Microsoft’s Vision for Searching for Needles in Haystacks

March 16th, 2012

As the world anticipates, expects, or ignores, the arrival of Windows 8 later this year, the real question is whether Microsoft has made a huge gamble that may not pay off. While previous versions of Windows at least had close resemblances to one another, the Metro interface seems to be daringly different, or is it?

Responding to a question that few might have asked, Microsoft decreed that the Start menu, where you access your most-used apps and, curiously, restart or shut down your PC, must go. In its place comes the Metro interface, an overlay of square or rectangular tiles, which most recently graced the face of Windows Phone.

The artwork is minimalist. Sometimes it’s just a label with thin white text, or perhaps some stick figure artwork. In a vague sense, Metro harkens back to Microsoft’s Bob, a failed attempt to place a warm and fuzzy cartoon-like face on Windows from the 1990s. Then, as now, Microsoft used old fashioned artwork in an effort to seem somehow relevant.

But the larger question is why Microsoft has become convinced that taking an interface that has already failed on other products must somehow succeed. Is it because it’ll have the same theme on both traditional PCs and tablets? Microsoft has so far failed to develop a successful tablet strategy. Or maybe it’s all about watching from the sidelines as Apple infuses iOS elements into OS X.

In a sense I can understand Microsoft’s dilemma. Apple and Google have taken control of the mobile computing market, while the market share of Windows has been steadily, if slowly, eroding. As sales growth of new Macs exceeds that of the PC industry, Microsoft has been forced to change their core product, and attempt to persuade tens of millions of customers that it’s high time they upgrade from Windows XP, which is over ten years old.

While Metro has gotten some reasonably favorable reviews, I have problems with the execution. The tiles present a mixture of darker hues, with thin lettering, making the labels sometimes difficult to read. Some tiles have artwork, some don’t. Unlike the icons you find on the iOS or Android, the tiles all seem to run together, and you often have to look closely to see which one you want. You don’t have the sort of instant recognition, of say, the icon for Apple Mail, or for Microsoft Word for the Mac for that matter.

While it’s possible consumers will take to this scheme, or put up with it, the same can’t be said for businesses who want predictability. They aren’t interested in the niceties of Windows beyond making sure the apps they need to run operate efficiently. They don’t want to have to retrain their employees as the result of the whims of Microsoft.

More to the point, since Metro’s appearance on such products as the Zune and Windows Phone smartphones wasn’t very successful, why does Microsoft think things will magically change on a PC, or by imposing essentially the same interface scheme on a traditional PC and a tablet?

Someone once said that a definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result.

But Metro isn’t the first interface curiosity from Microsoft. Consider the infamous ribbon, which is essentially a mass of toolbar buttons on an app that are meant to make features more discoverable.

However, there’s nothing new about the ribbon. We still call them toolbars on most apps. Whether horizontal or vertical, toolbars contain buttons that allow you to access a program’s key features. You had app toolbars in the 1980s, so why does Microsoft believe it’s something new? Well, on the Windows platform, menu bars are buried in favor of ribbons, expecting customers to appreciate the fact that they don’t have to scan through drop-down menus to find the functions they need. They’re all there for you to see.

Only it doesn’t always work that well in practice. Buttons are tiny, icons are sometimes indistinct as to form and function, and the features they manage aren’t always obvious until you test them out, or remember the positions for quick recognition. Now Microsoft does this better on the Mac, because the traditional menu bar isn’t hidden, and you can go from menu to toolbar and, usually at any rate, figure out how to accomplish a particular task. The ribbon for the Mac version of Outlook seems more haphazard, but since the program is such a mess in regular use, that’s simply what you expect.

However, Microsoft has been using the “discoverability” excuse on their products for years. It doesn’t seem as if they’ve become any easier to use, or that the ribbon answers an actual need. Microsoft, however, is very much into doing focus groups to test out what features people like. However, if they had focus groups back in the early days of the auto industry, they would have ended up with better horse-driven wagons. That’s not the way to innovate, but to exist in the past.

But since Metro’s artwork is very much from the 1980s or 1990s, perhaps my suggestion that Microsoft is living in the past isn’t that far off.

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One Response to “Microsoft’s Vision for Searching for Needles in Haystacks”

  1. DaveD says:

    I read somewhere that Microsoft wanted to beat Apple to the pass on a single operating system for tablet and desktop use.

    Is this Microsoft’s way of skating to the puck?

    Why would Microsoft put Metro on Windows replacing the Start menu?

    Microsoft has become one of those big cruise ships that have lost power and is now adrift.

    I remember opening a word document in Office for the first time and playing what does this icon do in the toolbar. There were so many. I guess Microsoft needed a new way to place more icons and came up with Ribbons.

    At least with Windows 8 (the “Meh” edition), those that like the traditional graphical interface have a choice. Get a PC with an OS that have always gotten in the way and will soon to be in your face, or a Mac.

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