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Hi all —
In the past month, we finally got a look at Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8.1. Now, that's supposed to be the Windows that convinces you that Windows 8 really was a great idea from the start, and hey, it might work, right? Well, my take on it is that while I like a lot of things in Windows 8, there are a few things that are still a little jarring, including what I call Windows 8's two-desktop "App-artheid" policy. And before you ask, I'm still preparing Part 2 of my "What's New in Server 2012R2, on the way soon. I think you'll enjoy this month's think piece but first, a word from our sponsor...
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Fixing Windows 8/8.1: Three Modest Proposals
I liked a lot of things about Windows 8, and I like much of what Windows 8.1 brings. But I don't think it's going to make Windows-on-a-tablet as successful as it could be, and honestly I'm stunned at how many of my very techie-smart, computer-literate-for-decades friends have adopted Windows 8 only because they could buy the Stardock utility that restores the Start Screen.
Windows 8 looked pretty neat when Microsoft first showed it off at BUILD in early September 2011, I was hopeful, as the Win 8 they demonstrated surely looked like a better tablet OS than Windows XP Tablet Edition ever did. A closer look, however, led me to wonder what they were thinking by getting rid of the Start Menu and yes, I know that I wasn't the only one. Now, I don't think I've got the corner on GUI design, but I have a few points of view that I haven't really seen offered thus far and so thought I'd toss in my two cents' worth. Basically, I think that the problems with the Windows 8 GUI stem first from a misunderstanding on Microsoft's part about the whole Start Button flap and, second, as a result of the awkward two-desktop world that Windows 8 presents.
The Start Button isn't the Issue... the Start Menu is
Everyone who's ever looked at Windows 8 has an opinion on the Start Screen, and most of those opinions are strongly held. They're almost always followed with a bewildered "what are those Microsoft guys thinking, anyway?" As it turns out, I talk to enough of them that I know. Wanna hear?Start Screen lovers in Microsoft explain in great earnest that studies show that most people just fill their Windows XP or 7 desktops with icons and so really don't use the Start button / Start Menu anyway, so what's the big deal, as the Windows 8 Start Menu is basically the world's biggest desktop with icons covering it for as far as you're willing to scroll (which seems a mite disingenuous) and, besides, you only need type three or four characters directly onto the Start Screen to pull that needle out of that haystack (which, I must admit, is exactly right and is something that I do all the time -- but I'm command-line-centric and a touch typer, so it may not apply to the rest of the world as well).
I also get another strongly-held opinion from my friends who are trying to sell 8 tablets. They say that people walk into their stores and pick up a Windows 8 tablet from some manufacturer. The demo machines all sport the new colorful Start Screen with the big tiles. Soon, though, they see that they can't figure out how to get out of whatever tile they pressed first, can't find the Desktop or any Windows apps that they know. In a little while, they walk out with an Android tablet of some kind.
What's funny here is that both groups are probably right. Watch Joe User who's had his Windows XP or Windows 7 system for over a year, and their desktop probably is carpeted (I wanted to say "wallpapered," but I think that might be confusing despite its aptness) with icons. But Mr User couldn't have gotten all of those apps installed in the first place if he couldn't first click the start button to do his initial configuration.
Yes, using a Windows without a Start button was initially a mite annoying, as hovering the mouse over the 15x15 pixel area required to bring it up was carpal-tunnel-inducing, but a small amount of searching revealed that simply pressing the physical key on the keyboard with the Windows logo on it did the job of bringing up the Start Screen admirably. Brilliant! Left to me, I'd build computers with a separate remote like the ones that TVs have had for ages, or perhaps an interface like Kinect or that cool Leap Motion thing. Heck, learn a few Windows key combinations and most of the Win 8 interface is easy to navigate. (Skip this list if you don't already know this, or don't care.)
There are more, but that's a good start. Anyway, all of those keys don't solve the big problem:
The Start Screen lacks a hierarchy.
I remember when people were mad at Windows 95 because it didn't have that Program Manager window, a window that contained icons, and that Windows 95 instead had this in-your-face Start Menu that popped up when you clicked the Start Button. But whether we're talking Windows Start Menu or Program Manager, well, they both had folders. There was a hierarchy. I mean, install Office. Or SQL Server. Or Windows Freakin' 7, for God's sake. Office includes a bunch of fairly irrelevant but things that most of us never look at but some of us need now and then. SQL Server loads with its management UI, which is fine for most of us, and includes some other really edge-condition stuff that, again, someone needs. Even Windows 7 has a collection of some useful, some unusual, some once-in-a-while tools that go into a folder called "Accessories." Other tools go into another folder named "Administrative Tools" that most people don't see by default but that can be made visible with just a few clicks.
Really. Seriously. That all made sense.
I once heard a highly-placed Microsoft person say that many people's antipathy to the Start Screen was nothing more a "matter of taste." To quote Al from Home Improvement, "I don't think so, Julie Tim."
There is a value in hierarchies. Gods, Redmond, everything we do in computers uses and benefits from hierarchies. Can you imagine a Registry without keys? A disk volume without folders? A desk without drawers? Microsoft, we all can live with a separate Start Screen... but for heaven's sake, let us create some kind of hierarchy. If you do nothing else, let us have folders in the Start Screen. Drilling down is very touch-friendly and heck, once we get Kinect or Leap interfaces, we can just move our hands closer to the screen to "dig down" through the pile. We'd love it. Trust me.
Touch is Downright Addictive... So Please Let Me Do it More, Microsoft
That said, I really love multi-touch on a Windows 8 touch-enabled device. Man, it's nice. The Win 8 gesture language is just a mite more complex than the iOS gesture language (although not that much -- tell me that you figured out the iPad Task List, or the hidden brightness adjustment all by yourself? Nah, I didn't think so), but ultimately more powerful and worth taking the extra two minutes to learn. Get a few modern apps/games like the built-in Bing News, Weather, the Metro version of OneNote, add Great Big War Game, and you'll see how nice a Windows tablet can be. No mice, no pen, no keyboard, just your favorite finger and your apps. "Fast and fluid" might be a bit of an overstatement, but in any case the whole Metro experience is pretty nice.
Soon, however, you'll need to return to the Desktop to run a Win32/.NET application like Word, Calculator, or Photoshop, and... [insert sound of phonograph needle scraping across a vinyl record album]. A moment ago, I was flying... and now I'm skinning my knees on the sidewalk. Where'd my cool new jetpack go?
Seriously -- watch someone new to Windows 8 make that back-to-Desktop transition, and you'll see that she's reluctant to drop the finger" and pick up the mouse and keyboard, so to speak. We try to hold on just a bit longer, and you can do some things with your finger on the Desktop -- scroll a command window, select a window, even close or minimize a window, if you're careful enough and your screen's large enough. Heck, you can even pinch out with Internet Explorer windows or windows built around the IE control, and oftimes that's good enough to let you get some small hyperlink large enough to click with your finger. But eventually you run up against some little radio button or the like, and you have no choice but to surrender and return to clicking and dragging. Bummer.
It doesn't have to be that way, Microsoft. You guys built zoom into IE and a lot of Office 13, so why not the rest of Windows? Let me zoom Calculator, Control Panel and Notepad. Or maybe just make the whole screen zoom-able, sort of like the Live Zoom feature in Sysinternals' Zoomit. (Sorry to have to say it, but the Windows Magnifier just doesn't do the job, as I discovered the first time I tried to do a technical demonstration on a Surface RT.)
One Desktop to Rule Them All
Speaking of the jarring effect of making the Start Screen / Desktop switch... why not just do away with it? What if we only visited the Start Screen to start an application and then saw that application appear on the Desktop, regardless of whether it's a traditional Win32/.NET or modern application? Not only is this "application Apartheid" jarring, it makes no sense to non-technical users and it never will. Ever.
Yes, I totally understand that the foundation of modern apps is the WinRT platform, while the foundation of traditional apps is the Win32/.NET platform... but why does that keep them from sharing a screen? Way back in 1990, Windows 3.0 hosted v86 ("DOS") applications and Win16 apps on the same desktop. Is this so much different? For those who never used it, the beauty of Windows 3.0 was that it not only let you run cool new apps built atop a completely new platform -- a platform that almost completely lacked apps for quite some time -- it also let you run your old DOS favorites like FoxPro, dBase III, Lotus 123 and the like.
It can't be that hard. Currently Remote Desktop can present an application running on another system behaving as if it's a windowed app running locally. Why not let a modern app running on the Start Screen "bleed up" to the Desktop? Yes, I understand that originally modern apps were really all meant to essentially run full screen on the Start Screen, but now they can snap to essentially any lateral fraction of the Start Screen, so why not let them appear on the Desktop, relegating the Start Screen to just its role as a way to organize icons? That way, people could still choose to leave the Start Screen in the foreground if they're just listening to music or the like and want the notification and update information offered by a live tile, or they could choose to run some Desktop app in a windows while also running some modern app.
The world is changing. People are leaving desktops in droves and laptops a bit less and choosing touch-centric computing devices under two pounds in weight. Microsoft currently owns the desktop and the laptop... but that won't mean spit if no one's buying them.
Kurt Hudson: A Sad Goodbye
On July 4th, my friend Kurt Hudson was taken from us by a bike accident. You probably don't think you know Kurt, but I'm pretty sure that you do, sort of. He was a tech writer for Microsoft. More than that, he was one of the guys at Microsoft who always looked out for the customers as well as that subset of customers to which I (and probably you) belong, the IT pros. If there was something wrong or even just vague in a Knowledge Base or TechNet article, we MVPs would just bring it to Kurt's attention, and he'd get it fixed. A few years ago, I remember when someone at Microsoft decided to add a horribly confusing and unnecessary page to the DCPROMO wizard, something that could only be of value in 0.1% of the cases, and was guaranteed to confuse in all of the rest. I suggested that it was a mistake and should be removed in the then-upcoming Windows Server 2008 R2, a suggestion that was met with only lukewarm reception until Kurt chimed in. He'd been following my comments online about the new page, and took the time to query how many support calls the change had engendered. When Kurt quoted the number -- I think it's NDA so I won't repeat it -- the tone of the conversation changed and the Microsoft folks in the room generally agreed that the page should go. That's my Kurt story, but trust me -- anyone who ever interacted with him has one (or a dozen) like it. He was a kind man, a good guy to have a beer with, and someone who knew not just how to explain things, well, but why those explanations are so very, very important. Kurt, I'll miss you, my friend, and so will everyone else who ever met you.
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All contents copyright 2013 Mark Minasi. I encourage you to quote this material, so long as you include this entire document. Thanks very much for reading, and see you next time.