Not quite, Julie…

Not quite, Julie…

Well this is quite disturbing. Here we are, post-launch, and even Microsoft employees seem to have forgotten what Windows 8 is all about.

Admittedly, she’s led by the author of the post to a certain extent (“Windows 8 throws out design features familiar to Windows users since 1995, swapping in simpler, bolder interfaces designed to be operated using a touch screen.”), but really this would’ve been a perfect opportunity to set a few people straight… if she’d actually known the facts.

See unfortunately, Ms Larson-Green simply wasn’t privy to certain information regarding Windows development pre-promotion, and clearly nobody’s thought to fill her in since she got the job. Either that, or she’s decided to re-state Microsoft’s stance on certain issues for reasons unknown.

During her tenure with the Office design team, the entire team was basically hated by us over at Windows UX; the simple reason being, they had some bizarre aversion to making a UI consistent with the general Windows look-and-feel. Their UIs were basically the equivalent of running a Qt app on a GTK-based desktop environment; or running a badly-skinned Winamp on any version of Windows. And we hated them for it.

With that in mind, we essentially locked the entire department out of future development concepts; we’d tried the whole “here, look at what we’re aiming for, please try to match us” approach, to no avail, and then the whole “here’s our frameworks, please use them” approach, still to no avail; so eventually we went for the “oh well, make your product look like a joke” approach. It didn’t do much for consistency, but it made us feel better at least.

So anyway, here we are in 2012, and we have Larson-Green in charge of a development team who essentially hated her, and everyone working under her, for the better part of 8 years. She can blame Sinofsky all she wants in interviews, but the fact is it was her decisions when in charge of the Office team that led to the schism.

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Personalization

Okay, I can’t use the term “we” to refer to Microsoft anymore, but I still have a rough idea of how things work, so here’s the answer to that endlessly repeated question – and rather often demand – of why can’t we disable metro / why don’t you bring back the Start Menu?

Basically, Microsoft has always been supportive of users having choice when it comes to their own systems; with one notable and very important exception. Choice is not supported when it gets in the way of industry progress. For example, Windows Millennium – as a transitory product between the 9x and NT codebase – fully dropped support for real mode DOS. The explanation at the time was ostensibly that it would speed up boot time and increase overall stability, which was true but was in fact a secondary issue; the main reason was to prepare people for the transition to the NT codebase which never has – and never would – support real mode DOS. By pushing people into finding alternatives to their legacy applications, Microsoft paved the way for an easier transition to Windows XP when it launched.

Metro is, to a certain extent, an exercise in the same. If Microsoft felt that people would give Metro a fair crack of their own free will, then allowing it to be voluntarily disabled wouldn’t necessarily be out of the question. However, the vocal opponents of Metro – often without ever giving it a fair go – sabotaged their own choice to a certain extent. Especially people who stated flat-out that they would disable Metro on every system they had access to, especially on those that they “administered” for less technical users.

The fact is, Metro is the long-term strategy for Microsoft on ALL platforms… there hasn’t been as big a re-design of the user experience in over 30 years, and that’s something which both usability studies and plain common sense showed had to change. Metro is somewhat akin to the LCARS interface used throughout the Star Trek series’ since Next Generation, with a focus on content rather than interface, something which makes sense in today’s content consumption world. Within 3 release cycles, the Desktop itself will be more or less dead, with no significant applications being created or released for it; assuming, of course, that replacement applications have been built – and used on a regular basis – in the WinRT environment. This is reliant on both user and developer adoption, something which the opponents to Metro would have significantly hampered.

Basically, if the naysayers had kept their mouth shut, they would’ve had personal choice for at least 1, if not 2 release cycles. As it stands now though, they’ve talked themselves out of that choice, which is a shame really.

My thoughts on Metro…

I first posted this as a comment over on The Register, but I think it might be useful to post this here so that everyone gets to see it instead of just those people who dig into the comments on the Reg. Making this blog also gives me the option of putting some more of my thoughts down on record, in case anyone finds them useful or interesting :-P

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As the person responsible for the original concept and a significant amount of the design work for Longhorn (which became Windows Vista), including Aero Glass, if anyone should have a problem with Metro it’s me; but I don’t.

The initial premise for Glass (as it was called back then, the Aero UX sprung up around the Glass model) was not – as most people believe – to provide eye candy for the end user. Instead, it was an attempt to pull the window chrome away from the content and make it as unobtrusive as possible. The whole point of the glass effect itself was to allow the end user to make better use of their screen real-estate by allowing them to see content beneath the active window.

The first concepts did exactly that – completely transparent window borders with floating titlebar controls, however, this proved distracting to the end user as when a window behind had a lot of text or otherwise “busy” content, the user had to fight to recognize the window caption. It was then that we decided to apply a blur filter to the surface beneath, still allowing recognition of the content beneath but without being distracting to the user. Many, many trials were done to ascertain the appropriate amount of blur, incidentally. Desktop compositing and the DWM window manager were born out of a desire to make this as smooth an experience for the end user. Things like Aero Peek and hover thumbnails were also designed to fit this goal of making the chrome less obtrusive.

Some of my other concepts promoted a VERY different approach to the user experience, much more in line with what is seen today in Windows 8. In fact, the premise for the shift in the desktop paradigm goes back as far as the early Blackcomb concepts first demoed by the MSN services division in 1999; it has ALWAYS been felt that the desktop itself is a rather clunky way of providing content to the end user, which is – after all – the purpose of computing devices, be they traditional desktops, laptops, phones, or even set-top boxes. Windowing systems were designed to allow users to work on multiple pieces of data in quick succession, and yet over the years usability studies have found that users rarely manipulate more than 2 documents simultaneously.

A radical shift away from the desktop metaphor WAS considered for Longhorn, but rejected for numerous reasons; primarily due to the scale of the undertaking that was already planned for Longhorn. Various features got dropped over the course of the development – NOT the ones that were complained about by the public and the media at the time – but other technologies first proposed in Cairo and later carried forward to Windows 7 – and the focus slowly shifted towards the HAL, networking and the Aero UX, luckily for myself.

One of the other reasons for keeping the traditional desktop paradigm was Mac OS X. There were rumours that Apple would be making the switch to x86 and there was always a possibility that they would open OS X up to non-Apple hardware, in either a full or limited capacity. It was felt – most notably by Jim Allchin – that the familiarity of the Windows interface would offer people a strong incentive to upgrade to Vista, rather than exploring alternatives. Linux has never been considered a credible threat due to its inaccessibility to the average user, but OS X already had a niche – but highly vocal – following and was well-known by the public. The possibility of it being available as a competitor, which opening the OS up to generic hardware would have started, was a compelling reason to keep the familiar experience for those afraid of change.

Now, however, it’s become clear that both OS X and Linux have been unable to provide a credible alternative to the general public, and so the plans for a content-centric interface were finally put into place. While some have suggested that Windows 8′s interface is “touch-only” or “based on Windows Phone 7″, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Windows Phone 7 was instead a pilot program – in a relatively low risk sector – for the designs originally suggested for Blackcomb, which have now found their way into Windows 8. At the time, touch interfaces hadn’t even been conceived of – remember, back then touch sensitive screens were Resistive nasties that required at best a stylus, or at worst jabbing at them hard with a finger or pen.

The fact is that Metro just happened to be easily accessible for touch devices, and that has been touted as one of its benefits; it is NOT, and never has been, the original aim of the design. The aim of the design is exactly the same as Aero was – to take the chrome away from the content, and allow the user to focus on what they’re doing rather than unnecessary clutter. A perfect example of this is internet Explorer on Metro; in its default state, all you see is a webpage; chrome CAN be pulled up if the user requires, but is otherwise absent. The majority of Metro applications are like this – in fact it’s part of the Metro UX specifications.

This has always been the way that computing has been going; customization features have subtly been taken out of each successive version of Windows, as users have – on the whole – moved on from eye candy and instead focus on productivity. This isn’t specific to the software sector; even social networking has experienced this shift – from the cluttered, flashing, marquee-laden MySpace profiles of 2003 to the clean, customization-free Facebook profiles of today.

Personally, I see Metro as a good thing; it allows me to do my work without distraction, and I’m just disappointed that I wasn’t the one who did the design work for it this time around.

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In addition, a few other points I thought of subsequently:

  1. Customization of Metro is still somewhat lacking; not visual customization as such, but consistency between Metro and the desktop isn’t perfect, and thus far there’s no way for users to fix that themselves. For example, the 30×30 icons used for desktop applications on the Start Screen are pretty shocking, and visually jarring when contrasted with native Metro tiles. Allowing 96×96 icons would help with consistency, and users could even be allowed to apply custom PNG images to each tile.
  2. I’m not sure about the use of the Windows key to launch the Start Screen. While it works from a conceptual point of view, it’s somewhat jarring usability-wise. Considering how WinKey is heavily used as a modifier these days, the option to trigger the Start Screen by Win+S (possibly even as a press-and-hold combo) would prevent the entire interface shifting into Metro when accidentally pressing the Windows key; FAR more distracting than the Start Menu popping up on previous versions of the OS.
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