Thursday, August 23, 2012

Preaching to the unconverted

Via Daring Fireball I came across this scathing review of Windows 8. I've come across two very distinct takes on the Windows 8 experience. More positive reviews come from those who've tried it out on tablets and are excited about the experience. The negative takes tend to come from those who are more or less happy with the traditional Windows experience and, by and large, hate Microsoft's combination of two distinct interfaces. This is the risk that MS is running: by "refusing to compromise" and combining a tablet interface with a traditional Windows desktop, they're providing a one-size-fits-all experience that, in the end, doesn't fit all.

If you want customers to learn a new interface, you need to make the value proposition very clear. Apple had a relatively easy scenario, because the iPhone/iPad experience was marketed only to people who wanted a phone or a tablet and so could easily see the benefit of a touch-optimized experience. Microsoft, on the other hand, is confronting a very large body of customers who already use Windows, are already comfortable with a certain way of doing things, and may have no intention of buying a tablet in the near future. For them, all they want is to use the interface conventions that they've already learned, and the new design gets in their way without offering anything very compelling in return.

Touch interfaces and mouse/keyboard interfaces are very different, both functionally and conceptually. At work I use an iPad and a Dell laptop, and with the magic of screen-sharing software I'm able to load my Windows desktop on my iPad screen. To some extent I can get it to work using multitouch and pinch-to-zoom, but it's an awkward experience and it's very much slower than using the tools that are specifically designed to work in that scenario. I do it when I need to -- when doing so solves a problem -- but otherwise I prefer to wait until I'm back at my desk.

Microsoft's design decision removes that choice. The touch-optimized interface presents itself wherever you are, even if you don't have a touch-sensitive screen or trackpad to work with. That's probably fine -- great, even -- if you're using a tablet device, and maybe Microsoft's true bet is that the desktop is going the way of the microcomputer and soon we'll be laughing about the days when we used two-button mice to select things on our screens. If they're wrong, though, and the traditional desktop interface has some life in it yet, then Windows 8 could be a latter-day Vista: a version of Windows that customers choose to skip, in the hope that the next version will be better conceived.