How Did Microsoft Miss This?

November 21st, 2012

Supposedly Microsoft is in favor of focus group testing, the better to evaluate new products and get public reaction. Yet you have to wonder how they continue to come up with curious, ill-thought solutions that seemingly defy logic. Take the ribbon toolbar. Microsoft wanted you to believe that toolbars containing icons that were context sensitive were new and different, and superior to regular pull-down menus. But I think most of you know better.

Microsoft also has an annoying tendency to take a minor refinement or change in the OS or an app and pretend it’s something unique. So I recall two consecutive releases of Office for the Mac where modest interface changes were said to make the suite more discoverable. They pulled that a third time with Office 2011, which, aside from a Mac version of the ribbon (thankfully tamed compared to the Windows version), didn’t sport a whole lot of new features. In fact, the replacement for the Entourage email client, Outlook, actually lost a few that users liked. Yes, that’s different.

In all fairness, Apple is known to remove features, but they sometimes do it in the interests of making OS X easier to use. Or they say nothing at all about the reasons behind the change.

With Windows 8, it’s a sure thing that Microsoft isn’t feeling the love. From the launch of the very first public beta, reviewers and Windows lovers alike wondered what the developers at Microsoft were drinking, or smoking, for coming up with this travesty.

It all comes down to Microsoft’s version of the PC+ era, where Windows must appear everywhere. Rather than follow the playbooks of Apple and Google and develop a simple, highly optimized OS for mobile gear that didn’t necessary borrow much if anything from a desktop OS, Microsoft decided you and I really wanted to have it all.

So they took the flat tile look and feel from the failed Zune player and the failed Windows Phone OS and combined it with the traditional Windows desktop, more or less. This schizophrenic approach, where you are living in two different, separated environments depending on which app you want to run, was just guaranteed to confuse people.

There are already reports from a noted Windows advocate claiming that Windows 8 sales are far lower than Microsoft expected, according to his sources within the company. Microsoft continues to claim great sales, except for the Surface tablet, where the results are merely “modest.” At the same time, the fellow who was in charge of Windows, Steve Sinofsky, is now looking for another job. Despite all the silly reports that he really needed a rest, or that he worked badly with others, it really seems he is being held accountable for the Windows 8/Surface debacle. That makes sense.

But it’s not just tech reviewers and the public who have qualms about the look and the feel of Windows 8. Consider this analysis from world-famous usability guru, Jakob Nielsen. In this detailed and damning report, Nielsen recruited “12 experienced PC users to test Windows 8 on both regular computers and Microsoft’s new Surface RT tablets.”

It’s a very complete study, pointing out that most elements of Windows 8 are poorly designed, difficult to use, and, in fact, would appear to present a severe impediment to actually getting real work done. The OS, particularly the interface formerly known as Metro, is not just in your face, but severely detracting. Actually mastering the complicated touch system involves practice and more practice, and it’s not always clear what the actual hot spot is to accept a tap.

One particular shortcoming is the removal of support for multiple document windows in the tiled interface. Supposedly there is an option that will allow you to reveal another window in a small part of the screen, “but none of our test users were able to make this work.” This is a reason why Nielsen suggested that “the product ought to be renamed ‘Microsoft Window.'”

I can understand their pain as I write this article on a Mac running Mountain Lion. One Safari browser window has the standard WordPress text editing page, while a second browser window carries Nielsen’s report. And that is a typical use of multiple windows. When I’m recording a segment for one of my radio shows, I usually need to work in three apps at the same time, something that the Windows 8’s touch interface would pretty much render impossible.

This single — or mostly single — window scheme is fine for a smartphone, and it works reasonably well for many tablets. But there are reports suggesting that iOS 7 may, at least on an iPad, let you work in two apps, or two document windows, at the same time. Microsoft has clearly forgotten what made the traditional versions of Windows highly successful, and they’ve attempted, with Windows 8, to throw everything they learned out of the window unless you find a way to exist all the time in the desktop layer.

Except for Office, which still exists on the Windows 8 desktop, and only pays occasional lip service to a touch-based computer. Even Microsoft couldn’t figure a way to make Office operate under the native interface of Windows 8, so why expect any other major developer to want get involved with this mess? Can you actually imagine a Modern UI version of Adobe Photoshop?

But I don’t feel pity for Microsoft. They jumped into this quicksand with eyes open.

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2 Responses to “How Did Microsoft Miss This?”

  1. AlfieJr says:

    it’s hard to figure out what key executive inside MS really propelled the Metro UI. it emerged out of the Zune and Windows Phone software design process. obviously at some point Ballmer decided it was right for the future of all MS portables’ OS, and it was made so.

    by the way, today the Zune is dead and Windows Phone is on life support.

    we do know that Sinofsky drove Windows OS and Office development.

    W7 was a big success and Office is the MS cash cow.

    who decided to have Sinofsky jam the two together as the ultimate new Windows of the future – W8? well, given how clunky it actually works, it must have been the “marketing guy” – Ballmer – for whom function follows hype.

    so as directed, Sinofsky bolted the Metro touch UI on to Windows – we hear he championed the Surface’s development all along – and further jazzed up the Windows UI for reasons unknown. resulting in the mutant creature known as Windows 8.

    then he gets dumped by Ballmer/Gates, apparently for unwisely dumping the Start Menu and refusing to bring it back. the most recent in quite a list of deleted senior MS executives over this same time span.

    folks, you can’t make stuff this goofy up. MS is your basic Ship of Fools, and Capt. Queeg is in charge.

  2. Dennis says:

    I gave Windows 8 a short whirl. My thought it is not broken, don’t fix it. If it is broken, fix it.

    OS X is not broken so I’ll stay with that. Windows 8 is broken. Microsoft has the money to fix it but not the vision. They need to get rid of their uncreative and user unfriendly DOS mentality DNA, which is marketing over substance.

    I love touch screen and used DOS for a major govenment multimedia display that lasted for over 20 years. TWe used C+ to program it by hand. That was a task but the programmer was a genius. Aside from the touch screens wearing out,t was rock solid. But now the entire interactive touch screen multimedia game is iPad. Windows 8 can’t touch the iPad for programming and cost effectiveness. And with Apple TV you can attached the ipad to a big screen with no troubles.

    I’m also involved with a media catalogue. The windows XP server side is hell. Pure hell. Next week we are switching to a mac mini, which will configure in a about 15 minutes.

    On the other hand I have a new video server that runs on Windows XP. Rock Solid. No problems. The programmers thought out of the box and made it plug and play. Unfortunately Microsoft programmers don’t seem to have a grasp of that term yet.

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