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  • Of Lion and Windows 8

    September 15th, 2011

    The media's theme this week is that Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 8 will be a game changer, as they attempt to deliver basically the same user experience on mobile and desktop computers. Well, more or less. All this joy will be inflicted on Windows users some time in 2012.

    Now to be fair to Microsoft, the versions demonstrated to the media this week are works in progress, not fully formed and hence things might change, hopefully for the better. So any observations I make based on what I've studied and seen might be regarded as preliminary and perhaps wrong. Understand that I did not physically touch the OS; I'm relying media reports and screen captures that appear to be consistent from publication to publication.

    So when you boot into Windows 8, you'll be facing a new Start screen fashioned after Windows Phone 7. The interface, dubbed Metro (and don't get me started about what that name signifies) consists of flat tiles, or rectangular widgets that have no dimensionality or shading whatever. From a designer's standpoint, I suppose the retro look might be akin to something out of the 1980s. Unfortunately, some of the worst excesses of poor Web design are in evidence, such as putting white lettering against colored backgrounds. This forces you to actually strain to read the labels, a poor decision that works against discoverability. To me it's butt ugly, but I assume Microsoft somehow hopes to make it easy for users to figure out the way things work in Windows 8 without having to succumb to severe retraining, which would hurt adoption by business. Or perhaps they'll turn off that miserable overlay and revert to the traditional Windows Start menu and desktop.

    Another new feature of Windows 8 is the alleged rapid boot time, said to be less than eight seconds on the tablets handed out to the media. But those tablets aren't running the traditional ARM chips found on the iPad and its direct competitors, even though Windows 8 is supposed to operate on that chip too. Instead, the hardware consists of PC notebooks without keyboards, running standard Intel chips and solid state drives. No wonder they seem to run relatively fast. At the same time some journalists are reporting that the systems run hot, with the fans operating at full tilt. Clearly Microsoft has lots of work to do.

    In scaling down Windows 8 to run on an ARM chip, it appears that you won't be able to use your regular Windows apps, even in emulation, though I might be wrong about that. Instead, there will be a new family of Web-based apps that will work on both the ARM and x86 processors. This appears to be similar to what Apple tried to do early on with the iOS in 2007, when there was no iPhone SDK or App Store. Developers weren't interested, although Microsoft's sheer size and market share might compel a reasonable number of developers to get with the program. There will also be an app store that will somehow differentiate apps that run on the various Windows 8 platforms, or list them as compatible with all.

    But that doesn't mean you'll be able to run the standard Office and other productivity apps on ARM-based tablets. Indeed, it's not at all certain how well Windows 8 will run in such restricted environments, since we're talking about computers with processor power that compares closely to what you might have achieved seven or eight years ago on a regular PC. That the iOS and Android OS seem so fast is that they are reduced-function systems that are specially optimized for such mobile hardware. It remains a huge question how well Microsoft's melding of the two will succeed in the real world when push comes to shove.

    Again, these are just preliminary thoughts.

    Yes, it's true that Apple has grafted some elements of the iOS in Mac OS X Lion. However, those additions are relatively minor in the scheme of things, and don't hit you right in the face. You don't need to run Launchpad, and the reverse scrolling and the ability to run on-demand scrollbars can be repaired by clicking a couple of checkboxes in the appropriate System Preferences pane. Lion, therefore, isn't in your face.

    When it comes to Lion's enhanced gestures, again you don't need to use them, ever. The usual commands are available from the menu bar, keyboard and mouse, just as they've always been. Apple has also opted not to disappear the menu bar in place of an enhanced toolbar, as Microsoft is doing with their infamous ribbon.

    I understand Microsoft might chafe at having Windows constantly being compared to Mac OS X in look and feel. The famous crack, "Redmond, start your copying machines" might have cut deeply. At the same time, change for change's sake isn't a good thing either. If the user interface must be modified, I hope Microsoft is making some effort to determine whether customers will be empowered rather than confused by the wealth of changes. If the latter, why bother? Just to look different?

    It's also true that Microsoft hasn't done so well in the mobile space. Although it has gotten some favorable reviews, Windows Phone 7 simply hasn't caught on. So, in effect, Microsoft is taking a failed idea and grafting it onto its most profitable product.

    Sure, it's quite possible Windows 8 might prove to be reasonably successful when it comes out next year. But right now, it comes across as an incoherent mess.



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    13 Responses to “Of Lion and Windows 8”

    1. Jon T says:

      Having also reviewed what's out so far, I think it looks to be a total and utter nightmare.

      As usual, Microsoft cannot do simple, clean, uncomplicated (the toybox tile interface is a poor attempt at creating that illusion though).

      And as someone else put it yesterday:

      "I have just written my new shiny PC application. I have to test the application on Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7. My testing is further doubled due to availability of either 32bit or 64bit processors. Soon I will add to my test list all combinations of Windows 8 Metro or classic; x86,x64 or Arm; touch or non-touch.'

      And developers are expected to buy into this?

      Microsoft's rating as a brand for the people has been falling, I'd put it at about 5.7 out of 10 today. But after Windows 8 it is sure to become a 4.5, and set to fall further.

    2. Colstan says:

      A lot of veteran Mac users have complained that Lion has incorporated too much of the iOS into Mac OS X. Just imagine the reaction of Windows users when they realize that the operating system that they have become comfortable with now has a split personality. I wonder if Windows 8 will come with a kitchen sink, as well?

      While we "must reserve judgment" about Windows 8, I think it shows how Apple's operating system strategy has worked. Some folks seem to think, for whatever reason, that the iOS and Mac OS X should be integrated. I think Apple recognizes that these are two distinctly different markets, with their own input methods and hardware requirements. If Microsoft's "one size fits all" approach is a flop, then a lot of the talk about the inevitable iOS-Mac OS X integration will look less credible.

      It's odd looking at some of the comments made by Apple users. Some think that they've gone way too far in integrating iOS features into Lion, while others think that the iOS and Mac OS X should be completely integrated. I think that Apple's sales figures show that they are currently pursuing the correct balance.

      Regardless, we're going to be getting a massive case study of how well a fully integrated mobile-device/desktop operating system is going to perform in the marketplace next year, courtesy of Microsoft.

      Colstan

    3. rwahrens says:

      "...we’re going to be getting a massive case study of how well a fully integrated mobile-device/desktop operating system is going to perform in the marketplace next year..."

      A case study of how to do it wrong!

      Apple is doing it right, by adding/melding the elements gradually, testing to see what works and what doesn't, and giving us alternatives to most elements to revert if needed. I am sure Apple is collecting information on how much the new elements are being used.

      That said, given that a huge number of new users are converting from Windows and being lured here by the iPhone/iPad, making the user experience more homogeneous between the two platforms makes sense.

      I use Lion's new elements, Launchpad, Mission Control and the new gestures, and they make navigation between apps a snap! VERY easy to use and remember and fast as hell. Going to work and using Snow Leopard is like going backwards - I have to stop and mentally change gears more and more often, and get impatient at how slow it is to switch between Entourage and Safari, compared to using just a couple of quick gestures at home.

      It is obvious that Apple's direction is the future of computing, and Microsoft is, as usual, bringing up the rear.

    4. Colstan says:

      As an update to my previous post, I have just given Windows 8 a test drive. The only word I can use for it is "jarring". It is a contrast between a simplistic tinker-toy interface and the overly-complex maze that is the old interface. "Metro" is clearly designed for tablets and the interface is simplified for basic usage. When you switch between the two interfaces it's like getting hit by a bucket of cold water. Not only that, but you've got two versions of Internet Explorer: the standard version that's familiar to desktop users, and a very basic version that is used in Metro.

      Any Mac user who is complaining about Lion having too many iOS elements needs to try Windows 8 to see just what happens when you meld a mobile-device operating system with a desktop operating system. I realize that a lot can and will change with Windows 8 between now and the time that it is released, but the new "Metro" interface will not be substantially different in how you use it. Microsoft has somehow managed to make an OS that is both overly simplistic and needlessly complex at the same time. If there was ever an operating system designed by committee, this is it.

      All I can say at this point is that I'm so glad to be using Lion on my Mac mini now.

      Colstan

    5. Andrew says:

      I haven't tried Windows 8 yet, but the one encouraging thing I've read is that Metro can be disabled. For a tablet Metro may make some sense, but for a laptop or desktop PC Microsoft at least is keeping the traditional Windows UI for those (most?) who will want it.

      I'm mostly a Mac user, but use Windows for my military duties and for gaming. So far, I am very pleased with Lion, but I also have nothing bad to say about Windows 7. I was initially concerned moving to Lion that it would be too dumbed-down, but in practice I've warmed up to the reverse scrolling and Mission Control, which on a small laptop like my 11" MacBook Air really makes me more productive. I use Windows 7 on a PC ultraportable (Lenovo ThinkPad X220) and its features for moving apps to full screen or pinning to the left or right half-screen are also very helpful. In fact, I like the Windows 7 pinning feature so much that I use a utility called Cinch to add that functionality to OS X. If only I could adapt Mission Control to Windows 7.

      Colstan Reply:

      @Andrew, Currently, Metro cannot be fully disabled. You can go into the old interface certainly, but some things like the Windows Store for purchasing applications will only be available through Metro. If a developer wants their application to be in the Windows Store, then it needs to use Metro. Microsoft is going to be pushing Metro hard, so don't be surprised if there are a number of applications that only work in Metro. There may be ways to minimize the need to use the new interface, but it's going to become increasingly important. The old Explorer interface is going to eventually fade away, if Microsoft gets its way.

      Colstan

    6. ezzy says:

      BATTERY LIFE?

      I'm almost all mac in all my projects, but use windows when I have to.

      If a microsoft tablet runs office and legacy win32 apps alongside some of the media consumption and gaming stuff that the iOS has...

      ...manages to do it in a fluid, fast, touch interface, and the little tab has a high-end screen and weighs less than an iPad1....

      well you got my attention...... But then I check the mobile details:

      if it has a battery life over 5-10 hours and runs without a fan or burning your hands, if it can sit in standby for 3weeks+, and if it can get wifi or 3G quickly,easily, on startup immediately (like iOS)...

      oh yeah, and deliver this thing for about the price of the current iPad, then they might sell more than a few.

      That's a lot of IF's, sorry, more like a case statement haha.

      ViewRoyal Reply:

      @ezzy,

      @ezzy,

      The Samsung 700T tablet that is being used by Microsoft to show off Windows 8 has been reviewed by PC ADVISOR. Here are a few quotes from that review:

      "At two pounds, this is the heaviest of the tablets we've seen"

      " You know how your laptop fan kicks in, and just spins and spins and spins? Yup, that's what the 700T did with Windows 8. "

      "The fan rarely shut off while I used the tablet in my hands-on, and the constant whirring noise was an unwanted distraction compared with the blissful silence of the iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1."

      "Even though the fan engaged often (and loudly), the 700T got hot super toasty. Sure, it needs to cool that hot Intel Core i5 CPU inside, but the heat, coupled with the fan noise--and the next point, battery life--are tradeoffs that many consumers won't want to make on their tablets. The display emanated heat, and the back was warm to the touch, in spite of the generously sized air vents at back. It wasn't hot enough to cook my breakfast scrabble on, but it sure was too hot for its--and my--own good."

      "The battery life on this preview unit was abysmal. Windows' desktop interface reported about 2.5 to 3 hours of battery life, and it drained down fairly quickly in use."

      And the price for all of this loveliness… "£999" or about $1,600.

      Uh, yeah….

    7. Knute says:

      Convergence will come. As mobile hardware tech allows a fuller experience, MacOS and iOS will further overlap and then unite (with some distinctions remaining for "truck" desktop applications). Apple has focused on a premium UX for both separately, but you can see the underpinnings for a thoughtful evolution to this fait accompli.

      MS is trying to rush to the finish line, and we'll have to see a year from now if they're successful.

      MS historically releases products early to freeze out the market, as well as get beta input. Attaching Metro/WM7 to Windows desktop/tablet is their last big play. If this doesn't work, any hopes of a restored hegemony will be lost.

      All I know is that Windows isn't sexy but it works fine today, however my iPad and iPhone and Lion MBA are fast becoming my go-to devices.

    8. Andrew says:

      One major difference in the way Apple and Microsoft operate is that MS puts everything out in the public long before it is finished. The result is that we get to see some of the good things to come, and we get to see the glitches and even design errors as well. The good thing is, if enough people complain, something can be changed before release.

      Snow Leopard wasn't broken, and while I like most of the changes in Lion, many users don't. Windows 7 isn't broken, and likewise I imagine many will like the changes in Windows 8 and others will not.

      As for Metro being mandatory, we just don't know yet. This is an early developer build, on a tablet computer with no keyboard. We don't know if the options for UI change on a conventional PC or when a keyboard is plugged in. We don't know if the feature is fully developed or still in a prototype form. We have to just wait and see. If it is a poorly conceived release, it will be a repeat of XP with users handing onto 7 until MS releases something that they actually want.

      Colstan Reply:

      @Andrew, The problem with this approach is that Microsoft's already bureaucratic structure is then forced to meet customer demands, particular with the enterprise that despises change. For good or for ill, Apple decisively decides on a course of action and sticks to it. Microsoft is trying to be all things to all people, and if they can't decide what they want Windows to be, then they're going to continue to miss out on both the future of mobile devices, as well as continue the erosion of their desktop environment.

      We can only go off what Microsoft is currently showing the public, and from what I've seen and used of Windows 8, it's a confusing abomination. There will be changes between now and Windows 8's release date, for sure. If nothing else, it'll be interesting when people try to run their legacy applications (as in everything currently available) on ARM hardware, that carries the exact same Windows 8 logo as a desktop would. Microsoft has specifically said that there will not be an emulator. If we in the tech community, which are reasonably informed about these such things, are having problems understanding where Microsoft is headed with this, then it'll be interesting to see how the general public reacts to what they release.

      Colstan

    9. ezzy says:

      @ViewRoyal thanks man, that's what i figured! sad. all this talk about the OS (already 2 years late) and there's no talk of the hardware which is more than 2 years behind apple.

      here, the ipad has been out for 2 years, in development for probably 5 more, and the best microsoft can come up with is trying to cram all of windows 6 & 7 onto a tablet with a colorful interface?

      call me very unimpressed. people are so not ready to accept that the guard is changing. microsoft is late and just seemed to bet the farm on a concept they really don't understand and can't build themselves. their HUGE OS with their crappy (and competing) UI design teams and apps running 4 different ways, all sitting on knockoff 3rd party hardware? sorry but i don't think iPad3 is gonna be sweating this windows8 tablet much in daily use. i do see MS selling a crapton of them to every corporate waiting room and UPS guy who say "it's a hunk of chit but i need it for work, i wish it was an ipad".... but i digress.

      in my opinion apple's bet on itunes/ipod/iOS touch hardware & software integration paid off better than even they imagined. all apple wanted back in the 90's was to have enough of the market to continue to design and innovate. people who say apple just copies or refines are either simpletons or FUD. apple has been doing serious engineering, research, and design on most of their product lines for decades now - touch research and code going back to the late 80's, zero-config peripherals since the early 80's, packaging and user experience going back to the mid 70's.

      If Windows 7 had had metro and touch interface, maybe it would all have been more interesting. but i wouldn't be surprised if the one thing finally that kills office is trying to get it running smoothly on a finger controlled tablet. MS is design themselves into the grave with this.

    10. Andrew says:

      How is Windows 8 two-years-late?

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