In a gargantuan, 11,300+ word post, on the Building Windows 8 blog, Microsoft’s Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for the User Experience team, discusses new design elements coming in the final release of Windows 8. The post offers a “brief” history of the Windows user interface and explains why Microsoft has made many of the changes ushered in with each major, new release of Windows. Unfortunately for desktop PC users, the UI changes coming in Windows 8 appear to be a step backward as Microsoft ditches Aero for minimalist Metro-like elements and flat, squared surfaces.
From the post, “we decided to bring the desktop closer to the Metro aesthetic, while preserving the compatibility afforded by not changing the size of window chrome, controls, or system UI. We have moved beyond Aero Glass—flattening surfaces, removing reflections, and scaling back distracting gradients.” Most users that have experience with the Windows 8 Developer and Consumer previews, will likely agree that a more seamless graphical transition from Metro to the Desktop UI was necessary, but what Microsoft plans to do at this late stage in the game is dramatic and flies in the face of design philosophies presented in the lead ups to Windows Vista and 7.
“Aero was designed to help the app’s content to be the center of attention, and for the Windows system UI to recede into the background. This is still relevant today, and while we are moving beyond Aero, we don’t want to lose sight of these goals.” Well, Microsoft, you have lost sight of those goals, whether you say it or not. With the coming changes to the Windows 8 UI, Aero glass and reflections are gone, all edges have been squared off, gradients, glows and shadow and transparency effects have been removed, and the default window chrome is white on white. The ribbon present at the top of many windows also consumes far more screen real estate than the familiar menu system in Windows 7. Clearly and cleanly distinguishing the UI from content is far more difficult with minimalist, monochrome design elements and a large ribbon which most certainly does not help the UI to “recede into the background”.
Windows 8's New UI Elements. Image Source: Microsoft
All of the smoke and mirrors in the post, which was strategically made-live late on a Friday afternoon and has already been pushed down the page by a new entry about multiple screen support in Windows 8, can’t mask the feeling that Microsoft has all but given up on the desktop. The vast majority of UI and feature changes coming with Windows 8 have less to do with the overall experience than making the OS more touch friendly and minimizing system resource consumption in an attempt to increase battery life and perceived performance on under-powered mobile devices. Aero’s flashier design elements simply require more horsepower and memory bandwidth to render properly. Minimizing the design elements will make Windows 8 less resource hungry, which in turn should result in better battery life. That’s all well and good for under-powered mobile devices that are untethered from electrical outlets more often than not, but desktop systems have far more processing resources available and aren’t as constrained by power limitations. I’d prefer Microsoft spend more time investigating creative ways to leverage the powerful computing resources available in today’s highly efficient desktop systems, rather than ignoring them in favor of a “new” interface that’s more reminiscent of Windows 3.1 than a modern OS with billions of CPU and GPU transistors and multiple gigabytes of memory at its disposal. And while touch is great on a smartphone, I prefer a mouse and keyboard on my desktop. You know, those two input devices on 99.9% of desktops that actually help make people productive.
What’s also interesting is that all of these new UI changes will not be present in the Windows 8 Release Preview, which is due to hit the web in a couple of weeks. The post says, “While a few of these visual changes are hinted at in the upcoming Release Preview, most of them will not yet be publicly available. You’ll see them all in the final release of Windows 8!” The fact that Microsoft is still making major changes this late in Windows 8’s development is disconcerting. A major decision like ripping up a significant component of the OS’ UI should have been made ages ago.
At virtually every tech-centric event I’ve attended in the last year or so, I’ve asked both hardware manufactures and software developers what they thought of Windows 8, off the record. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. A few folks have even hinted at as-yet-unannounced features that will supposedly wow consumers. Here’s hoping they know something we don’t, because it’s looking more and more like PC users that actually need to get some real work done may be better served by sticking with Windows 7 or switching to an alternative OS. Many of the changes coming with Windows 8 are designed only for content consumers, not content creators, which doesn’t bode well for fans of powerful desktop systems that actually like to get some work done from time to time.
Before concluding, here’s one final—I think very telling—quote from the post, “The new Windows 8 user experience is no less than a bet on the future of computing”. A bet? Microsoft is willing to risk the success of its next major OS on a bet? They better hope it pays off better than the bet Microsoft has already made in the smartphone space or that huge install base of desktop systems Microsoft currently enjoys is going to shrink.
Marco Chiappetta is a freelance journalist specializing in PC and consumer device hardware reviews. Or in his words, Marco is a "self-confessed keyboard geek." In addition to covering Microsoft for Network World, Marco's work also appears in PC World and he is an editor at Hothardware.com.