The odd couple…

Just over two weeks ago, my ThinkPad did the unthinkable. It died.

Technically, the hard drive died. All that really matters is that 1)I lost a ton of data I hadn’t backed up (BAD GEEK!), and 2)I didn’t have a computer for almost 3 days.

What I did have was a Samsung Series 7 slate. A colleague had gone to the Office 2013 launch and was given a loaner device that he had lent to me for a while. Equipped with the Windows Release Preview and Office 2013 beta, I had already set up both my work and home email accounts on it. Work on Windows Mail (because Outlook 2013 wouldn’t connect to our Exchange 2007 hosted server) and home on Outlook 2013 (because Windows mail didn’t support IMAP or POP3 in the release preview).

I’m looking forward to really giving Windows 8 (or Windows RT!) a try on a device such as a Surface system, rather than the Samsung. The Series 7 device was designed for Windows 7, not Windows 8, and you can feel it. It’s thick, heavy, klunky, hot, the battery doesn’t last that well, and it takes a very long time to resume (compared to my iPad 2).

But that’s the device. Let’s put that out of sight for a second. We’re here to talk about Windows 8.

My only option, while I needed to get work done as I found a replacement for, and replaced, my ThinkPad’s hard disk, was the Windows 8 Samsung Slate.

I helped ship Windows XP – so understand that I have a weird sentimental attachment to it – “teletubbies theme” and all. It took me a long time to get used to Windows 7. While I do now love the “Search programs and files” feature in the Start Menu, I still use the Start Menu itself, as well as applications pinned to the taskbar. What I still don’t like is the Windows Control Panel in any version of Windows since XP. I haven’t since Windows 2000. It has become so cluttered and overloaded with “tasks” instead of applets, that the only way to find things is to search – and, to me, search is an atrocious discoverability method (in my non-clinical opinion).

With that in mind, it may be easier to understand why Windows 8 feels, as I mentioned on Twitter, like a friend who picked up an obnoxious habit I can’t stand. I’m still not used to the Metro Modern apps interface on Windows 8, and I think it does more to inhibit my productivity, not enhance it.

Windows 8 was evolving up until the last minute, and as some of my followers on both Twitter and this blog can attest to, I’ve many had qualms along the way. If you believe anything I state below to be incorrect, or you don’t agree, tell me in the comments or on Twitter. I’d like to present, in no particular order, my “Top 10 issues with Windows 8″.

  1. Still compromises mouse/keyboard to optimize for touch – My chief complaint when evaluating Windows 8 on a desktop or in a virtual machine was frustration with how optimized the operating system was for touch. Using a mouse means retraining yourself and pinning key apps to the Taskbar, or memorizing an insane amount of keyboard shortcuts. Who wants to do that just to run applications that worked fine with a previous version of Windows? This hasn’t changed. The tutorial is a nice consideration, but the reality is that Windows 8 is largely biased towards touch – which means it still gives mouse/keyboard users the finger. It is true, you can use Alt+Tab, Taskbar pinning, and innumerable other Windows desktop features while it is in desktop “mode”, but if you need to search for anything, or start an unpinned app, you’ve always got to go into the Start page and it is visually jarring to go back and forth, and to use Charms which are present on the desktop, but jam you over into Metro Modern land as soon as you actually try to use them. Office is, and will be, a continuously available driver of Windows sales for some time, and yet Charms are not intertwined into Office. Apps like OneNote, Word, and Outlook should be integrated tightly with the feature, yet aren’t (and can’t be).
  2. Omnipresent “Charms” often don’t do anything – I’m sure this will be better in time, but I’ve run into too many cases where the Charms bar, always there with a swipe in from the right or a quick Windows Key+C, doesn’t have much to do.  The fact that these charms are application contextual is actually somewhat frustrating to me. Search, Sharing, Devices, and Settings are often without a role in many apps – especially games. The Windows key on the charm bar is duplicitous to the physical hardware Windows button present on all devices (but is handy when that button ceases to work, as mine has several times). Sharing and Devices depend on contracts from other apps to be able to do anything, and these contracts are sparsely implemented today. Some apps, such as the built-in newsreader, you would expect to have sharing innately with – but I found that to often not be the case when I was testing. In addition, it isn’t always entirely clear when you share, what exactly you are sharing. Sometimes I found myself really missing the simplicity of Ctrl+C and the clipboard, and the complexity of contracts felt overwhelming and frustrating.
  3. Apps management is cumbersome, frustrating – I have had at least three devices associated with my Windows Live Microsoft Account. I’ve obtained applications (free or trial) with all three. I’m curious why, with so much built-in roaming/sync support, that Windows 8 doesn’t offer a “restore your purchases” option when I first log in to the device with my Microsoft Account. I also challenge any person from Microsoft who swipes at Apple with the “sea of icons” term they like using, to add about 20 apps to their Windows 8 slate, and really show me how usable it is. With only marginal support for grouping, strange settings for some apps to have smaller tiles by default and others to have larger ones, no ability to create strong groups that can be easily hidden or shown as iOS can do, a lot of apps on Windows 8’s Start page becomes just as difficult to use as Windows Phone 7’s lengthy list. Semantic zoom, often discussed as a way around this, confuses me entirely, and doesn’t, I don’t believe, aid the user at all in actually finding their applications.
  4. Settings – Consistently inconsistent – much like Charms as a whole, settings (configuration) across the OS is befuddling. Applications have their own settings that are configured through their Charm bar, Windows 8’s “Modern” UI also has it’s own settings through the Charm bar when it’s in focus, and then there is the Control Panel. I know, I’m a weird power user. But I found it frustrating how some settings are in in the Control panel (which is no easier to use than it has been in any recent release of Windows – it’s a jambalaya of options, and you have to pick through it to find the shrimp), and others are in the Charm bar. The whole thing feels oddly schizophrenic, as if someone ran out of time to refactor the whole thing into the “Modern” interface.
  5. Picture password – convenient, but a security nightmare – Almost 10 years ago, I had a Motion Computing M1200 Windows Tablet PC Edition slate device. I really wanted to like it. But in the end, there was little, besides OneNote, that I could do with it that I couldn’t do with a standard laptop. What do I recall most with that device? The sheer pain of trying to press Ctrl+Alt+Del, which required a keyboard lock contortion,  followed by entering in my Redmond credentials every time I wanted to log on to it. Talk about something that makes you decide to just keep your device in the bag. My Motion, as my Lenovo today, also supports fingerprint authentication. For some reason, that terrifies me, so I never use it. Windows 8 has, to ease this pain, offered a new mechanism called “Picture Password”, where much like a fingerprint, you replace your traditional password with a combination of three gestures (taps, slides, or circles) that are performed over a picture on your desktop. In general it works. But I’m concerned with how tolerant the system is, as well as how secure it is. I think it’s likely using the same storage mechanism as a fingerprint, so is relatively secure from that angle. But I’m concerned that gestures that are often made on a slate will tend to be visible on the (dirty) screen, so may compromise the system. It’s obvious why Picture Password was created, but my concern is that if used in an enterprise setting, it could be a suboptimal option to keep systems secure, but would be preferred because entering passwords ever time you resume – especially with Windows 8’s keyboard – is a royal pain.
  6. Keyboard layout, inconsistencies – I find the default keyboard layout – because I often use numbers in my password – incredibly annoying. I’ve changed it to the more traditional Windows keyboard layout which, frankly, wasn’t easy to do. More to the point, when I try and use the desktop side of Windows 8, such as IE or Office apps, the keyboard is inconsistent. It doesn’t appear when I try and tap inside of an IE address bar  and there is no keyboard attached, yet hides at a moment’s notice when trying to type in a password after I’ve just typed in a username (for, say, a Twitter authentication dialog). In many ways, the keyboard isn’t there when you need it, and is there when you don’t. Rather frustrating in daily use.
  7. TMI, ADHD triggers – I’ll admit it – I’m a fan of iOS primarily because it elects to simplify things down to the bare elements. Much as the Windows Mail app does in Windows 8 (a little too far, omitting things such as multi-select, easily navigable folders). But Windows 8 often puts too much in your face. I hadn’t ever been to New York City until this year, and Times Square at night is an incredibly sensory exploding experience. I have an insane amount of contacts in Windows 8, since it links together Facebook  friends (I have over 350) and Twitter connections (I follow 1000 people, and over 2200 people follow me). Throw this all together in the people app, and it’s an unnavigable mess. The calendar app is chock full of Facebook birthdays, most of which – not to belittle my Facebook connections – are not terribly interesting for me to have at a moment’s notice. Finally, the Live Tiles, featuring animations, are unbearable to me. On iOS, I’m completely obsessive compulsive about clearing out mail, Twitter, and Facebook notifications. But the constantly in motion Live Tiles, which don’t often have much to say, are like a 6 year old hopped up on Sprite – they never stop moving – and it’s almost unnerving to me. I’ve turned all of the default ones off, though I expect I will find some handy for things like Mail, Twitter, or the like (or a real Facebook app, should one arrive). I really wish that Windows 8 had simply mimicked iOS’ notifications, rather than going overboard with Live Tiles.
  8. Kind of a lonely place, and a little bit confusing – I know, I know. I’m playing with an OS that is 4 days old, and isn’t even in consumer’s hands. Many app vendors (hopefully) are likely standing down until the 10/26 GA and launch, and the arrival of devices specifically designed for Windows 8 and Windows RT. But for now, somewhere south of 400 apps, very few of them that bold, are in the Windows Store. Personally I’m not a fan of any of the Twitter clients in the Windows Store – they all, to me, mirror the most fragile contract of all with Windows 8, that of the designer. With their Metro Modern UI, Microsoft has made a bold bet that the designer, not the developer, is the crucial linchpin to a successful app in the Windows Store. I think many of the developers so far didn’t get the message. It is, again, like a trip back to Times Square. Too much information, no clarity, no flow. It’s hard to grasp the direction of the design of so many of the apps, as they just seem jammed in on the screen, and it is hard to tell how to progress on an app. Many UI metaphors that I now take for granted on iOS such as pull to refresh, or simple swipes, aren’t available. With some apps, swipes are required, but often take multiple swipes to get the app to register my action. I haven’t found rotation problems to exist yet, but I haven’t tried many Metro Modern apps to see how “rotationally aware” they are. Similarly, I need to try using Snap with a few more – but the few I tried weren’t very good examples – few apps snap down to a useful view when only 1/4 of the real estate is available.
  9. 16×9 landscape gets frustrating – an iPad features one button. A home button. No standard “Charms”. Navigating back to the Start page on the Samsung is a nuisance, physically. I’ll admit, I have small hands. But on an iPad, my hands can work the home button whatever direction my iPad is situated. I can also easily get back to the home screen with the iOS “pinch to close” gesture. The 16×9 landscape layout of the Samsung – in addition to being physically arduous due to the device’s size and weight (again, it’s a legacy device), is a royal pain. Getting back to the Start page with the button often involves re-situating both hands. Or it involves using the Start button on the Charm bar. Which then makes me ponder to myself, “if there’s both an omnipresent physical and digital button that do the same thing, one of them is either not very usable, or I’m missing something“. To me, the answer is that, especially on a 16×9 landscape layout, the physical home button suffers from usability issues.
  10. Discoverability/intuitiveness (gestures) – I’ve gotten into quite a few theological conversations on Twitter about this one. I personally find that the gestures necessary to move apps around the Start page are hard to learn, almost impossible to discover, and just plain frustrating to try and use. When trying to select an app, I’d accidentally move it. When trying to move it, I’d just select it. I’d move it to one location, and it would inexplicably cause the other tiles near it to explode in a seemingly random pattern. The description was provided at Build that Microsoft “didn’t want to have modes” such as those that are required on iOS. I’m not a huge fan of the way iOS does management or deletion on-screen, but it works. The inconsistency with which gestures are implemented in Metro Modern (pull to unsnap) and the desktop (touch and hold) is frustrating – as if two teams (that didn’t like each other) were responsible for gestures in their respective regions of Windows.

Yesterday, a neighbor was trying, diligently, to shake an opinion of Windows 8 out of me. I was being as diplomatically friendly as I could be, especially after she told me how frustrated her husband got when his computer at work was upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 7. I told her that I thought Windows 8 would provide the best experience when provided on new hardware, not when used with an existing desktop system. I also told her that I felt it was still rather frustrating to use with a mouse, and was very touch-centric. I believe very strongly that both of these are the case. Many have pointed to the Ribbon – an interface many Office users resisted as long as they could, but many/most have either become accustomed to (or at least become tolerant of) as an example that users will often resist but come to deal with change. The Ribbon, as huge as it was, is minor compared to the changes in Windows 8. Windows 8 quite literally changes everything about how Windows users interact with Windows and with applications on the device – whether they’re using it with touch (preferred) or keyboard and mouse.

I’m very eager to see how the market for Windows 8 evolves after it truly arrives in October. So much depends on the devices (and their prices) and the Metro Modern applications that arrive on the platform, and how consumers react to the changes in Windows. This is no longer your father’s Windows.

  • http://twitter.com/marypcbuk Mary Branscombe

    clicking the icon in the corner of the on-screen keyboard and picking a different layout from the popup is difficult?

    by august 17 I counted over 500 apps in the Store with a US locale account.

    really it feels that what you’re saying is you have a way of working that you like and the other ways of doing things that other people use are irrelevant (eg pinning apps is hugely popular and common). doesn’t feel like you’ve really considered more than the transition UX; not the performance or security improvements. and no, a Core i5 system isn’t going to have the power/temp characterisitics of an ARM one ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/getwired Wes Miller

    By default, the standard keyboard layout is not an option. You have to turn it on under settings. The default set of keyboards consists solely of the split keyboard (I still don’t like that) and the keyboard with a dedicated numpad – the one I’m talking about.

    As of right now, in the US, there are 439 Metro apps on the store – which makes us both wrong (I’ll edit the post to fix this momentarily. There are 459 total apps in the US store, 20 of those are desktop (so I don’t count them), and several are actually mis-assigned to the US locale, frankly. Regardless, it’s still less than 500.

    I have a way of working that has evolved over 20 years. What I’m saying is, as I’ve said on Twitter before, that Microsoft threw the baby with the bathwater. You say “pinning apps is hugely popular and common” – what data is that statement based upon? Not everybody does that. But now, they have to. “If you liked the Start menu, tough tabongies, it’s dead.” Sorry if I’m not elated by that design decision – but I’m not.

    I’m not considering performance, no. Because on my i7, Windows 7 is amazing. Your counterpoint is that all I have to do is come around to liking the new UI, and it’ll all be worthwhile. I don’t agree. Security is a red herring. People don’t buy devices just because they feature better security. That’s simply not the way humans work. People don’t buy an iPad because it has secure boot (though it does as well) – in fact, that’s not even a sales point Apple ever discusses. Because it’s not a sales point.

    As a friend once joked about the “getting things done” mantra – “All I have to do is completely change the way I work, and it’ll change the way I work.”

    I’m happy that you’ve learned to like the new user interface, and that the work necessary validated what was on the other side of that learning curve. But for me, Windows 7 works just fine, and I’m not eager to learn a new way to work just to say I did. That’s why I wrote this blog post. As per my last blog post – it’s my opinion, and I’m entitled to it. I feel that this version of Windows has the largest uphill climb of any version of Windows in history. We’ll see how the board plays out.

  • http://twitter.com/marypcbuk Mary Branscombe

    oh stuff it, I spent ages replying *& Disqus ate it ;-(

  • http://twitter.com/marypcbuk Mary Branscombe

    not going to be as detailed.
    I didn’t have to set the non standard keyboard as an option. possible I did it long time back & sync propagated it from say CP. sync of settings hugely valuable.
    app count89+17+57+22+28+18+28+74+5+16+17+14+23+14+39+19+2+12+23+12=526 without deducting desktop apps. now starts 100+18+60+23+29+19 so creeping up day by day.
    good enough is good enough on perf: fair enough, but having a centrino 2 machine boot in 38s vs 1m14s is transformational and that may well matter a lot more to other people
    security: I think this matters more to people than it used to – especially considering the perf impact of infected machines. And Apple didn’t spend years making ‘more secure than a PC’ a selling point? Um, the whole Mac vs PC ad campaign?
    pinning: Ms telemetry (I now there aren’t public % numbers but A I’m convinced and B enough mainstream sites prompt me to pin them when I visit in IE that they must think the dev time worthwhile
    I think I internalised charms & start as a way of working in about 45 minutes. I find working on a clean install 8 PC much more disruptive than an upgraded; I’d ask how much of your usual working environment you duplicated on the slate and what impact the difference had vs the interface change.
    your way of working will have changed significantly over those 20 years already; change happens. you certainly have the right not to like it. I did have a more nuanced way of putting this before Disqus ate it, but I have to go do things and broadly, I think the tradeoffs can be presented in a more nuanced way than sounding like not having Windows change any more than you’re comfortable with. I’ve noticed the more expert we’ve become with a system that hide things in hard to find places, the less we like upgrades that make finding them easier – it makes all that effort we put into becoming an expert a waste ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/marypcbuk Mary Branscombe

    hey, I found my original version!

    I didn’t have to turn on the non standard kb layout on a clean install; but I might have turned it on in DP or CP and had the setting propagate; I love how you only have to customise your settings once and every machine you use gets them.

    I counted the apps in the store – admittedly without taking out the handful desktop apps – by category: 89+17+57+22+28+18+28+74+5+16+17+14+23+14+39+19+2+12+23+12=529
    it now starts 100+18+60+23+29+19+30 so it’s creeping up ;-)

    the pinning stats are from Ms telemetry; I know there aren’t public stats on the percentage of PCs delivering the telemetry but what I’ve seen convinces me it’s statistically significant. As does the number of mainstream sites that prompt me to pin their site when I visit them in IE…

    So if Windows 7 performance is good enough, you don’t care about getting better performance? Good enough is good enough. Fair enough, but don’t assume everyone feels like that. I just made a Centrino 2 machine usable again. It boots in 38 seconds vs 1m19s. that’s transformational.

    I don’t think the ‘no-one cares about security’ thing will keep flying for ever. Macs have security issues and will increasingly get security mitigations as they hit critical mass and get attacked. Consumers care about accounts being hacked and their system slowing down because of viruses. Even Chrome just added a version of SmartScreen app reputation. And Apple didn’t spend years making better security than the PC a sales point? Might you want to take another look at the Mac vs PC ad campaign? ;-)

    I didn’t find the new interface a great deal of work to learn; I internalised charms and Start search in about 45 minutes, I think. I’ve much preferred upgraded 7 machines because I had all my familiar Win 7 apps right there; how many of the programs you usually have on a PC have you added to your Win 8 test machine? That’s going to dislocate you from working the usual way as much as any interface changes.

    You don’t have to like change. You don’t have to like the new UI. Change for the sake of change is rarely a good idea. What about learning a (slightly) new way of working for possibly unrelated benefits? Evolving the way you’ve worked for 20 years meant changing the way you work for Windows 7 and Vista, didn’t it? The more expert we’ve become in systems where useful features are hidden away in hard to find places, the less we tend to like systems that make those features easier to find; it seems to make our investment of time and effort a mockery. I knew where *everything* was in every Win95 tool, control panel and utility; I spent 5 years becoming an expert on how you could break and fix everything. Vista threw all of that away – and 8 throws away the unified search of email & documents that I loved so much in Vista & 7. That doesn’t take away how utterly delightful properly working live tiles and good touch control in desktop and Metro are, or how very much I care about having more battery life by upgrading to 8.

    I guess overall, I think you could frame the tradeoffs here more effectively than you preferring the Windows not shouldn’t change any more than you’re comfortable with ;-)