Windows 8 and Mountain Lion: Same Problem, Different Answers

on March 7, 2012

Yesterday, Pat Moorhead took a look at Microsoft’s Windows 8 Consumer Preview on tablets.Today, I consider it from the point of view of a laptop/desktop user.

Faced with the challenge of unifying the tablet and desktop user experience, Microsoft and Apple made radically different choices. The results, Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion, are now out in preview form. And based on what we can tell from the preview editions, it looks like Mac users are going to be a lot happier than their Windows counterparts.

Apple, which traditionally has been much bolder than Microsoft in breaking with the past, this time opted for the conservative approach. In Mountain Lion, it is bring some iPad/iPhone features, such as notifications and messenger, from iOS to OS X. But it is leaving the user interface of previous OS X versions mostly unchanged.

Microsoft has chosen to make the radically new, tablet-oriented Metro user interface standard on desktops (a term I am using to cover all conventional PCs, whether actual desktops or notebooks.) In part, this is a consequence of Microsoft’s decision to use a version of its desktop OS on the new Windows tablets, while Apple chose to base the iPad’s software on the iPhone, leaving the more powerful, flexible, and complex OS X to conventional PCs.

Metro looks like a very promising tablet interface. It is attractive, well thought-out, and offers features lacking in both iOS and Android. We won’t really be able to judge it until hardware makes come up with tablets optimized for it later this year and Microsoft comes out with a version of Windows for ;ess power-hungry ARM processors. But it is off to a promising start.

On a desktop, however, and particularly on one lacking a touch screen,  Metro is a disaster in the making. I’m trying to give it the benefit of the doubt. Maybe its just unfamiliarity it will feel better with more extended use. But I doubt it. To me, Metro on a desktop feels as wrong as Windows 7 did on a tablet.

Part of this is an issue of size. Metro speaks Microsoft’s new UI design language and Metro is basically a scaled up version of of Windows Phone 7 (as the iPad version of iOS is a scaled up version of the iPhone.) As with other tablet OSes, all Metro apps run full screen, or nearly so–you can open a second app in a vertical strip that takes up about a quarter of the display. This is fine on a tablet, but is much less acceptable on the bigger displays of a desktop. The Mail app looks a little silly on a 13″ display, sillier on a 15″, and downright ridiculous on a 27″. And Mail is one of the least egregious offenders; the Weather apps covers over half of the screen with a point picture or, well, weather.

Lurking behind Metro is Desktop, which, with some critical exceptions such as the lack of the Start button, resembles the Windows 7 UI. I’d be happier if Microsoft would just let me boot Windows 8 into Desktop. But for now, at least, this is prohibited, except perhaps for some enterprises running server-managed PCs. If you are doing anything PCish on your PC, you’ll be spending a lot of time in Desktop. The new version of Office, for example, will be made up of Desktop apps, albeit with a Metro flavor.

But even if you live in Desktop, you’ll be visiting Metro a lot. For example, unless you have pinned an application’s icon to the task bar or copied it to the desktop, you will have to go to Metro’s “all applications” list to launch it. And it is jarring and annoying to keep jumping back and forth between two radically different UIs.

Windows 8 is still a beta and Microsoft has ample opportunity to fix the worst problems of using it on a PC. The simplest would be to let users who choose to boot directly into Desktop. It’s not necessary to bring back the Start button in all its complexity, nut a straightforward way to launch any Desktop application from Desktop is essential. Im not sure the Metrofication of desktop Windows is ever going to be a very happy thing, but Microsoft could do a few things that would make it a great deal less disconcerting. For now, two UIs on one desktop is one UI too many.