Monday, April 29, 2013

Microsoft's "Modern UI" Failure

What if they created a new User Interface paradigm and nobody cared? What if "they" were Microsoft?

As I've talked about in previous posts, the new Modern UI (formerly called Metro) that Microsoft has made part of their latest operating system has widely been panned by the Tech industry. It's also getting ignored by most consumers and businesses. The general consensus is that the new interface is fixing problems nobody is having. Why has Microsoft insisted on making the new Modern UI such a priority? Because they see it as a bridge to get people to try the interface and if they become comfortable enough, they might also like to try other devices using the same UI. In other words Windows Phone 8 and the new Surface line of tablets.

I've said it before, but analysts seem to agree, the new OS is not selling well. Several of Microsoft's long time partners have poo-pooed the new OS because they believe it has lead to a sharp decline in Personal Computer sales.

There are a lot of reasons that people dislike the new OS, including the fact that they completely eliminated the "Start Menu" and made it nearly impossible for users to avoid using the new UI if they prefer the traditional desktop. I wrote about the problem and rumor's of Microsoft's half-hearted fix to the problem last week.

But there are a lot of other reasons that Microsoft has had a hard time selling the new UI. Chief among them is the new Modern UI applications that Microsoft released when they released Windows 8. If you were one of the few to upgrade to Windows 8 last year, you probably were left wondering if the new applications were bad by design or if they were merely unfinished.

For example, the Mail application didn't allow you to select multiple messages to delete or move. In fact, there were no Folders in the Mail application at all, making it impossible to properly organize your Inbox. For people who had used free email clients from Microsoft in the past (meaning Outlook Express) the new Mail app delivered with Windows 8 felt extremely limited. That was just one example.

Microsoft has since released a set of updates to many of the Modern UI applications through their new Windows Store, but in some cases the "updates" removed functionality. For instance, the Calendar application lost the ability to sync with Google Calendar, leaving thousands of new Windows 8 users with no alternative except to try third party solutions.

And lets face it, the third party applications available from the Windows Store are very hit and miss. Mostly miss. A survey of most of the reviews in the Windows Store leads one to believe that developers aren't convinced that the new Modern UI is going to be viable long term.

Microsoft is the company that has always prided itself for having the best developers and the best catalog of third party and in-house applications for their Operating systems, so the situation with Windows 8 is doubly confounding. It seems amazing that a company with the internal resources and a list of the best ISV's on earth has found itself in such a situation.

Microsoft has placed a big bet on their flagship OS by stating to developers and customers alike that the new UI is the future of the OS. That they have done such a shoddy job of implementing the applications most people will use first after an OS upgrade speaks volumes about the lack of direction the company has had in recent years.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Microsoft will fix Windows 8, almost

The Tech press was again abuzz this week with leaks from Microsoft saying that the Start button would be returned to the Windows 8 desktop. And that's not all, sources also said that with the release of updates code named "Blue" the users will have the ability to boot directly to the desktop. Thus avoiding the Modern UI (aka Metro) entirely.

And there was much rejoicing. Nearly everyone from tech pundits to consumers to large enterprise IT departments have lamented Microsoft's original decision to make the new Modern UI the default interface for users and push the old desktop interface deep into the background. But an even bigger problem for many users was the decision to drop the Start button entirely. Not only did it make things more confusing, but for many first time users of Windows 8 it provided no easy way to discover how to get back to the Modern UI once they had found the desktop. Which is what Microsoft kind of wanted in the first place. They want people to use the Modern UI to the extent that they get used to it and then maybe they will want to use the same UI for their tablet and smart phone devices. Making Windows 8 a gateway to Windows phone and Surface tablets.

If they are bringing back the Start button, it seems like a good idea. Microsoft finally heard all of the complaints that the new Modern user interface was not merely a steep learning curve, it is "jarring." That's the word many of the tech press used to refer to the abrupt change when the user went from the Desktop to the Modern Start screen to search for apps and files, and with good reason.

Now, in lieu of depressed PC sales and many pointing fingers at Microsoft for the low acceptance of the new UI, it seems the software giant is poised to do what they insisted they could not do during the beta testing period: return the Start button, and let users go straight to the desktop when booting up the machine.

However, I don't think many people are going to be happy with this once they see the final results. You see, the sources are very clear in saying that the Start button is going to return, but not the Start menu. What is the difference you ask? Well, when you get to the Windows 8 desktop, you can press the Start button to get back to the Modern UI Start screen. In other words, you still get that same jarring experience, with a shiny new button instead of having to use the Start key on your keyboard. The Windows 7 style menu (first introduced in Windows Vista, but lets not go there) will not appear.

That's because Microsoft still wants people to use the new Start screen in Windows 8. They fear that if people get back their old Start menu they will stay on the Desktop and never see the new Modern UI again. And that would be bad for the developers that Microsoft is urging to create new Modern UI style applications.

I don't believe that will be enough to convince most people to jump into the latest Windows version on new and existing PC's. Many people are going to see the Start button without the Start menu as too little too late for Windows 8. Not to mention the fact that there are already many third party solutions available that give users the ability to go straight to the desktop and use the Start button with a Windows 7 style Start menu while getting much of the benefits of the improved Windows 8 desktop.

Which begs the question, why hasn't Microsoft already given users the option to skip directly to the desktop and return the Start button before now? According to some pundits Microsoft is saying that adding the feature will take time and has to wait until other features of the so called "Blue" upgrade are finished. But if so many third party developers have already done the trick without the benefit of Microsoft's huge resources we have to wonder if there isn't some other reason for the delay.

Microsoft ignored the warnings of their beta testers and has until recently ignored the legions of users and tech reporters who have said they should at least put the Start button back as an optional setting. It seems doubtful that they have really gotten the message. At any rate we will have to wait and see what their final decision is.

Just don't expect too much.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Could 2015 be THE big year for Linux and OS X?

The Microsoft technology blogosphere has been buzzing lately due to last weeks leak of the next big Windows 8 update code named “Blue.” Pundits from ars technica to the Supersite for Windows by Paul Thurrott have been burning the midnight oil trying to predict what the future of Windows might be, based on the new features they see in the leaked code.

Their collective conclusion: The Modern UI (originally called the Metro interface) is the wave of the future. Of course, this isn’t really news as most tech writers said that Microsoft’s big gamble with Windows 8 was that people would use the new UI on all of their devices, from Windows Phone, to the new Surface tablets to traditional Desktop and laptop computers.

The bet, most of the writers are saying, is that the traditional desktop interface, initially called the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointer), will disappear and be replaced by a simpler interface that provides the user with a one App at a time view of their world. At least, that’s what Microsoft wants us to believe.

And Windows Blue seems to be evidence that the company is still on course to do just that. More features are being moved from the Desktop to the Modern UI. More of the apps that Microsoft builds will be built on top of Modern UI.

In fact, some are predicting that Microsoft will phase out the Desktop as early as 2015, when Windows 9 is set to ship. While some say that is probably too soon, most agree that Microsoft wants to see the Desktop becoming less and less conspicuous with the average user spending all of their time using Apps within the Modern UI.

For Microsoft this is a big deal because the more people spend time in the Modern UI on the traditional personal and laptop computers, the more they will be inclined to want the same interface on their mobile devices. Windows Phone and the Windows RT/8 tablets, which have failed to capture any significant market share, might both benefit from users who will come to expect their OS to behave in a certain way. Microsoft currently dominates the PC marketplace with over 90% of the market share. If they can convince a sufficient number of those people to at least try the new mobile devices it would severely threaten Apple and Google’s current strangle-hold on the mobile market. A market which is growing faster than any other tech market and will for the foreseeable future.

But is that the best thing all around? Are consumers, and the very important business users ready to switch to a Tablet style operating system UI on their workstations? In many places, the single app at a time approach can help the user to focus on what they are doing. If you are writing a document, for instance, using a full screen text editor can be a great way to eliminate some of the distractions that adversely affect productivity.

But if that is always the case, then why do companies pay out millions of dollars each year for larger displays? And why do many of them provide multiple monitors for each worker? We already know several productivity studies have shown that some knowledge workers perform better with multiple monitors. Even Microsoft’s own research has made this point. Anecdotally I can confirm my own experience as a developer that having documentation, source code and other reference material available across my desktop cuts down on context switching and the time to perform even simple tasks can be greatly increased.

So what are we to think of this apparent contradictory information? Is Microsoft giving up too much by forcing people into their vision of the brave new computing world paradigm?

It’s not clear yet how far Microsoft really intends to go with eliminating the Desktop. What we do know is that many of their early testers for Windows 8 strongly suggested they keep the desktop with its highly controversial Start menu button. Despite numerous suggestions and protestations, Microsoft remained intransigent and stubbornly stuck to the plan. They even appeared ready to make third party replacements for the old UI impossible.

What if they do pull the trigger and remove the desktop all together? Leaving knowledge workers and other power users with no alternative in any version of the operating system formerly called “Windows?”

It could be an opportunity for some of their competitors. Linux, for instance, is unlikely to ever give up the windows interface. And even though Apple has shown signs of merging the Macintosh OS X system with the iOS design, it is unlikely they would drop the desktop metaphor entirely.

Microsoft may very well drag users into their Modern UI future. Or they could push many of them to explore alternatives that, until recently, might not have seemed attractive to most.