Windows operating system on a 10.1″ screen. It is just not efficient or effective! Desktop computing, in its current guise, is here for a long time – certainly until something more convincing comes along.

So what really is the matter with Windows 8? Well, you may have encountered the Metro interface, whether on a Windows phone, xBox or Zune HD and most writers are blaming the downfall of Windows 8 on this new UI that Microsoft seems to be putting all its weight behind. Now, you might be a fan of Metro, or you may hate it, but I’m here to tell you, it’s not the problem!

You see, Windows in every incarnation up until Windows 8 has controlled its application UI through the use of windows. Can you see where the name came from? And yet, except for the get out clause with the desktop app where you can run all your legacy software that hasn’t yet been written for the Metro interface, the new Windows doesn’t work around windows at all! In fact, even the desktop app that looks and works suspiciously like Windows 7, but nowhere near as well, is actually slow and clunky to use. Clearly the company is trying to push all developers to build apps specifically for the Metro UI rather than using the previous windows-based UI. It is possible that Microsoft could have used the existing windows-based UI with a Metro layer instead of the Start Menu, somewhat like Apple does with Launchpad. But no, it has Metro with a windows layer, which in all likelihood will disappear with time as it manages to migrate users and developers onto Metro alone.

The problem with that is it’s not the way we use desktops. When I am developing software, designing a new user interface, surfing the web or writing this article, I have many apps open all at the same time in their separate windows, allowing me to transition between one and the other quickly and easily, viewing multiple windows at a time, including the desktop if needed. All of a sudden Microsoft is saying, “You know that 30 years of computing experience you have where you’ve learnt to work efficiently and effectively using the windows interface we have spoon fed you from the beginning of the personal computer? Yeah, those windows thingies. Well, forget it – we’ve got rid of them for something we think is more stylish and useful to someone using a touchscreen! Even though we know you use Windows primarily on a desktop!”

So, Windows has been undermined by its lack of windows! Microsoft’s fascination with the post-pc revolution, the tablet market and possibly its arch-rival Apple has resulted in it developing an operating system that is too simplified to be effective as an OS for desktop computers and too complicated really to beat off Android or iOS for the tablet computer either. It’s such a shame really, as I would have loved to see how Microsoft could take Windows to the next level for desktop computing after Windows 7. Instead it seems Windows 7 is going to be the Microsoft operating system of choice for quite a while.

In much the same way as people are ready to throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to print in the ‘new digital age’, Microsoft is willing to throw away something which is proven to work in order to embrace a new ‘post-pc era’. The value of print in the office and windows on the pc is still fundamentally important until a new technological substitute comes along as a worthy replacement. Certainly at the moment there is no worthy replacement of print and the same goes for windows.

Print is not dead yet.

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