In the wake of the inaugural demo of Windows 8 this week, there’s much debate over whether employing the ‘Metro UI’ that we’ve already seen with Windows Phone 7 and the accompanying Zune software on the desktop and tablet OS is the right move from Microsoft. Obviously it’s far too early to judge the potential success of the bold step, but I’m finding it hard to put my finger on a feeling I’m having about it that doesn’t amount to at least an element of concern for the future of Windows. Let me elaborate.
The way I see it, there are a number of very valid reasons why people buy Windows computers:
1. It’s all they know, it’s familiar.
2. It’s great for business.
3. It’s great for games.
4. It’s home to a huge quantity of great third-party apps.
5. It’s compatible with a huge range of hardware.
There are probably more, but these are the key ones for me right now. And I fear that despite still offering the element of Windows that is familiar to us all these days, and the ‘Metro’ UI only really acting as a skin, despite Microsoft’s current insistence that it’s something more, this new development has all but eradicated many of those reasons.
Firstly, it obviously makes it unfamiliar. Walt Mossberg even pointed out during the demo that people are going to be heading into stores and saying “what’s that?”. It retracts that familiarity that billions of us have come to accept. OK, so there might be a small handful of nerds wanting a big change, but the general consensus, as with most things, is that change is feared by the average Joe. People don’t like change. It injects fear, being faced with something alien, and to the non-tech savvy among us, of which there are billions, it’s exactly that.
Secondly, and this will pretty much encapsulate points 3 and 4 above, I have to ask the question: What’s the point of having Windows on a tablet? You see, you may have noticed that Microsoft is the only company that is deploying a traditionally desktop OS onto tablets, and not using a mobile OS or some variant of one. And they are keen to push that you can have all the functionality of Windows on the tablet. But when you look at Windows, compared to say, iOS or Android, what can you do on the desktop that you can’t do on a tablet? There’s heavy duty stuff, such as encoding, decoding, transcoding, movie editing etc. but these are so resource intensive and have relatively gargantuan spec requirements that you’re unlikely to be, and will be uncomfortable at any rate, performing such tasks on a tablet or touchscreen device. But back to the original points, there’s gaming and business use. That’s what sets Windows apart from other platforms. Office, Exchange etc. and the huge array of game platforms and titles available for Windows. Ask yourself this: would you want to create a spreadsheet on an iPad? The answer’s probably no, so why would you want to do it on a Windows tablet? You wouldn’t. Similarly with games, tablets don’t by nature have the input controls to properly play full games, like Call of Duty, only small titles such as Angry Birds. Whilst we’ve all grown to love them, it’s something you can get on any platform. So again, what’s the benefit of running the full OS?
Now on to point 4. This is probably the most contentious point of the lot, but it’s one that I will stand by until definitively proven wrong. Having two UI’s is going to seriously piss off developers, who will now have twice the workload when it comes to creating the front end for their apps. OK, you might say that they could just leave it in the environment in which it will be most useful, but then you’ll get people asking the questions of why they can’t access all the same things within the Metro UI that they can within the standard, familiar, Windows UI. I’m not saying that developers will stop coding apps for Windows, but it could cause grand scale disarray and fragmentation even within itself. Which is absurd by anybody’s standards, surely.
So what’s the answer? Well, to tell the truth I really don’t know. I respect Microsoft for taking such a bold step forward, but then you have to ask: have they really? All they’ve essentially done is what many have done before them: slap a skin on Windows. Nothing has been fundamentally changed, just added to. It’s just a new, good looking, feature of Windows. On top of the same basic OS and UI that’s been doing the rounds since ’95.
There were a couple of avenues that Microsoft could have gone down with this in my view. The first being with Windows Phone 7. Providing it wasn’t called ‘Phone’, it might have made a perfect companion for the bigger screen, given a little more integration with a standard desktop version of Windows 8 with no Metro UI, and greater dev support (the latter, I imagine, the major doubt over WP7’s suitability). It makes use of a simple UI, which is inherent in the OS, not just stuck on for good measure as is seemingly the case right now. It will still make use of the same ‘Live’ services, and still makes use of Office and Xbox Live, but in a way more accustomed to touch input methods. By nature it’s just more comfortable on a mobile device, with no keyboard and mouse. Windows is quite the opposite.
Alternatively, and in my view favourably, Microsoft could have taken a giant leap of faith with Windows tablets and created an all-new OS, which just features the Metro UI. Nothing in the background waving the same old flags, just something raw, something light, and something pretty, which the new UI certainly is. At the end of the day, what you want on your tablet is simply apps, documents for quick viewing, and all of your media. So my idea, based on the fact that the vast majority of us will have a Windows PC in our home anyway, is that a Windows tablet, sporting the hypotetical new OS for tablets specifically, can be docked by our PC, and in real-time two-way sync our documents and media with our PC, and be organised in the background away from the pretty UI, and be accessible through it later on, when we undock our tablet and start using it. That way there’s no unnecessary bloat on the tablet, no unnecessary applications that can be of very little use to us, and no confusion as to what we can actually do with each UI. A separate system for a completely separate device. But one that is in-sync, via the cloud if necessary, with our PC’s.
Anyway, the decision is made, direction decided and the destination is already set in Ballmer’s Bing maps, I’m certain. So, what can we do but wait? I hope you don’t take away a sense of cynicism, doom and gloom from this, as I’m not saying it’s an impossible task for Microsoft to accomplish their goals, but I’m just giving my two cents on what I believe to be the negative aspects. There is positive light, too, but that’s for another day. If you have any thoughts or feedback, don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.