I’ve seen the Windows 8 screenshots, and I smell panic

I’ve seen the Windows 8 screenshots. What I see in them reeks of overreaction. Pundits are predicting a post-PC era, so Microsoft is trying their best to make a PC look and feel like a smartphone.

Why does a PC need to look and feel like a smartphone?

The smartphone interface as implemented by Google and Apple makes sense. You have a small touchscreen to work with, and that’s all you’ve got. What they’ve come up with works pretty well, given the limited options a smartphone has for interacting with you. Is it any easier or more intuitive than a computer? Not at all. The first few times I tried to use a smartphone, I found myself having to re-learn a bunch of stuff. I picked it up fairly quickly, but there was some un-learning and re-learning.

Computer GUIs make sense, given what we have to work with. Think about it. We’ve been using mice, keyboards, pulldown menus since 1984. We’ve figured it out by now. The GUIs of the 1980s weren’t perfect, but they were certainly usable, and we’ve been refining them ever since. We’ve been learning to use them ever since.

It’s probably impossible to know how many PCs are out there, but in 2007, Gartner estimated 239 million PCs were sold that year. Based on that, I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to guess there are a billion PCs in active use. Most of those PCs sold in 2007 probably are still in use somewhere, and some of the PCs sold in previous years are still in use. Let’s just call it a billion.

A billion people own these machines and know how to use them. So we’re going to foist a new, smartphone-inspired interface on a billion people?

The problem with PCs isn’t the interface. The only problem with PCs is that they aren’t the new, shiny thing anymore. They’ve become part of everyday life for about a billion people and they take them for granted, like a lot of other things. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Smartphones and tablets are new. They’re exciting. They’re where the growth is. People aren’t going to stop buying PCs entirely just because they’re buying smartphones and tablets. They may hold on to their PCs a while longer now that smartphones and tablets are competing for their sales dollars. But when their PC wears out, they’re going to buy a new one, whether they like it or not, because there are some jobs that a PC just does better than a tablet or smartphone.

One of my coworkers just got a Motorola Xoom, and he was marveling at how he could type 30 words per minute on it using a touchscreen keyboard. And that’s fine, but I wouldn’t try to do any long writing on a tablet. I can type a lot faster than 30 wpm on my IBM Model M keyboard.

Tablets and smartphones are for consumption. Creation will still take place on traditional computers.

I think it’s fine that Windows 8 will ship with an interface that works well on tablets and phones. That will allow Windows 8 to compete in that space. But if it doesn’t have a traditional computer interface–something along the lines of what Windows 7’s interface looked like–it’s a big mistake, and one that Microsoft will find itself paying for in lost sales. Because if Microsoft learned nothing else from Windows XP’s longevity and Windows Vista’s commercial failure, it should have learned that people are willing to stick with something that works, even if it’s a couple of versions back, if the alternative means relearning how to do something they’ve been doing for 10 or 20 years. Yes, it’s been 21 years since Windows 3.0 came out, so some people really have been using Windows for more than 20 years.

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4 thoughts on “I’ve seen the Windows 8 screenshots, and I smell panic

  • June 27, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    This article reeks of overreaction.

    Nobody will have to relearn anything. The standard Windows interface is still there, as seen in the preview videos already out at the same time as this article.

    The point of Windows 8 is obviously to create a streamlined interface that is scalable across pretty much any platform. The touch interface is there for tablets and smartphones, while the Standard UI (taskbar, desktop, icons, explorer) remains in place for desktop PCs. All this can be achieved now without the need for Microsoft to split its developers up into Mobile, Tablet, and Desktop divisions. Windows will no longer need to have crappy, tacked on touch and tablet features. It’s just good business, and it’s in-line with current trends.

    Microsoft is clearly trying to evolve with the times, to cover all their bases – adapting to the new while also keeping in place what works. And while, frankly, they have made tons of bad decisions in the past, people’s reactions to the Metro UI have been utterly ridiculous and premature. The worst part is that all these objections seem based on the presumption that Microsoft is ditching the Desktop in Windows 8, while that is obviously not the case for anyone who has actually paid attention.

    • June 27, 2011 at 7:03 pm

      Mr. Liver, I’m glad you have better sources than I have, because as of 27 June, I have yet to see any confirmation that something resembling the traditional Start menu interface will be present. If that’s the case, then Microsoft does agree with me, that a smartphone interface doesn’t make sense for everything, and that’s good. The only other thing I’ve seen about Windows 8’s user interface is that Explorer windows (as in file manipulation) may have the horrid ribbon interface. Hopefully they’ll change their mind about that.

      I will note that in my experience over the years, you can’t say anything about Microsoft without someone saying something like “you reek of overreaction.” I’m pretty sure I could criticize Microsoft Bob and someone would take me to task for it if I waited long enough. I’m used to it.

  • June 29, 2011 at 2:06 am

    Hey, you’re right about that. When I considered the bits of the standard OS they’re keeping in place, I didn’t think about the replacement of the Start Menu or the addition of Ribbon to Explorer.

    However, I’m reminded of the outrage over the new Start Menus and GUIs in XP and Vista, or the removal of traditional menus in Explorer from the latter. Microsoft did see fit to give people the option to utilize those legacy features, only one of which was lost with Windows 7. All we’ve seen of Windows 8 so far are a few screenshots, videos and some minor information about features.

    My experience with Windows has taught me to be skeptical about people’s initial reactions to the announcement of a new release, reactions which usually seem to be a bandwagon kind of thing, and are often more negative than they end up being after the release. This time around its the Metro UI that’s getting the brunt of the abuse. My problem with articles such as this one is that its presentation inadvertently fuels (or panders to) the current misconception that the entirety of the original OS is being replaced by Metro, and I’ve seen plenty of people lambasting Microsoft for ‘killing the desktop.’ As a user commenting on Microsoft’s YouTube channel put it:

    “Psh, Windows 8 is a freaking iPad. FAIL
    We like icons. We? like the task bar. We like the classic.”

    These things are still in the OS, clearly visible in the same video this person had watched. And there are plenty more of these kinds of comments spread out all over the place wherever an article or video on the subject crops up. I’m of the opinion that it’s irresponsible to play a part in the perpetuation of this kind of confusion.

    All Metro seems to be is a unified interface for fullscreen programs, launched from a fullscreen Start Menu, all sitting on top of to an operating system we’ve gotten used to (Ribbons withstanding). It’s an answer to the iOS-style interface Apple is introducing with Lion, and given Microsoft’s recent track record of lagging behind Apple on features, they’re being surprisingly quick to the punch here.

    Personally, I think people should try to hold back or temper their death-of-[insert company here] predictions until they get their hands on the software, and then let the daggers fly if necessary. That goes for any new operating system.

    Yes. Criticize anything and someone will eventually come out of the woodwork in its defense. That’s the nature of the Internet and the exchange of opinions. We’ve all been there. However, I’m not trying to defend Windows, I’m trying to advocate an evenhanded approach to presenting information. I’d do the same thing on an article talking about Apple’s ‘panicked’ implementation of smartphone features in OSX Lion.

  • June 29, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    You’re free to disagree with me if you want, but don’t project what people are saying somewhere else onto me or my readers/commenters. I never said Microsoft is going out of business if they go through with this, or anything of that sort. And I certainly never said FAIL.

    If you go back and read what I actually wrote, you’ll see I said that Microsoft is overreacting, not thinking the user interface decisions through–IF something resembling the current interface isn’t there for PCs as well. I didn’t say it was there or it wasn’t. I also said–surprise!–that it makes sense to include a tablet interface so they can compete in that market.

    It’s my guesses against yours, but I think they leaked the screenshots partly to see the reaction. And I think those reactions help them to decide what legacy features to keep and which ones to drop. It doesn’t mean they’ll make the right decisions, but that’s on them. I have no idea whether anyone from Microsoft reads me (I know some people from IBM and TI do, or at least used to), but I showed up on your radar somehow (albeit 3 weeks after I wrote it), so maybe they do.

    If you think I’m on anyone’s bandwagon, you clearly haven’t read anything else here.

    Once Microsoft wants clarification–and they’re the only ones who can clarify what they intend to do–they’ll leak more screenshots, or a pre-alpha or something. Or maybe we have to wait until the beta ships.

    And I do know from the questions people ask me directly and from the search queries I get that there are plenty of people perfectly willing to stick with older operating systems if they don’t like the new ones. You wouldn’t believe the number of search queries I get about running Windows 98 on current hardware, for one extreme example.

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