As The Dust Settles

Rumors are swirling that Windows 8’s days are numbered. Windows 9 will allegedly be officially unveiled as soon as next month, and with it many of the changes in Windows 8 are being reverted. The start menu is back, Modern UI applications can run in a window, and the charms menu is dead.

All throughout the land, the people cheer! The beast is dead! A new age of enlightenment is upon us! Yet, amid the celebration, there stands a man who doesn’t look so cheerful. While the rest of the kingdom toasts the demise of Windows 8, I think of what could have been.

Don’t get me wrong: Windows 8 was terrible. In fact, Windows 8 was so bad that it drove me to abandon Windows and switch to Linux full-time. The fact that Microsoft has so radically changed their course is a good thing; a little humility will do them good. However, Windows 8 had a lot of innovative ideas. They may have had implementation issues, but most of these so-called anti-features could have been great. Unfortunately, the little failures that ruined the experience has taught the industry the wrong lesson. The industry’s takeaway from this fiasco is “people don’t want this.” However, I believe the less on to be learned is “if you’re going to change something, it must be perfect.”

Today, I’d like to talk about some of the innovative features of Windows 8; why I think they are great, and what I think went wrong.

The “Modern UI”

Since the dawn of the Graphical User Interface, we’ve used what is known as a “desktop metaphor.” The idea is that at the bottom, we have a desktop. On this desktop, we can put various things. We can put programs on our desktop, much like we put pens and paper clips and such. We can have “windows” open, much like the papers we write on. You know this story, you are probably reading this in a browser that is a window open on your computer. Tell me, when is the last time you got any actual work done with this window configuration?

yay_windows

I’m going to go with “never”. Sure this has probably happened to you, but I’m guessing you quickly maximized a window and restored order. If you do work with multiple windows, you probably arranged them like this:

do_this

…or maybe like this:

maybe_this

I’ve always been a fan of this configuration myself:

i_do_this

You most likely painstakingly arrange your windows so that they use the most screen real estate possible, except in cases where the program can’t use the space:

non_maximized

So, what’s the point? The only real thing we gain out of this arrangement is familiarity. Humans are by nature resistant to change. Something may be better, but it’s different and that scares us. But there are other options than the desktop metaphor. While there are few mainstream examples, tiling window managers offer a different take.

In a tiling window manager, windows cannot overlap. A window will take up as much space as possible, and if multiple windows are visible, the window manager will lay them out next to each other in various configurations. Since the window manager handles resizing and such, there is no need for window decorations and sizing controls.

The problem with these is the fact that they are hard to use. They require a lot of keybindings, and extensive config file editing. They fall squarely in the “fringe” of software. There is one mainstream tiling window manager though: the Windows Modern UI, formerly known as “Metro.”

When a Modern UI application is launched, it will become full-screen by default. You can then “snap” applications into up to four vertical columns, depending on your screen resolution. You can then do some simple window arrangement and sizing with your mouse. Unfortunately, while traditional tiling window managers are needlessly arcane and complex, the Modern UI is overly simplistic. You are limited to the one arrangement.

But the real problem is much bigger. This will be a recurring theme, but the main issue with the Modern UI is the fact that legacy applications don’t use it. Nobody tried it because none of their applications used it, therefore they never got used to it. Since none of their applications use the Modern UI, the Modern UI is, by default, “bad.”

Even Microsoft’s own software by-and-large didn’t use the Modern UI. The vast majority of Microsoft’s software that shipped with Windows 8 uses the traditional windowing system. To this day there is not a version of Microsoft Office that uses the Modern UI. Of the software that used the Modern UI, it tended to lack functionality. The Modern UI versions of OneNote and Skype have vastly reduced functionality compared to their desktop equivalents. It also didn’t help that most of the Modern UI applications that shipped with windows had banner ads baked in!

What do I propose? It seems simple to me: eliminate the desktop. Get rid of it period. All traditional desktop applications now run within a Modern UI window. They lose their window decorations, and can be closed using the standard method of grabbing the top of the window and dragging it to the bottom. If the application shows child windows, these windows will be displayed within the frame of the parent application with window decorations. These windows cannot be dragged outside the frame they are shown in. In effect, the application becomes its own desktop.

The Start Screen

Gone from Windows 8 is the start menu. Since Windows 95, there has been a little “Start” button on the bottom left corner of any Windows desktop. When pressed, it displays a little menu with all your programs displayed in a convoluted tree structure. If told me you’ve never seen an incarnation of this, I’d call you a liar; it’s that ubiquitous. Around the time of the introduction of the Start Menu was the introduction of keyboards with a special “Windows” key. The purpose of this key is primarily to show the start menu, so you don’t even need to click the button.

The Start Menu is gone in Windows 8. In its place is the start screen. The Start Button was also removed completely in Windows 8, but brought back due to popular demand in Windows 8.1. In Windows 8.1, if you click the Start Button the Start Screen is shown.

The Start Screen is basically a full-screen Start Menu. However, the tree is hidden, and instead you get a more tablet-like arrangement of your programs. This is shown as a grid of “tiles” that function as souped-up icons. These tiles can dynamically show information of a program’s choosing. A photo gallery application might show a mini slide show. A news application might show headlines. An e-mail application can show incoming messages.

I’m sure somebody will try, but I don’t believe a reasonable person can argue that these tiles aren’t an improvement on the old arrangement. Screen resolutions have gone up since the advent of icons, and it’s about time we put it to use. However, the problem with tiles is that their functionality is limited to Modern UI applications.

Granted, work would have to be done to update a traditional application to make use of the dynamic tile functionality, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be done. It would be quite easy to do. Unfortunately, Microsoft arbitrarily decided that only Modern UI applications should have access to this functionality. Traditional UI applications don’t even look the same:

start-screen

On the bottom right, you’ll see some traditional applications, surrounded by nice pretty tiles. Those icons are forever doomed to be static and ugly because Microsoft wills it.

Charms Bar

Of all the things I’ve talked about, this is actually the one I’m most disappointed about. Live tiles live on in Windows 9, and I suspect the Modern UI tiling window manager will live in Windows RT. However, the Charms Bar is just dead. The Charms Bar is, in my opinion, the most innovative feature of Windows 8, and it is dying sad and alone because nobody understands it. You may even be wondering what I’m talking about. The Charms Bar is this thing:

charms_bar

You most likely recognize it as that annoying bar that pops up and gets in your way when you try to close a maximized program. It’s notable for doing seemingly nothing. Maybe you figured out that the shutdown option is hidden in there. The Charms Bar is actually amazing! …in theory. In practice it’s hampered by the fact that it’s tied to the Modern UI. Let’s talk about what this thing actually does.

Search

The Search charm is a context-aware search feature. If you’re sitting at the Start Screen, it functions as your standard Windows search. But if you’re in a Modern UI application? In this case, the search charm does whatever the application wants it to. In a text editor it may search the document for a string. If you’re in an instant messenger it might search your buddy list. If you’re in an e-mail application it might search your inbox for a message.

The Search charm, as with all the charms is controlled by the active application. The idea is that no matter what you’re doing, if you want to search, the function will always be located within the Search charm. This provides a consistent way to search across all applications!

Share

The unfortunately named Share charm isn’t actually about posting to Facebook. That said, posting to Facebook is a valid use of the Share charm. The Share charm is a context-aware way to send data to another application. An image editing application might be able to send an image via email, or post it online via Facebook. To do this, you could use the Share charm, and select the appropriate application. Similarly, an email program could support opening an image in an image editor via the Share charm. The Share charm is all about outputting data to other applications, and can almost be seen as a fancy graphical version of the UNIX pipe!

Start

The Start charm is just the Start Button. It was never gone, just moved.

Devices

The idea here is similar to the Share charm. The Devices charm allows you to interact with any appropriate hardware device. An image editor might list cameras (to import images), scanners (to scan images), and printers (to print images) here. A remote controlling application might show a saved list of computers to access here. A slide show application might show projectors here.

Settings

The Settings charm is an application-aware settings menu. Need to configure your program? Just go to the settings charm! Not terribly ground-breaking, but a nice touch and a good item to round out the Charms menu.

So, What’s The Problem?

The Charms bar has a few issues. The most grievous is the fact that, once again, it’s tied to the Modern UI. On the desktop, the Charms bar does nothing but get in the way. Nothing about the Charms bar is intrinsically tied to the way the Modern UI works, yet Microsoft has forbidden traditional applications from accessing it.

Additionally, Microsoft has done a very poor job educating users on what it does. Some of the names are confusing, and going into the menus doesn’t really help clarify things. That’s not to say that people can’t learn. We learned what these hieroglyphs mean:

start_button

power_symbol

apple_menu

What Microsoft forgets is that we find these to be “intuitive” because we all learned what they mean years ago. What about the word “Start” makes you think “my programs are in here?” What does the silhouette of an apple have to do with shutting your computer down? What is that circle icon even supposed to be? We know these things because we were told. There really needed to be a plan in place to educate people on the use of the Charms bar. But instead of doing a little outreach, they’ve killed one of the most innovative features of Windows 8.

Blinded By Dollar Signs

You may have noticed that none of these issues are really that big of a deal if you use Modern UI applications. So why wouldn’t developers adopt the Modern UI the way they adopted new GUI Libraries in the past?

To install a Modern UI application, it must be downloaded from the Windows store.

That right there is what killed Windows 8. Microsoft saw how much money Apple was making in its App Store and thought “I want that.” What Microsoft failed to realize is that Apple has always carefully curated the hardware and software of its ecosystem, and this is something Apple’s customers like. Windows does not have this culture.

While not as free as Linux and friends, Windows has always been an open platform. Sure, the operating system itself is closed, but it does not restrict what you can accomplish. It doesn’t impose its will, it provides tools and a workshop and tells developers to have fun. This all changed with Windows 8.

To get an application into the Windows store, you must first get an account with Microsoft. This account costs $99/year for companies, and $19/year for individuals, but any price of admission immediately alienates a class of developers. This is actually the catalyst that fueled my switch to Linux. One can’t really create an open source application using the Modern UI, because any fork would have to be submitted to the Windows store as well, costing that person money.

Assuming you are undeterred, and get the account, you must submit your application to Microsoft for approval. Microsoft can at this point reject your application, or force you to change it. Prior to Windows 8, there was no approval process; anybody was free to ship any program they wanted. Microsoft didn’t know or care what you did to your own computer.

Finally, Microsoft gets a cut of your profits. This was the real issue for most major software firms. They had a choice: deploy a Modern UI application through the Windows store and share their profits with Microsoft, or continue to deploy traditional desktop applications and keep 100% of the profits.

This was not a difficult choice. Unlike with Apple and their App Store, Windows users do not expect to get their software from the Windows store; they are used to getting their software via different methods. Windows users did not flock to the Windows store, and those that did look found nothing but garbage. The backlash against Windows 8 was severe and immediate. Unfortunately this vicious cycle could only end with the death of the innovative features of Windows 8. The real losers here are the users.

Change is hard, and I can appreciate that people might not agree with me. But people weren’t even given the chance to give the changes an honest shot! No user can be blamed for forming the opinions that they have; the Start Screen, Modern UI, and Charms Bar were dead on arrival. They were sacrificed on the altar of greed for a quick buck.

I, for one, mourn their loss.

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