Windows 8 Goes Bipolar

Personal Computing is forking between a Consumer Computing UI and a Busines or Operational+Creative Computing UI.  The new trend  has been called  the Post PC era and the description of two separate and distinct UIs for Computing could not be more appropriate. Now some will argue that PC UIs have already split. For example,  the Web Browser interfaces sported by most websites are quite different from most program interfaces. Yes, some websites have a menu bar but not 3 or 4 levels deep as seen in sophisticated PC applications like AutoCad or Visual Studio.  But many websites are driven by slidedecks of image and story excerpts or  tab panels of data or capsule stories [see or].  But all of these websites live in a Windowing environ provided by the browser’ own menus, iconbars, tabs,scrollbars and popup windows.

In sum, for the past 20 years, Microsoft Windows has provided a Universal UI for PCs  which 90% of all PCs used. But even Linux and MacOS/X followed this windowing theme . The difference has been the huge success of  pods/pdas, then smartphones and now tablets with their nearly  always on battery life plus intuitive touchscreen gestures. Yet despite all of the success of the multi-touch screens onApple’s  iOS devices, touchscreen operations and the simplified UI have not come, even in a VM form to Macs, only slowly to Linux and now finally to Windows 8.

Vision: Windows 8 Unites Touchscreen + Gestures with Keyboard+Mouse

When Microsoft announced Windows 8 would support gestures+touchscreen while preserving the Desktop UI, this reviewer had visions of sugar plums. Already, Windows 7 supports touchscreen operations and with All-in-one PCs with a stylus one could be very productive in UI rich programs like Photoshop, Microsoft Project, Camtasia Studio, or Oracle Designer. But the number of gestures recognized and the accuracy of the touch screen operations left much to be desired in Windows 7 touchscreen operations. Microsoft would surely fix that in Windows 8.

Wacom’s Cintiq tablet and interface is the model. Now no one is expecting the 2400 levels of pressure or 60 degrees of angle tilt that the Cintiq screen+pen are capable of detecting. But rather a combination of pen+touch that would make users more productive. For example, on contract I used the Wacom with Photoshop to do over 240 photo edits for a rush job.  I rarely needed to use the pressure or tilt sensitive control of the Wacom pen. Rather I was 40-70% more productive because of the faster navigation among layer, style, plus character panels and the drawing on the screen. Its this navigation advantage that Mac OS/X users have been denied [the Mac’s Magic TouchPad is a gimmick] that Microsoft would bring equally to the Windows 8 Desktop UI and Metro Style UI in the  new Windows 8. Desktop UI would get the impetus of touch+gestures integrated with keyboard+mouse to add judiciously to the Desktop UI interactions while the Metro Style UI could go after the Consumer Computing UI needed for tablets and smartphones. Or so I thought.

This was like the opportunity presented to Redmond back at the height of the Dot.COM bull IT Market in the late 1990’s when Visual Studio would unite graphic design of Windows UI in .NET with ASP.NET  Web UI controls and design. But it didn’t happen. Web UI controls looked and worked very closely like their desktop counterparts, but the underlying definition and programming methods were completely different[9 years later with XAML that unification has begun to occur]. It appears Microsoft has done it again making  Windows 8 Desktop UI  a second class citizen relative to the Metro Style UI.

What Microsoft Has Delivred in Windows 8  UIs

Metro Style UI in Windows 8 is the premier UI. Metro is geared for the new Consumer Computing represented by smartphones and tablets is a major departure in UI support. This new,simpler, consumer oriented UI has emerged with much reduced UI controls and richness in the name of a)faster operations, b)intuitive and easier learning,  and c)much reduced power consumption and therefore longer battery life an as seen on iOS, Android, Blackberry and now Windows Phone and Windows 8.

But this simplified and reduced  richness Consumer Computing UI is in conflict with many existing Windows programs. One can see this “conflict” arising  in our previous post on Windows 8 Touch tensions. Th conflict is  the gap between Microsoft’s support for the Metro UI which is brand new and nearly windowless versus the traditional Windows Desktop UI which abounds with popup windows, menus, iconbars and popup  combo-lists and messages. The Metro UI  fills the screen, has no borders, scrollbars  and no need for control icons for minimize, resize, close, scrolling, windowing, etc. Other Windowing “chrome” such as toolbars, ribbons, pinnable panels, 2 deep or more menus are generally not acceptable and certainly not provided for in the Metro UI:

Finally, the Metro UI has been given the premier role in Windows 8. Its start screen dominates the opening Windows 8. Developers are encouraged to design and build for the Metro Style UI.  Microsoft is determined to blunt the runaway success of iPad and smartphones which have started to slow down PC sales so that  PC sales are on the cusp of going negative year over year and are now less than tablet and smartphone combined sales. In effect, Microsoft is betting against windowing Windows.

Many sympathetic  Windows observers are questioning this emphasis on Metro UI over the Desktop UI. They argue that  whole advantage that Windows 8 has is that it brings  equally  touchscreen UI to both Meto Conumer UI apps and to the Desktop UI. Its winning advanatge over both Apple and Google, is that Windows 8 is the unifying UI. Windows 8 would bring integration of Metro UI Apps and Desktop UI[and to extent this can be seen in the new multiple-monitor services provided in the latest Windows 8 Preview release]. But there is precious little other Metro with Desktop Integration eveo though acting as modal Windows in the Desktop UI it makes a lot sense. Likewise there is a shortage

So the emphasis in Windows 8 is to win back [or win for the first time] the tablet and smartphone battle with Apple iOS and Google Android. In effect Microsoft is betting that PC market has split already. There is a large class of users whose priorities have been exploited by smartphones and tablets most successsfuly:
1)Nearly always on and connected computing devices which eschew Off and  at worst are in Active Sleep mode with low battery drain;
2)These devices feature almost instant on from the Active Sleep state and have fast recovery from an inadvertent Off state;
3)Most tasks are full screen and Wizard-like where events or subtask completion guide users to the next state/screen;
4)Pending and interrupted tasks are minimized. Leftover suspended tasks are gracefully terminated;
5)The devices are geared throughout to curtail energy use with dozens of battery saving features and tout their long  one day or more battery life;
6)The most important battery [and memory] saving feature is to suspend and terminate multiple processes;
7)Thus multitasking, drag and drop, windowing, and traditional “time-sharing” processes of  Windows PCs are kept to a minimum;
8)the emphasis is on the computer as a consumer device – able to play games, read books, receive reports,watch video or live TV,  and  engage in conversations by means of messaging, browser, plus live connections;
9)Operations are either single or dual tasking at most. MetroUI allows only two different tasks to be displayed on the main screen with the exception of hub screens which show tiles of possible tasks that a)may be updated directly on the tile  andb)can be activated by clicking/tapping the tile;
10)Finally touch UI , Kinect-like gestures and spoken commands displace and eventually will replace keyboard, mouse, trackpad and stylus/pen as the primary UI inputs.
Prospective Windows 8 users better get out and try the new interface in  the new Final  Preview delivered  June 2012. But even if you do install the  2.5GB download [3.5GB if you use Windows 8 64-bit download], most existing PCs do not offer Touch Screen operations – so the full impact of Windows 8 will be missed by most of the 1 billion users of Windows.

Steve Jobs Was Right – Consumer Computing Has Its Own Needs and Market

In effect Microsoft is betting that Steve Jobs was right – Consumer Computing easily outweighs Operational and Creative Computing where multitaksing,  computing  power to match the underlying complexity, popup and persistent panels, toolbars and   windowing with drag+drop or copy/paste ops are vital. In contrast, Consumer Computing  via touch activated smartphones, tablets and other touch devices will be the entry point to computing for most users. Sure there will be a vestigial, Linux-like market for the big PC  iron with complex multi-windows , intensive processing and multiple monitor type operations used in stock trading, video production, large scale project management or software development. In effect, Microsoft is calculating that Operational and Creative Computing is a)a much smaller percentage [20-35%] of the forking PC market relative to Consumer Computing [65-80%] while b)Operational and Creative Computing will gradually leak over to Metro UI consumer platforms.

And Microsoft has clearly delineated the principles of designing for Consumer Computing. There are  5 major principles; but they sound like Dayle Carnegie Course material – Show pride in craftmanship, Be fast and fluid, Be authentically digital, Do more with less, and Win as One. However, when you get to the UX [User Experience] Guidelines and the UX  Patterns then the NEW rules of the Metro development road become more obvious. However, the Metro Design implications are captured best in the Navigation Design Section. Here are Microsoft’s words verbatim:

Hierarchical system

Hierarchical system of navigation in a Metro stye spp Most Metro style apps in Windows 8 Consumer Preview will use a hierarchical system of navigation. This pattern is common and will be familiar to people, but is made even better by the Metro style Hub navigation pattern. This pattern makes Metro apps fast and fluid while still being easy to use.This pattern is best for apps with large content collections or many distinct sections of content for a user to explore.

Flat system

Flat navigation system in a Metro style app Many Metro style apps in Windows 8 use a flat system of navigation. This pattern is often seen in games, browsers, or document creation apps, where the user moves between pages, tabs, or modes that all reside at the same hierarchical level.This pattern is best when the core scenario involves fast switching between a small number of pages or tabs.

One can see the Consumer oriented type of app that these two navigational patterns are geared for. Metro UI style navigation does not work well for operational or creative design tasks where the user flits between levels and states of the process in highly non-linear patterns over time. Complexity and multitasking does not fit  the Hierarchical Wizard or Game-playing pattern nor the even simpler Flats System design. So lets be entirely clear- Metro UI style does not work well for operational and creative tasks even if developers tried to change them to that form. However, Metro UI style does map well to Consumer Computing as defined by the  the Hierarchic and Flat System designs.

So Windows 8  favors the Consumer vs Operational/Creative split that is the PostPC era. So touch, voice, and gesture enabled  tablets and smartphones are the future of  the bulk of computing – Consumer Computing.  Big iron for gamers, developers, and artists will be the  exception. The operational and creative 20% tail will no longer wag the PC dog – Consumer  Computing will have its own devices, UI, and its own OS, iOS, Android, Windows 8 Metro Style UI.

How does Microsoft get 1Billion  users from  Windowing Windows to the Metro Style UI

Well first Microsft does not have to get all 1 billion of its users to Metro UI style. 20-35% are going to be happy with the Desktop UI provided in Windows 8. It will have, less the Start button, all the look and feel of Windows 7. So Photoshop, Intuit, Dreamweaver, AutoCAD, even Visual Studio will look almost identically the same on Windows 8 Desktop UI as it does on Windows 7. But the question is will the Windows 8 Desktop UI provide enough integration with Metro Style apps to make interaction between the two productive. The new Windows 8 June 1st Release Previewwill tell more about that.

More important is the question of whether Microsoft will supply enough mouse+keyboard equivalents for Windows 8 touch screen operations so old PCs [or even new ones without multi-touchscreen capabilities]will be able to get around in the Metro UI. Here there is mixed news from PC World’s Loyd Case based on tests with the latest Windows 8 Preview Release:

The key point here is that users looking to buy a “Windows 8-ready” laptop need to determine whether the unit ships with an edge-sensitive touchpad–particularly if the system itself  lacks a multitouch LCD panel.

Mouse and keyboard improvements are evident as well. Moving the mouse cursor to the corners brings up various features. Moving the cursor to the upper right or lower right causes the charm bar to pop up. Moving to the upper left brings up a small popup of the most recent window; sliding down slightly prompts a visual list of active apps to slide in from the left. Moving the cursor to the lower left and clicking returns you to the Start screen.

Microsoft encourages the idea that the Start screen is the Windows 8 “home page.” From there, a few mouse gestures or a keyboard shortcut will take you almost anywhere you want to go. If you need access to common functions previously available on the old Start menu, you can right-click on the lower left to bring up the Power User list. You can even modify this list, though Microsoft won’t officially support or document the method for doing so.

One can see the reluctance on Microsoft’s part to map every multi-touch gesture to keyboard and mouse equivalent  because a)its a lot of extra work that may slow down the UI responsiveness  while complicating the development UI coding and b)anything that bleeds away users from the Metro UI or upgrading to a touchscreen capable PC is counter productive in the new worldof Consumer Computing that Microsoft is trying to secure a dominant position in.

For the other 65 to 80% of PC users the trick will be to get them to convert to the Metro UI. This is not as easy as one might expect despite the fact that many will have touchscreen experience from their smartphones and/or tablets. First those touch smart users may not want to move from their existing technology. Microsoft will have to have some Killer Apps and great pricing to move consumers to their Windows 8 Metro platform. But even the recently issued Windows 8 Release Preview does not hint of  a  Killer App.

As for pricing, the warning is that Windows ultrabooks  and portables will be able to match  and often exceed CPU speed, disks size and speed,  battery life, touch acuity, screen size [but NOT density] of Apple iPads. However even top-of-the-line iPads come in at a much lower price than most ultrabooks and notebooks that are multi-touchscreen capable. Only the ARM based Windows 8 RT tablets appear capable of competing  with iPads on price as well as many better hardware features. Is this enough to pull in the Co9nsumer Computing oriented customers – touch savvy or not?

Whats At Stake?

From the above discussion it appears that Windows 8:

0)will not be an instant success out of the gate but will probably  follow slower than Windows 7 adoption rates in both the Consumer and Business communities.  John Dvorak at Marketwatch is blunt – ” Windows 8 looks to me to be an unmitigated disaster that could decidedly hurt the company and its future.”.This will require Microsoft ‘s accelerated deprecation and termination of Windows XP and Windows Vista to “encourage” Windows 8 adoption;
1)will likely bring about a split between Consumer Computing and Operational+Creative Computing where like Apple users you have to buy either iPad or Mac or both to get the full range of Apple computing. Meanwhile Google is still trying to sell ChromeBox as Cloud only Computing leaving the Linux distributions to infight as usual;
2)will definitely increase the developer UI burden as they have to support both Metro and Desktop UIs in their Windows 8 offerings. Adobe was smart to make their latest Creative Suite 6 release a few weeks ago,  now it gives them a year to pick sides – Metro vs Desktop UI or both;
3)will complicate both Consumer and Business computing as integrating across platforms will now have to serve  more incompatible desktop  platforms[and we have not mentioned the split in Cloud OS and UI among vendors].   Windows has been the unifying common UI along with the Web that all computing shops could rely on  for a common interface. Depending on whether Redmond backtracks and applies more more integration between Metro UI and Desktop UI [don’t hold your breath for it like I have been for multi-touch screen operations to come to Macs], will detrmine if  a common PC UI era is gone. If so, expect to see more Isolated Islands of Information.

What could change things? Well a Vista-like reaction by consumers to Windows 8. This could be good for Windows in the long run because then the Desktop UI could get the Keyboard+Mouse mappings to core Touch+Gestures plus better Metro Style integration which colud re-invigorate the desktop. And Redmond has the building blocks as there are a number of Pen/stylus and keyboard mappings already in Windows UI APIs. This is why I am surprised the work has not been done already. Hopefully Windows VP Sinofsky has a Plan B for Windows 8’s intro.

Second, there could be the emergence of a bridging UI that solves the Touch+Gesture versus Keyboard+Mouse problem for Windows. Take a look at NUI: the New Natural User Interfaces and some of the key ideas percolating in NUI. New, inexpensive but savvy UI devices could change the ballgame. In particular, LeapMotion  is shaping up as a game changer.

Finally- Nothing at all will happen as the big OS monopolies move to shape innovations and markets to their advantage. It is Ayn Rand at her worst  as ostensibly wildly  free  IT markets wheel, deal and reel with their mistakes inflicted on  computing users.

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