How Windows 8 Changes Everything, Part I: The Rebirth of Microsoft

What you have seen and heard should leave no doubt that Windows 8 shatters perceptions of what a PC now really is. We’ve truly reimagined Windows and kicked off a new era for Microsoft and a new era for our customers…With a glance, you will always know what’s going on in the world and with the people who count in your life…The experience is really magical. You log in just once and you see your device light up with your life. Buy a new computer, it lights up with your life.
-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Windows 8 launch event, October 25, 2012

I don’t like Windows Phone.

Oh, I liked it in theory – the notion of simplifying and bringing together so many ways of communicating with the same people, of simplifying the very concept of a smart phone, made me put it at the top of my list of desired operating systems should I ever get a smart phone. I haven’t jumped on the smartphone bandwagon yet, though not for lack of wanting to – I may have said in my very first post that I tend to shy away from the stuff everyone else finds popular, but when the likes of Instagram and Angry Birds become household names almost entirely off the back of smartphones it’s clearly become more than a passing fad – but I suspect Mom quite rightly doesn’t trust me with something that leaves me connected to the Internet no matter what she does.

So like I said, I liked the concept of the Windows Phone, until I actually tried it and found the interface clunky, not for me, and missing its greatest opportunity. The most useful source of unification was the unification of social networks, yet they seem to be consigned to the “People” tile, which just flashes images of the people therein without reporting new messages like the others; calling people not in your address book is a major pain, and it seems to assume you have a personal connection to everyone in your address book. Maybe that’s how some people work, but it wasn’t for me. With the iPhone being tiny (and thus hard to be precise with), coming off as very basic, and being so simple as to have a seemingly inconsistent interface, my preferred smartphone OS shifted to Android.

I’ve also never understood the appeal of tablets – they’re basically bigger, heavier smartphones that can’t call anyone and don’t fit in your pocket. This one I understood more after trying out smartphones – while a bigger screen for watching video wouldn’t move my needle much, being able to type on a keyboard where I don’t accidentally hit the wrong key every other letter would. But I was very surprised when Windows 8 was announced – as much as I liked the idea of Windows Phone, that Microsoft would make the most radical change to the Windows interface since at least Windows 95 over 15 years ago to bend the bedrock of the company’s success to match their johnny-come-lately product sitting a distant third in the smartphone wars, a product that only adopted its “live tiles” gimmick because neither Apple nor Google would, seemed damn near unthinkable. I couldn’t even imagine how it could possibly work on an actual computer. As it happened, Windows 8 seems to have gone over so poorly that it’s started to elicit comparisons to the infamous Windows Vista – which it’s actually doing worse than. Now that I’ve put in more time on the Surface than I reasonably should have, are the critics right? Is Windows 8 the New Coke of computing, or does it represent a true revolution?

When the Surface first came out, many people wondered whether Microsoft was really putting its best foot forward, what the point was behind the “lite” version of Windows 8 the Surface shipped with, Windows RT. Ostensibly it was the “tablet” version of Windows 8, but Intel has been making chips that save enough on battery life that the full version can be and has been used to power tablets as well, with no evident disadvantages (but, in my experience, at higher prices than the equivalent RT devices), so many tech commenters saw it as essentially Windows without the ability to run old-style desktop apps.

Let me state upfront that I consider this a red herring. I felt it was inevitable that makers of most old-style desktop programs would quickly rush to fill up the Windows Store with new app versions of their programs if enough people bought Surfaces, meaning almost any desktop application you might miss would have a version fit for Windows RT sooner or later. Admittedly this might not include the programs commenters usually chose as specific examples, iTunes and Adobe Photoshop, in the former case because Apple doesn’t want to support Microsoft’s attempt to compete with the iPad (and Microsoft would rather you use their Music app anyway), in the latter case because Photoshop is too heavy-duty for touchscreen use and might seem to require a desktop, as with most PC games, though I could be proven wrong on this (more on this later). More to the point, I felt that regardless of its other problems, Windows RT came with a killer app that would help make sure people would buy Surfaces: free Microsoft Office. And if that doesn’t sound impressive to you, you’ve never had to pay over $100 for Office.

Admittedly the version of Office that comes with the Surface is licensed only for individuals, meaning companies – the main purchasers of Office – would have to buy a group license anyway, and if they do that they might as well shell out for the Surface Pro. So what sort of person would benefit from free Office on an individual basis, perhaps a group chronically challenged for money and with a tendency for early adoption of technology? College students. I imagined college campuses littered with people carrying around Surfaces to do their work, connect to the Internet, and whatever else they wanted to do.

But I said earlier that almost any desktop program would soon have a version for Windows RT, and there is one big exception to that group: web browsers. Microsoft has effectively blocked browser makers from important resources that would allow them to make their own browsers, so you won’t be able to install Firefox or Chrome on a Windows RT machine (though you can on Windows 8). The EU, which has long hounded Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows, allowed this anticompetitive move on the grounds that as a tablet OS, Microsoft is entering a field already contested by Apple and Google, not really protecting its traditional-PC OS hegemony.

For the record, I agree with them; in fact, limiting browser competition for Windows RT might actually backfire on Microsoft and may already be hurting the sales of RT machines (sales of Windows 8 machines in general haven’t been as strong as I would have otherwise predicted), as I would be more willing to buy a Windows RT machine and be limited to IE as my only option if the Metro version weren’t so clunky and bare-bones. For example, I have to swipe down from the top (or up from the bottom) to show the tab bar (which contains unnecessary thumbnails of each tab), when it’s always visible on the iPad browser and most Android tablet browsers; combine this with the inability to open multiple windows and it’s almost like a return to the pre-IE7 days before Microsoft embraced tabbed browsing, when you had to open multiple windows to have multiple pages open at the same time. (And near as I can tell, I can’t even use Ctrl+PgUp/PgDn to switch tabs – I have to pull down the tab bar every single time.)

Further, I’m not sure if it’s possible to search from the address bar at all, let alone change search providers on the fly from, say, Google to Wikipedia, which seems odd when most browser makers seem to be moving more towards address bars patterned after Chrome’s “omnibox”, including Microsoft itself in IE9 (while the iPad browser still has a separate Search box). I can’t access Favorites unless they’ve been pinned to (and thus clutter) the Start screen, meaning among other things I can’t pull up an entire folder of favorites at once as a ready-made tab set; between this and the aforementioned loss of multiple windows (not to mention the unchanging, bulky thumbnail-tabs), it’s clear IE makes it damn near impossible to have hundreds of tabs open like I’m used to with Chrome. The RSS reader seems to have gone out the window as well, and while I understand why they did it limiting Flash to pre-approved sites raises concerns for me about privileging content producers with resources at the expense of independent producers; already impossible on the iPad, it’s damn near impossible to read Homestuck on the Surface either (though thankfully Microsoft seems to have turned an about-face on this). Admittedly most if not all of these issues are irrelevant if I’m using the desktop version, but then, well, what’s the point?

On the other hand, some of these might be emblematic of larger issues with Windows 8 that fully Metro-optimized third-party browsers might not fix. As I worried, they may have made it harder to use with a keyboard and mouse, to the point that if your computer doesn’t have a touchscreen, don’t bother upgrading it to Windows 8, no matter how much it meets the other hardware requirements. But Microsoft embraced a “minimalist” design aesthetic in general for Windows 8, minimizing the constant presence of interface elements both in the OS in general and in most of its own apps, going against not only its own past habits but even iOS and Android precedents, but the end result pretty much just amounts to the interface feeling clunky even for touchscreen users and taking too many steps to do anything; the problem with the tab bar is only a specific case of the necessity to swipe from the top or bottom to reveal the “app bar”, which in some apps is necessary to do damn near anything. (You seriously couldn’t include a tappable “all apps” thing on the Start screen without using the app bar, Microsoft?)

Similarly, I usually end up accessing the Start screen by swiping from the side and pressing the Start charm, which feels like one step too many. The Windows logo on the Surface accesses the Start screen, but its location just above where the cover snaps in only means it’s awkward to reach for and easy to hit by accident when holding it vertically; I would have placed it on the right side (when it’s resting on the kickstand), which just so happens to mean iPad users holding it vertically, assuming they rotate it the way I do (admittedly I’m left-handed), will find it in a familiar place. (On some other machines, the equivalent button is almost completely hidden when docked, thus making me wonder what the point of its placement is.) I’m tempted to do the same with the other “charms” (the Surface re-appropriates the function keys for them, but I never used the Windows button to open the Start menu and the function keys are almost as awkward to reach for as the Windows logo on the Surface itself); the Search charm takes on the functions of searching in every single app, including the searching in IE I’m looking for (though while I can change apps on the fly, I’m still not sure I can change search providers – the Wikipedia app feels almost like a beta so it’s no replacement), making it too useful to be the two-step process it is.

That’s not all; the decision not to have actual folders on the Start screen, only “groups”, is completely mystifying regardless of what it means for Favorites, a backtrack from the hierarchical organization the Start menu has had since Windows 95 and that the iPad exhibits as well, forcing most users to have to scroll long distances to see many of their tiles and forcing less-than-ideal tile organization in many cases. Apparently Microsoft wants you to zoom out and then tap a group if it’s a problem for you, but once again that’s one step too many, I should have the option to start with it zoomed out if that’s the case, and it means there’s only one level of “group” and all tiles have to be within one of them, so if you want to look at or use any of the tiles, all the groups are displaying all their tiles as well. In this and other areas, I think this is something where the folks at Microsoft would have benefitted from actually using the iPad as opposed to apparently hearing about it secondhand.

The big innovation of the Surface is supposed to be its “Touch Cover”, but I actually prefer “typing on glass” on an iPad or Android tablet to the “typing on cloth” feel I get from the Touch Cover; at least on the iPad I’m actually typing on a hard surface that actually sounds and feels like an actual thing. Presumably the Touch Cover was made as it is (and hyped much more than the only marginally more expensive Type Cover) because if you fold the Type Cover back behind the Surface it feels weird having a back side of keyboard keys.

Yet despite all of this, I’ve fallen completely in love with Windows 8. Microsoft did not merely re-appropriate the Windows Phone interface for its regular Windows product. It’s completely overhauled our notion of what a computer is, merging the tablet and laptop, putting the final nail in the coffin of the desktop computer as we know it, and serving notice to Apple that they’re not going to renounce their second-class yoke so easily. When it came out, many tech commenters compared the Surface unfavorably to the iPad, in price and in general experience, which was perhaps inevitable but missing the point of what Microsoft was trying to do. In fact, I don’t consider even the Windows RT version of the Surface to be a tablet in any way at all; to me, a tablet has to be in some way connected to a cell-phone network. The Surface is a laptop that happens to have some tablet-like features, and in that sense it’s an absolute game-changer – or at least, what Windows 8 represents is.

There’s a book I’ve heard of but not read called The Innovator’s Dilemma, which attempts to explain a question I’ve long wondered about: why companies facing the advent of an innovation that threatens to undermine their business model so often attempt to kill it rather than adapt into a provider of the new innovation. The short answer seems to be that the new technology is rarely an actual improvement over the old one for customers used to the old one, at least at first, and so any move to embrace the new technology will inevitably alienate existing customers. This seems like a false dichotomy to me; most of the time, there are opportunities for synergy between the two that makes the product more enticing to the new customers and helps transition the old customers to the new paradigm.

For example, I appreciated that Blockbuster at least tried to compete with Netflix with its “Total Access” service, which was advertised as the same DVD-by-mail service as Netflix, at the same price, but with the additional option of returning old DVDs to a Blockbuster store and getting the new one instantly without having to wait for it in the mail; problem was, it didn’t offer streaming like Netflix was already offering, and I believe you had to pick store or mail ahead of time and stick to it. (In my opinion, Blockbuster probably could have done better in competing with Redbox, but it was already dying by the time that became A Thing.) Netflix itself became the impetus for my learning of The Innovator’s Dilemma in the aftermath of its failed attempt to rebrand its DVD-by-mail service as Quikster, because of a Slate article claiming it was Netflix’s attempt to better transition to a business based on streaming of content, but the fact a major reason the Quikster rebrand went over so poorly was the loss of the ability to manage streaming and DVD deliveries together suggests that’s not the whole story.

It wasn’t obvious the iPad was such a threat to the entire PC paradigm, and thus Microsoft’s hegemony. Microsoft could have continued merrily along its way, with old-style PCs being completely separate from tablets, and it wasn’t obvious that status quo couldn’t hold forever. Yet Microsoft apparently saw the iPad as such a threat that they decided to completely destroy the PC as we knew it, effectively undermining their own monopoly and threatening to alienate their hardware (and software) partners, by aiming their new operating system for a new kind of device that would effectively attempt to merge the tablet and the laptop, by so wholeheartedly embracing the touch-screen ethos that a lot of what makes it harder to use with a keyboard and mouse might be unnecessary, much like the radical separation between Netflix and Quikster; there isn’t really any reason, in and of itself, why the desktop couldn’t have been outfitted with a traditional Start button. It seems Microsoft is sending a message: this is what Windows is going to be like from now on, we’re only including a desktop at all for the sake of people used to it or without touchscreens, and before long calling the operating system “Windows” will seem a misnomer.

Perhaps Microsoft saw the trajectory the computer business was headed down; you may recall that last year I predicted that the home desktop computer would become a thing of the past with laptops becoming more and more popular and powerful and with the potential ramifications of computers hooked up to the TV such as the Google TV and Apple TV. Perhaps Microsoft realized that it was fast becoming a maker of operating systems for laptops and that going forward, it would need to optimize their OS’s for them, that the computer of 2012 shouldn’t be running essentially the same operating system as in 1995 or even 2001. Perhaps, too, Microsoft saw the iPad as threatening many of the purposes people were still using laptops for, that if the iPad couldn’t replace the personal computer now, it was only a matter of time before Apple revamped the Mac interface to be closer to that of the iPad. (Indeed, Microsoft was pushing the notion of a “tablet PC” as early as a decade ago, when Windows XP was fairly new.)

Microsoft gets a bad rap for stealing ideas from other companies (especially Apple) rather than actually innovating themselves, but it would be more accurate to say that it’s made a business out of being Nintendo to other peoples’ Atari, of being the ones to refine other companies’ raw ideas into the forms that allow them to take over the marketplace. Regularly Microsoft can see some other company’s innovation in a bigger picture and fix some of the niggling flaws you didn’t even know existed. Windows 95’s interface was jeered as a ripoff of Mac’s, but it was substantially more user-friendly and included the taskbar that made multitasking substantially easier than it had been in either Windows or Mac. Windows Phone is an even more obvious example of this, and with Windows 8 Microsoft took the same notion of “live tiles” to the iPad while also beefing it up to the capability of a full-size computer.

In effect, Microsoft has made a business out of taking technologies that people saw as a threat to their business model, and not only embracing them, but doing so so wholeheartedly that they often become the ones to introduce them to the general public – embracing the challenge of The Innovator’s Dilemma like few other companies out there. Such may have been the case with the Internet itself when they introduced Internet Explorer and killed Netscape. Such was the case with cloud computing, which I might still be seeing hyperbolic spammy ads (from the Motley Fool, of all places) touting it as the downfall of Microsoft – yet for many people, it was Microsoft itself that introduced them to the notion of cloud computing with its Windows 7 “to the cloud!” ads, and between that, the introduction of Office 365, and how heavily Microsoft has pushed SkyDrive (there’s a reason Windows 8 ships with a SkyDrive tile on the Start screen but no first-party touch-based Explorer app), it’s clear Microsoft is alive and well, if not quite strong as ever. And with Windows 8, such might also be the case not only with the iPad, but the late-90s concept of the “network computer“, a computer with next to no hard drive that loaded all its software from the Internet, which Google finally brought to something approaching reality when it unveiled the Chromebook a few years back.

I don’t believe the touchscreen will ever replace the precision of a mouse pointer entirely, and all you have to do to figure out why is to think about the basic ways to manipulate a cell in Excel. To select a cell, you click on it. To select a range of cells, you click on one cell and drag until the cells you want are covered. To select an entire column or row, you click the column letter or row number. To move a cell, click on the border and drag it; to fill information in the cell into adjoining cells, you click on the little control indicator in the corner of the cell border.

Okay, so how do we translate this to a touch environment? Well, obviously you tap where it says click, and tap and drag where it says click and drag. So you tap on a cell to select it, and move your finger from one cell to the other to select a range. But wait, it’s kind of hard to select a border a few pixels wide with a finger. No problem; just tap and drag on an already selected cell or group of cells. Sure that makes it harder to start a new range from a currently-selected cell, but that’s an acceptable tradeoff. What’s that? You want tap and drag to move the display of the spreadsheet, not select a range of cells? What about the stuff you use the right mouse button for? And what about stuff you hold the control keys (Ctrl, Alt, Shift) for? Ay-yi-yi-yi… The iPad’s Excel knockoff “Numbers” does an admirable job of trying to appropriate all these functions, but there are still some odd holes and quirks. Perhaps the stylus can finally come into its own as a replacement for this sort of precision, though it doesn’t provide the same sort of feedback as a mouse pointer – and I doubt it can replace being able to hover over a hyperlink to see where it leads without clicking it (something Microsoft didn’t try very hard to keep in its new browser).

Still, with Windows 8 Microsoft is firmly leaving behind not only those who are too used to a keyboard and mouse to take to a touchscreen, but also those with little use of touch because of their work’s large proportion of typing and inherent need for the precision of the mouse pointer, the sort of hardcore computer user that has long disdained Windows and may still be too attached to their desktop to consider adopting a laptop – a group that could potentially include most Photoshop users. To these people, Microsoft is saying: Tough. We have always strove to make the computer more user-friendly – it was us who ultimately brought the computer to the masses. If we haven’t done enough to make it crystal clear before, we’re now making it explicit that not everyone has the same needs as uber-nerds, and with Windows 8 we’re making a conscious decision to focus wholly on the consumer market and completely leave the uber-nerds behind. If you can’t face the prospect of a fully touch-based Windows in the future, you might as well move on to Linux now if you haven’t already, unless Apple never decides to iPad-ize the Mac.

In this, Windows 8 represents a milestone in the history of computing, one so momentous it could be considered the climax of the computer’s evolution from an expensive tool for highly academic settings to a device so simple anyone can use it. The advent of Windows and Mac OS was a revolution in user-friendliness for the computer, introducing a level of abstraction between the internal level of the computer’s programming and the user-interface level through the mediator of the mouse-controlled graphical user interface. Now, almost 30 years later, Windows 8 marks the turning point in a revolution just as massive, one started by the iPhone and iPad that makes user-friendliness the first consideration over any underlying assumptions of the hardware or even the most basic assumptions a programmer might have about a keyboard. Before, everyone was still using a “computer”, the same device a programmer used to create the software running on it, something an engineer might use to solve important problems. Now, computing technology has reached the point that for most people, it has transcended the notion of using a “computer” entirely.

The problem for Microsoft is, the more I play with the Surface, the more I find that Windows 8 itself kind of feels like a raw idea inviting refinement by some other company. Microsoft took a massive risk with Windows 8, and for it to pay off they had to leverage their existing advantages to create something extraordinary, and I’m not convinced they did. (Hopefully Microsoft won’t make us wait for Windows 9 to work out the kinks, because they might not have that long if Apple and Google are already hard at work on their own refinements – though apparently Microsoft is moving Windows to the same incremental-update schedule as Firefox and Chrome, with an update to Windows 8 potentially coming as soon as August.) But even if Microsoft is, for once, the Atari to someone else’s Nintendo, they’ve introduced or at least accelerated the most revolutionary change to our lives since the popularization of the personal computer and Internet themselves.

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  1. By An Open Letter to Steve Ballmer – MorganWick.com on September 28, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    […] for virtually the company’s entire ascent; once in charge, you saw a path for Microsoft to remain relevant in a tablet world, a path that gave Microsoft its biggest OS embarrassment this side of Vista (also released during […]

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