The Dog and Its Reflection: My initial impression of Windows 8

Previews of Windows 8 are starting to trickle out, with Jensen Harris’ Building Windows 8 Video #1 and Ina Fried’s Making Sense of Our First Look at Windows 8. From what I’ve seen, my initial impression is that Windows 8 looks fresh, innovative, snappy, and has strong potential. It may even be delightful!

A great, freshing start!

The Windows 8 team has demonstrated much needed courageous design and creativity here. But as I mentioned in Everybody loves creativity, creative ideas often have problems—lots of them. I see several interesting challenges with Windows 8 that I’d like to share.

Serious iPad envy

The Windows 8 team clearly has some serious iPad envy. As they should. It would be a mistake to ignore the iPad/tablet phenomenon—to do otherwise risks losing relevance to an ever increasing part of the market. In fact, just yesterday I offered to upgrade my wife’s ancient Windows XP PC. She told me not to bother—just give her an iPad instead. What could Windows 8 offer to get her to change her mind?

Shooting in the middle…and missing?

Well, it could possibly change her mind by offering a better tablet experience than the iPad. But then Microsoft risks losing me. For me, Windows is for running traditional desktop and web software using a keyboard and mouse. I use Windows on a laptop for my business, so to get me to upgrade from Windows 7 would require a better, more productive traditional PC experience. For messing around at home, I’ve got an Apple iPad 2 and I’m not going to change that any time soon regardless.

So is Windows 8 a traditional PC OS for business, or a mobile/tablet OS for home? From Julie Larson-Green’s press release, Microsoft very much wants it to be both:

And this isn’t just about touch PCs. The new Windows experience will ultimately be powered by application and device developers around the world — one experience across a tremendous variety of PCs. The user interface and new apps will work with or without a keyboard and mouse on a broad range of screen sizes and pixel densities, from small slates to laptops, desktops, all-in-ones, and even classroom-sized displays. Hundreds of millions of PCs will run the new Windows 8 user interface. This breadth of hardware choice is unique to Windows and central to how we see Windows evolving.

And in Ina Fried’s article, Steven Sinofsky stated “It’s ‘no compromise’ and that’s really important to us.” Hmm…compromises and tradeoffs exist for a reason: it’s just not possible to do all things equally well for everything. You literally can’t aim at two independent targets with a single bullet. If you aim in the middle, you will certainly end up missing both. I sense a product planning Archilles’ heel here. Daring Fireball has drawn the same conclusion. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “OK, but is that really something I want for my business computer?” and “Are these goals and scenarios that I really have at work?” Not really…at least not yet.

The finger that launched a thousand apps…but would I actually do this?

Scenario-based design in today’s connected world

A scenario describes a specific target user trying to achieve a specific goal or task in a specific environment. Many people underemphasize the user’s environment in their scenarios, but that’s a big mistake. It turns out that really understanding the environment is often what makes a great design.

So what is in today’s tech savvy computer user’s environment (that is, those who are likely to buy a new Windows 8 PC or tablet)? Probably an iPhone or Android smartphone, an iPad, or both, right? A scenario that makes sense if the user has only a Windows 8 computing device might not make nearly as much sense with a fully charged iPhone or an iPad nearby. So, for example, using Urban Spoon to decide where to go for lunch is a smartphone scenario for convenience, speed, and mobility, even if other solutions provide a richer, more powerful solution. This type of scenario is one that Windows 8 simply can’t win.

Assume that I’ve got four devices on my desk (Windows PC, Windows tablet, iPad, iPhone). Give me strong reasons to reach for the Windows 8 devices instead of the others. The difference between “can” and “want” is huge. Make me want it! “Want” is the ultimate manifestation of value—“can” just gets you in the door.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “OK, how many of these Windows 8 scenarios fall down if I’ve got easy access to other devices?” I wasn’t liking my answers. Smartphones win a lot of these scenarios. The simplicity of the iPad wins many others. There’s nothing here to make me want to switch.

Authentic or WinFrankenPad?

Windows Vista introduced the Aero UI, where Aero is a backronym for authentic, energetic, reflective, and open. (Which, BTW, nobody really understood. Reflective? Open? Huh?) I have come to appreciate the value in being authentic though, sometimes with design decisions but more often with teams attempting to adapt design cultures alien to their own.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “This new UI doesn’t feel authentic to Windows. It feels like a completely different environment that was stapled on.” To feel authentic, the new experience needs to sit alongside the old harmoniously. It should feel like it’s there because it belongs there, not because somebody had a stapler.

Here’s the staple.

BTW: Is it me, or does this page lack focus and flow? My eye has no idea where to go.

The wow starts…eventually

Demoware can be a dangerous thing because it gives everyone unrealistic expectations. I was on the Windows Vista team and the Vista demos were awesome. Snappy, action packed, …look at all the things you can do—so quickly! My real Windows Vista experience on real hardware was dog slow to the extent that the “spinning donut” would have made an appropriate product logo. It’s poor performance was a real buzz kill.

While watching Jensen’s video, I noticed that the Windows 8 performance was consistently fantastic. That’s not the Windows I know—I’ve never been impressed by Windows’ performance. I suspect demoware, especially this far ahead of shipping. But this is as it should be…there’s no point in demoing a sluggish UI.

But if Windows 8 doesn’t have fantastic performance on real hardware, nothing else matters. Doubly true for a tablet. Windows should wait for users, not the other way around. No matter how cool these new features might be, they aren’t going to be worth waiting for. I hope the Windows team recognizes this. It would be impossible to overinvest in improving performance, as performance is the currency with which modern user experiences are purchased.

Business productivity

I’m a big believer in using personas, and one of my favorite personas is the purchase decision maker. (BTW: The Windows team banned the use of personas starting with Windows 7.) Build a persona for the person who is going to decide to buy a product, and do what can you can to make that decision as easy and comfortable as possible. You need to explicitly design for that persona! For business decision makers, a realistic story for reducing costs and making employees more productive is effective strategy.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “Why would a business buy this for its employees?” I didn’t see any answers. Launching apps from a tile-based Start screen is, ironically, a non-starter (just as Flip 3D was for Vista). In fact, all those live tiles demanding users’ attention looks quite distracting (I don’t want apps sending tweets to my employees), as does shifting between desktops. Hopefully, Jensen will address the business case in Building Windows 8 Video #2.

Ecosystem

Windows was originally successful because of its vibrant community of third-party developers creating Windows apps. The AppStore phenomenon is doing the same thing for the iPhone and iPad today.

While watching Jensen’s video, I kept thinking “Where are all these apps coming from? Third parties?” While Windows’ huge market share makes it attractive for third-party developers, success is far from certain. The lukewarm development of Windows Sidebar Gadgets demonstrates that.

What’s in Windows 8 for traditional Windows developers like Adobe? Why would an ISV create a native Windows 8 app over an html5 app? Hopefully that topic will be addressed by Video #3. If Office is the only major player, somebody is in trouble.

The Dog and Its Reflection

Windows owns the traditional desktop market, but it very much wants to be the touch-based tablet contender. This quandary reminds me of Aesop’s Fable of The Dog and Its Reflection:

A dog that is carrying a piece of meat looks down as it is crossing a stream and sees its own reflection in the water. Taking it for another dog carrying something better, it opens its mouth to bark at the “other” and in doing so drops what it was carrying.

While I see challenges for Windows 8, I believe the Windows 8 team is doing the right thing—they must respond to the iPad. The only question is whether grafting in new environment onto a legacy desktop OS is the best vehicle to do it. To that, I’m not so sure. Success here will require execution that Microsoft hasn’t demonstrated for quite a while.

I wish them every success. Vigorous competition benefits everyone, so the world will be a better place if Windows 8 is extremely successful.

Update: I had a chance to try a Windows 8 tablet recently. It’s performance is snappy and the metro UI has potential for being delightful. Still, I’m at a complete loss as to why any desktop or laptop user would want the Windows 8 Start Menu. The purpose of the Start Menu is to launch less frequently used programs quickly—nothing more. If Windows 8 offered an option to use the classic Start Menu instead, I’m sure I would choose that option immediately.

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