Windows 8 – A desktop demotion?

Posted on August 20, 2012

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Having road testing the Developer and the Customer preview I have been reserving comment on the new user experience till I could qualify against the Gold Code which I have now been running since it has been released to Partners. I have been testing on the Samsung Series 7 Tablet, which is perhaps the best profile and featured device out there to do credit to Windows 8 pre-Windows 8 hardware release.

It is hard to separate and commentary of Windows 8 from the hardware it is running on as its whole orientation is so dependent on the new tablet medium and touch interface. Whilst the Samsung Series 7 does a good job it revealed some interesting factors to take into account when considering next generation Windows 8 Tablet hardware.

I have tried to void any negative impact the hardware may have had, as no doubt the use of a Windows 7 platform could be classed as not a fair shake down for Windows 8. That having been said on the whole I did not feel any real detraction from the Windows 8 touch experience from the Samsung device. That having been said the Samsung Series 7 Tablet did flag up some glaring cut corners, poor design and other hardware tactile issues that OEM’s need to address if they are going to hold a light to the prospect of the Microsoft Surface Tablet. These included:

· For a mobile desktop solution it does not come in one convenient portable bundle but x6 pieces of kit:

  • Tablet itself.
  • Docking station
  • Bluetooth Keyboard
  • Bluetooth Mouse
  • Stylus
  • Power supply
  1. The Tablet has no convenient storage slot for the Stylus, so it becomes a prime candidate for getting lost.
  2. A Single USB port making the whole experience of re-installing an OS somewhat ‘creative’ to say the least.
  3. Pointless plastic ‘plug’ for the USB slot. Whoever thought of that should be sacked for environmental pollution, I do not know any user who has replaced it after first use, and have no idea where the piece of plastic now resides. After all you don’t see such frippery in notebook USB ports etc?

Back to Windows 8; at least Redmond did not try to go all marketee’s on us with another ‘Vista’ nomenclature.

That having been said there are far too many similarities to Vista’s early on-ramp messaging for comfort. For those of you who remember the Vista pre-launch marketing and launch events you will recall the predominance of UI (User Interface) and consumer eye candy at the expense of any purposeful enterprise features. That by no means meant there was any absence of great enterprise functionality, it was there, but hidden under the preverbal rock. The parallels I am seeing are primarily the blinkered focus on the New Windows UI (formerly known as Metro) in much that I read on the Microsoft blogs and in the press. This is not helped by the force feeding of the New Windows UI with no option to bypass or switch it off without third party utilities. (More on third party Windows 8 usability utilities in a later blog.)

Microsoft if you are reading, reflect on the Vista faux pas and do not neglect the enterprise and desktop functionality requirements of power users for the sake of eye candy and cajolement into the New Windows UI (User Interface) by removing the Start Button, and options to control the new Windows UI . I know few enterprise customers who are comforted by the New Windows UI at this stage of its evolution, regarding it as another control surface that needs to be managed to align enterprise users to purpose. A straw poll of Enterprise customers would indicate Windows 8 is on their radar like a storm front not a safe harbour, to be steered around on the good ship Windows 7 .

Don’t get me wrong Windows 8 is a fantastic step-up up in terms of a range of features and functionality big wins:

· Boot time

· Systems security

· Storage management

· Many other areas

But the one backward step for many will be the removal of choice for all but the more adventurous in the Windows UI. Very un-Microsoft, I sense a disorientation from purpose caused possibly by fermented fallen fruit in this control freekery.

The User Interface

What I mean by the new windows UI is this:

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Versus the Windows 8 desktop view (absent a much needed start button!):

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The feel of Windows 8 is fast and responsive, but comes across from the outset as an OS designed for the touch generation of mobile platforms such as Tablets and Notebooks, with the desktop coming out as a second class citizen.

It works fine with mouse and keyboard, it is clearly pulling users to the tactile side of the equation, with mouse and keyboard activities taking on inefficiency that we though had been ironed out by desktop UI designers years ago. Perhaps that is just it ‘Desktop Designers’, we are now in the world of ‘Tablet UI’ designers and starting the learning (and end user hurt) all over again because this is not JUST a Tablet experience.

Modern touchpads with their multi point input can provide some improvement to the mouse with the effect of swiping that helps. Irrespective of which I found it takes longer to launch programs and having to flick between the two UI’s of the New Windows UI and Desktop has built in a friction to traditional PC usage that does not do the OS credit. Distinct signs of design over functionality, a delicate balancing act in any OS UI that is out of harmony.

I have been a great fan of pen input for years, enjoying the ability to keep my notes in electronic form, and Windows 8 delivers in trumps to the Stylus/Pen user, better than any other OS to-date. My only complaint is probably not an OS issue but a Hardware implementation issue; the interface SHOULD be intelligent enough to know I am using a Stylus and disable touch input. Something I believe Redmond has promised with their forthcoming Surface Tablet, but something ALL hardware vendors should embody.

Despite the competence of the mouse and keyboard input Windows 8 on a non-touch enabled devise is taking the proverbial duck out of water. IT is by no means unusable, but this emphasises the need to disable or at least demote to a backstage option the new Windows UI.

So there is a real hardware event horizon for the Widows 8 revolution, and that is the penetration of touch (or possibly gesture in the future, see my earlier blog) based devices in the marketplace.

That penetration of Touch on consumer and enterprise is also going to be interesting. Having played with some of the HP Touchsmart (http://www.touchsmarthp.co.uk/) desktop units I can categorically state that Touch on a desktop whilst it has all the prospects of a great user experience, in reality leaves a very grubby feeling behind and is not endearing. Largely because in the real world people have natural oils on their fingers amongst other detritus and glass is perhaps one of the worst surfaces to keep clean under such conditions. Heralding the new age of ‘Touch Screen Transmitted Disease’ (TSTD) and with signs more familiar in urinals than desktops to ‘Please Wash Your Hands’ before using! The prevalence of alcohol based hand washing aids alongside the new generation of touch conferencing displays is recognition of the hygiene challenge.

To quote Apple CEO Steve Jobs at a press conference in October 2010: “Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical.” The more perpendicular the screen, the more “dorsiflexion” or angular bending of a joint, in this case your wrist o type or touch, puts unnatural pressure on the median nerve and other structures in the wrist. So as touch goes broader spectrum could we see a parallel growth in carpal tunnel syndrome in years to come.

For more on why Touch does not harmonise with desktop PC use see my earlier blog on the subject – ‘What future has Touch in Computing?’

The New Windows UI

So for now the Windows 8 the New Windows UI can be summed up as a 2 dimensional icon proliferating Uber-scrolling ‘Tiled’, full screen consuming replacement of the former discreet and efficient Start Button Navigation Menu; a design and motion exercise that sprawls with every application installation. Passable when in Touch Mode where rapid side swipes can navigate the letterbox view The New Windows UI icon conveyer belt, but a tiresome exercise when using a mouse, and that is likely to be what the majority of enterprise and power users will be using for a few years to come if it ever gets to their desktops which is a big IF.

For my part I believe the New Windows UI should be breaking the mould. The lack of an evolution into some 3rd Dimensional aspects of UI design moving off what is a very flat and passé 2D genre is a missed opportunity. The active tile concept of driving content on the tiles is not enough, in fact I found myself reducing tiles to their smallest size to reduce the tile sprawl. There are many interfaces technologies available today that use depth and prioritization / relevance amongst other parameters to allow more information and context to be presented intuitively as a fluid spatial experience.

If I was to take one scenario that is going to be well matured in 12 months’ time that is Gesture. The Kinect like experience that will positively yell out for 3D UI’s that a user can veritably conduct!

As for now we have an OS that is distinctly bi-polar, pulling users in two different directions with very different intents and characteristics. In some areas the technical functionality comes to blow’s and is clearly conflicting, we have a need for greater clarity of purpose IF it has a place alongside the power and enterprise user who will still live on the desktop.

The challenge is the form over function. Yes the market is driving the cross platform single OS concept and the practicalities are abounding for a vendor supporting multiple devices with one code base. I have used an iPad for over 2 years now and I have NEVER travelled without my notebook for the proper business of computing, albeit 48 hours in London to give the iPad experience a real test, it failed and indicates no future state that will void the need to double up devices when on the road for any length of time.

That having been said, since I have been running Windows 8 on a Samsung Series 7 Tablet I can confirm that I have no longer needed to double up! That is since I have deployed some hacks to give me a Start Menu and demote the New Windows UI to a secondary screen not the primary.

Under these slightly modified conditions Windows 8 provides me with both the best of the instant availability and tactile touch experience that I previously relied on the iPad for, and the PC functionality I need on the road. The only pain being the Samsung Tablet design with its fragmentation of components that I need to pack and the fact that it takes a ridiculous amount of time compared with a notebook to set-up rendering it a liability if you ever have to get of a train in a hurry. So much for portable convenience!

Windows 8 Applications

The lack of applications in the Windows 8 store being the main frustration to a full tablet experience, but I expect that to be addressed as Windows 8 hits launch.

What I would also hope to see is a better integration into Social media such as Twitter from within applications. It is clunky at best with applications bounces through to a webpage. Even then there is the friction to purpose of having to have to login each time. As a result once back into Internet Explorer on the desktop I find it is easier and faster to read from the websites and cut and paste URL’s into Tweetdeck. Thus I find that despite my efforts

Offline capabilities is another bugbear. It may be OK for the Microsftee’s on corporate mobile contracts, but for those of us who have to pick up our own bill this is a no go. Perhaps more of a message to app developers, but perhaps something Microsoft should take on board to enhance the mobile experience by baking it into the app store pre-requisites such as:

  • Offline reading
  • Some way to easily monitor what applications are online and to suspend them.
  • If you install say Skydrive for the new UI AND the desktop version, that you don’t find you end up having x2 copies of the data! Applications like this should use a common store or the meagre Hard Drives of Tablets will fill very quickly.
  • Do not force users to accept Location Tracking when the application clearly offers NO benefit from use of such a service. This is a blatant invasion of privacy.

In summary I find that despite my efforts to use the new Windows 8 applications designed for the touch interface, I am dropping back into the desktop for a more efficient interaction. The new Windows UI is a frighteningly inefficient canvas to try and manage applications on once you start installing a few, and very cumbersome to manage even with touch. As a result I find I am reassigning default programs away from the new Windows UI apps to the desktop.

For those users who were fastidious about keeping a clean desktop this will be a nightmare. IN the absence of any program menu on the desktop your only option is to litter your desktop with icons. The Task bar can only hold so many even double stacked. For those users who like to live in an icon desktop menagerie you will be in your element.

More on third party Program Launch menu’s in a later blog.

One issue I am still researching is the data usage of Windows 8. I have noticed on both my router and WiFi that the Samsung Series 7 is topping the charts by a long hog on bandwidth demand. A subject for a future blog if it transpires we have a road hog on our hands. Windows 8 is a very chatty OS!

Multi-Tasking

For middle to high functionality and multi-tasking demanding users a tablet is not a current option, and Windows 8 is only passable on a Microsoft definition of multi-tasking, which I do not agree with.

Multi-Tasking by definition is ‘the concurrent or interleaved execution of two or more jobs by a single device’ . This far the new Windows UI qualifies but at the lowest common denominator. Microsoft call Windows 8 a ‘full multitasking environment’, well in the desktop view the answer is yes, as it is what we are all familiar with, but in The New Windows UI the answer is an emphatic NO . For FULL they need to be at the top end of the scale or at least showing effort across all interfaces of the OS. The new Windows UI does little more than split screen sharing, (then it is constrained by a 34:66 ratio), or ‘task switching’ if not running a split screen. Task switching is simply doing one thing at a time so not even credible in the discussion.

So to enjoy traditional Windows Multi-Tasking you need to revert to the Desktop view, and this is where Microsoft has gone all Apple on us with their control freakery removing the Start menu to drive us back to the new Windows UI.

The Desktop

Well you will be arriving faster than ever before, with a fantastic boot time that challenges even iOS, and I mean form either cold or sleep modes.

As for the familiar stomping ground of the desktop yes it’s still there, and will remain the screen of choice for many who wish to experience the latest from Redmond.

The removal of the Start Button with no alternative but to fall back into the new Windows UI is forcing user behaviour. This is a blatant manipulation of traditional Windows user behaviour to coral users into the new Windows UI when they neither need to nor want to. An unwelcomed break from tradition of legacy support, even when the new Ribbon Bar came in there was an option to use the old layout, to help nurse users into the new paradigm. Not even a registry remote bit to flit to enable some form of Start menu, with this move Microsoft OS’s are no longer demonstrating adaptive and flexible choice in ways of working. This new attitude comes across hard and steely and I found sadly built up user resentment, especially as I endeavoured to be efficient on the new platform, particularly as I truly want to find it a welcoming and rewarding experience.

Having also been running the latest Windows Server 2012 I can confirm the same issues apply, I cannot see for the life of me where a server needs a touch orientated UI. The server management is a nightmare without the program menu.

As such for many the next step after playing with Windows 8 is likely to be a re-install of Windows 7. I predict that Windows 7 will be the new XP, and will run and run and run for most power users and enterprises. At least till Windows 8 + addresses the woeful inefficiencies that are forced on users with the new split UI’s and hobbling of traditional multitasking.

To Conclude

Windows 8 is here to stay, but I feel it will be a transitional OS for the desktop, whilst providing a fusion of Siamese twinning proportions, rather than natural evolutionary, with the new mobile world of Tablets. What I struggle to understand is why Microsoft wanted to get the OS into the wild for real-world feedback with the early Developer and latterly Customer Preview releases, but failed to address that feedback.

Redmond if you’re listening, if there is ONE feature that would completely transform this experience it would be a built in option to re-activate the Program Menu on the desktop AND demote the new Windows UI from the primary in your face mode. OK make it just for the Windows 8 full version release not Windows 8 RT, and if you must make at least make it one of those tricky bit or even bits to flip in the registry so you can be sure only users who really, really, REALLY want it will go to the trouble to flip, by all means be awkward. But PLEASE DO IT!

This is not some rant or resistance to change, it is to maximise the adoption of what is otherwise a new Operating System with powerful desktop functionality that is being treated like a second class citizen.

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