Why Windows 8 is Microsoft’s 'Apple-like' Slippery Slope

Microsoft hasn't exactly besmirched Windows 7, but is going to lengths to show contempt for the status quo

The following is a guest blog by freelance editor and self-confessed keyboard geek Marco Chiappetta. Now that we’ve been able to spend a little time with the Windows 8 Developer Preview, it’s obvious that Microsoft is tailoring many of the interface elements to Touch enabled platforms. This is all well and good since Microsoft has to make a strong play in the ultramobile space, but I fear some of the decisions being made could adversely affect desktop editions of the OS and put off many longtime Windows users.

Over the last few months, Microsoft has revealed a number of details regarding its next iteration of Windows via the “Building Windows 8” blog published on the MSDN site. Many of the posts deal with low-level tweaks to the OS and new features being implemented, a handful which have been (almost) universally praised, like bringing Hyper-V to client versions of Windows 8, building in robust USB 3.0 and ISO support, and improvements to runtime memory. A number of the posts, however, specifically those dealing with the Metro interface and changes to the Start menu have revealed what could be construed as mild contempt for the status quo. There haven’t been specific comments besmirching Windows 7’s traditional Start menu per say, but the lengths to which Microsoft is going to convince users the “Windows 8 way” will be better is interesting to say the least.

Windows 8 versus Windows 7

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“We released Windows Developer Preview build with the full product 'enabled' even though we still had much feature work to do in the user interface. We did this in order to foster the dialog and we want folks to understand that the product is not done. We've seen some small amount of visceral feedback focused on 'choice' or 'disable'—a natural reaction to change, but perhaps not the best way to have a dialog leading to a new product,” said Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky via a post titled “Reflecting on your comments on the Start screen” on the blog.

Obviously, it would be irresponsible to draw any solid conclusions about Windows 8 from the very early Developer Build that was recently released, so I agree with Steven’s disclaimer there. But his comments about users wanting choice or the ability to disable things not being the best way to have a dialog about a new product comes across somewhat condescending in my opinion; dare I say Apple-like.

The concern from some users of the Windows 8 Developer preview stem from a deep-seated and longtime familiarity with the Windows Start menu interface currently in use. In their efforts to better cater to the massive influx of touch-enabled devices, however, it seems Microsoft is dead set on revamping the Windows UI, regardless of public opinion. And that’s fine, if the end product ultimately ends up being more useful and increases productivity or usability, but change for the sake of change isn’t always a good thing.

Windows 8 metro start screen

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“The personalization of the Start screen is one of the features that we want to make great, and we’re still iterating on it to make it better. In the Windows Developer Preview, you can already try flexible group sizes, unpinning tiles, and resizing wide tiles to square tiles. And in the Beta, you’ll also be able to use other improvements based on this dialog, in addition to creating, naming, and rearranging groups,” Sinofsky also said in the post.

Yes, I get it. This Developer Preview isn't a complete product, but I still think Microsoft is teetering on a slippery slope.

For those not keen on using Metro, the switch between it and the traditional start menu needs to be quick and seamless. The current implementation makes Metro look like a basic launcher just bolted on top of the Start menu and it’s fairly unattractive in my opinion. Microsoft shouldn’t take the Apple approach and minimize what can be customized with the OS. With such a radical welcome screen and departure to the main interface, forcing long-time users to re-learn something that they’ve been accustomed to for ages, just for the sake of reacting to trends in the tablet space is a potentially bad move. Most people look to their tablets for consumption, and their PCs for creation. It’s OK, and probably beneficial, for them to have different interfaces considering the different workloads intended for each platform and current input methods.

Touch will obviously be a huge component of Windows 8, but its usefulness on the desktop is questionable at this time as well, at least with current peripherals. Although the novelty may be fun at first, I argue that most users won’t want to reach across a desk to touch a screen, when their hands are already on a mouse and keyboard and can get the task done just as quickly, for example. A new generation of input devices may come as more touch-enabled desktop apps geared for the desktop are released, and change the way we interact with our systems, but for most of you reading this that are sitting at a desk, reaching across it to touch a screen and select or move something won’t offer any real benefits over a mouse most likely—not to mention the ergonomics.

Pushing Metro onto the desktop is also an obvious move that should allow for more seamless integration with Windows Phone-based devices. Although there hasn’t been much talk on this subject, other than to say Window 8 will be able to run Windows Phone apps, there is potential in this arena. If there is some as-yet-unknown incentive for Windows 8 users to purchase Windows Phone-based devices, or vice versa, Microsoft could end up boosting their market share in the smartphone space, while still keeping desktop users happy.

Although I have some concerns regarding the UI changes coming with Windows 8, it’s premature to say whether or not Microsoft is on the right or wrong path. I will say, however, the Microsoft is being extremely open and transparent about the design process, which is great. Looking at the sheer amount of data Microsoft has analyzed and the thought processes behind many of the decisions being made is encouraging. Hopefully, all of the effort pays off in the end.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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