Windows 8: defective by design?

Microsoft has been known as a company that changes its direction, and more importantly changes the user interfaces and names of their products continuously. Their search website Bing just doesn’t gain much attention, Windows Vista was one of their biggest failures (aside from Microsoft Bob) and now they try to change the way people interact with computers via the new Metro interface. What’s the problem? I’ll explain my view about it.

The multi-touch screen, which does not require a stylus but just your fingers to operate a device was first introduced to the consumer market by Apple with the iPhone. A few years ago they came out with a multi-touch tabled called the iPad. Since then it changed the industry so that each new produced phone is a smartphone with multi-touch. Tablets also started to appear and where being purchased by the consumer market, and not just for the corporate market. What’s really useful is that you can literally ‘touch’ the interface of your device. Microsoft had been producing their mobile OS Windows Mobile for smartphones, whose interface was designed to be interacted with using a stylus. Since this kind of interface doesn’t work well using your fingers, it didn’t got any attention by the multi-touch smartphone industry. Therefore people started purchasing iPhones and Android devices which had a multi-touch optimized interface. Microsoft’s answer was Windows Phone 7. This OS featured the tiled Metro interface. Multi-touch was finally possible with Windows Mobile.

Since tablets are becoming more powerful, Microsoft started building one OS for both the desktop and tablets called Windows 8. Windows 8 features the same Metro interface, which is very useful on multi-touch devices like a tablet. But then they made a mistake, which is probably even a bigger mistake than they had with Windows Vista: make Metro the default interface for Windows 8. So every device including desktops will have a multi-touch optimized interface. You can still get to the desktop by clicking on its tile, but that’s just for backward compatibility. Ultimately Metro is going to be the only available interface for Windows.

The major issue here is that desktop computers do not have a touch screen. You know why monitors with a touch screen sell so bad to the consumer market? That’s because it’s unusable. Try typing an e-mail or participating in an IM chat using an on-screen keyboard which you press with your fingers on your desk monitor. How long can you keep this up? If you’re a body building maybe 15 minutes or longer. A ‘regular’ person without massive muscles maybe 5 minutes if you’re in an optimistic mood. It comes down to this: you will always interact with a touch screen on a mobile device, and using an input device on a desktop system. I don’t expect the traditional mouse/keyboard type of input device in post-2020, but there will always be an input device (even if it’s your voice).

 Full Screen applications
An application on a smartphone or tablet usually fills the entire screen since the size and resolution are low. Having multiple applications visible at the same time would be unusable as most information wouldn’t fit the screen and therefore requires the user to scroll continuously. Having all applications in full screen mode is very useful on such a device. Metro is built on the same principle: every Metro application launches in full screen. Switching from Application A to Application B suspends Application A and then launches Application B. Desktop systems on the other hand usually have a big screen. 21″ – 24″ using a screen resolution of 1680×1050 or 1920×1200 are very common these days. Just ask yourself, why would you rather purchase a 24″ Full-HD display instead of a 17″ 1280×1024 display for your desktop? The answer most people would give is the fact that you can have more windows on your screen at the same time. But if you purchase a laptop, you’d prefer a smaller display since it’s much more portable that way. So basically the preference of most computer users is a small screen on portable devices and a big screen on non-portable devices. Most people purchase a screen that is as big as either their maximum budget or the space on their desktop.

This will change when using Metro in Windows 8. Each Metro application is a full screen application. A 27″ display will now be usable just as a 15″ display. The message here is that Microsoft has decided that full screen is the new way of computing, now consumers have to get rid of their great screens and buy a small screen instead. I’ll show you two screenshots of the main Metro interface and the Metro version of Internet Explorer. I’ll compare the resolutions 800×600 (common for mobile devices) with 2560×1440. Just look what happens.

As you can see from the images above (especially the one with Internet Explorer) you’ll notice that you are wasting more than 60% of the space on your screen. Apple is also making this mistake, by giving all applications the option to go fullscreen. It’s great on a small screen like a mobile device or a netbook, but absolutely terrible on a big screen such as almost every desktop monitor being used today.

My vision of the future
Multi-touch on a desktop is not practical due to the limit of our bodies. The goal of multi-touch is making it feel more natural to touch an interface. That was also the goal of the iPad. Doing this on a desktop monitor won’t make interaction easier, it’ll make it a lot worse. On the other hand, mobile devices are getting more powerful. Last month I was playing Grand Theft Auto 3 on my phone! A game that was released for the PC, PS2 and XBOX 10 years ago can now be played on a mobile device. People can bring powerful hardware with them that fits in a pocket. There are some things, which do require a big screen. Big screens aren’t portable, so you’ll need two devices: a desktop system and a tablet. This can be brought down to one device.

A tablet can be powerful enough to replace your desktop system, but it won’t every replace your desktop monitor. So I see the future of computing as a desktop system, which is just a screen with an audio speaker set and a docking station for your tablet. If you dock your tablet, you’ll get a traditional desktop with icons etc and use your desktop hardware. if you take the tabled with you, it switches to a multi-touch interface like Metro. Both interfaces are present in the OS, but it switches between them depending on the situation.

If Microsoft would understand this, it might be able to fight the competition. But as far as I see it they are making the Windows Vista mistake again, which could ultimately lead to their destruction. Windows 7 gave some hope to the PC industry, but Windows 8 is going to destroy it all.

Biggest enemy of Microsoft? Itself!
Apple has gained a massive customer base in the last years. But Microsoft is still the market leader. That is caused by two factors: 1. Apple hardware is expensive and some people don’t like the price/performance ration. 2. People who are used to an interface don’t enjoy switching to something else. The 2nd factor is something Microsoft is going to face. The traditional desktop with a Start menu is being used since 1995, almost every computer user knows how it works. Taking away all those elements and presenting a new interface is going to face slow adoption. But not only is it different, it’s also unpractical. The only way to speed up adoption is by not giving new OEM licenses of Windows 7 to manufacturers, basically forcing consumers to use it.

That last sentence is just another example of the difference between Microsoft and its competitors. Mac OS X and Linux distributions are being used because people choose to do so. Windows is being used because Microsoft shoves it down people’s throats.

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