My Windows 8 slate has split personalities – and what Microsoft could do to improve that

.NET, Build, Technical stuff, UX, Windows 8, Work
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I had dinner the other night with my good friend Josh Smith, and of course we started talking about Windows 8. Something he said was pretty much spot on: He said that Windows 8 feels as if it has split personalities. There are the WinRT “Metro-style” apps and there is the “classic” Desktop, which looks and feels like Windows  7++ (optimized for touch, and actually a real delight to use with my fat greasy fingers).

Side note: I really dislike more and more the name “Metro-style” for the WinRT apps. Metro is a design language, and nothing prevents me from creating a beautiful Metro application in Win32 if I want (though it would be a lot of work), or (more realistically) in Silverlight. I was not sure about “immersive apps” but “metro style apps” is much worse. Please change it Microsoft.

Two devices

So it really feels like you have two very different devices in one. The Desktop mode feels like it is a totally standard PC, and is typically used with a keyboard and a mouse, though it has been extremely touch optimized (in the contrary of Windows 7 which runs on my Touchsmart TX2 with 4 points of touch, where it is hard to target those small buttons. On Windows 8, it feels as if the computer knows in advance what you are trying to achieve. Pretty amazing, and to see more about this topic, check this touch session and this other one too.)

On the other hand, the Metro-style apps feel much more like a phone app, and in fact they follow a similar development and application model (I will blog more about that soon).

Why split personalities?

One important concept you learn when you are interested in user experience is that if possible you should avoid to switch the user’s context. When the user is doing work in one environment, changing to another environment is feeling like a disruption, or even like an aggression. And unfortunately, we have this in the Windows 8 OS with the Start menu: When I am in Desktop mode and I press the Start button (top left corner on the picture above, because I moved my taskbar to the side), Windows 8 switches to the “green Start menu” shown in the second picture. That switch is not nice at all.

Now I understand that Microsoft wants to show off the Start menu because it is new and shiny, but I would really prefer if, when I do work in the Desktop mode with my keyboard and mouse, I want to stay in that mode until I decide otherwise. On the other hand, if I am in tablet mode, no keyboard/mouse, then it is fine to stay in a touch only, Metro style mode until, again, I decide otherwise.

So how can Microsoft solve it?

In fact it is pretty easy to solve, and I really hope that they do it before RTM: Implement a simple Start menu in Desktop mode, similar to what we have in Windows 7 (though it doesn’t have to be as complex in my opinion). Just give me a menu that open when I click the Start button, with a Search that acts similar to the Windows 7 one, a list of pinned application shortcuts, and maybe access to all the installed applications through folders.

This would avoid the annoying context switch,  and allow me to pretty much forget that it’s not a “classic Windows device”. On the other hand, when I take it out of the dock and out in the wild, this becomes a touch-intensive device, a whole other class of hardware.

This becomes even more attractive now that it seems that ARM based devices (low energy, low power devices similar to an iPad) will also run the Desktop mode (Note: Take this information with a grain of salt right now, because we only heard about it yesterday and I am not 100% sure what will actually happen). Anyway, every time that there is a context switch, a kitten dies, so please Microsoft, change it and save the kittens.

What about the web browser?

The web browser is another of these weird split personality things. The Metro IE is a very poor version of the web browser, with no plugins and no extensions. It feels very limited. On the other hand, there is a full version of IE on the device, in the Desktop mode, which runs Silverlight and Flash, is extensible etc. From the Metro IE, you can switch to the Desktop IE by showing the application bar, opening the File menu and selecting Use Desktop View. This is however not very discoverable (not even mentioning that the UI needs a lot of polish Winking smile

Needless to say, this is not a good experience. How can you explain to “normal users” that there are two versions of IE, and one had Silverlight/Flash, while the other does not? It barely makes sense. I really hope that this gets changed, and that we get either the full experience (including ActiveX plugins), or at least a better experience to suggest switching to the Desktop IE when an object tag is found on the page.

Note: We start seeing hints that ActiveX plugins will run in the less powerful ARM based devices. I don’t have information suggesting that it is true or not, but it is interesting to see the videos.



Attributions: Kitten picture

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