Windows 8 and Mountain Lion: Same Problem, Different Answers

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.


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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

18 thoughts on “Windows 8 and Mountain Lion: Same Problem, Different Answers”

  1. Respectfully, I think you have completely missed the underlying difference between Apple’s OSes and Microsoft’s OS. Apple wants to make the OS specific to the product and its use. What is most useful to a person using a phone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop. The focus is on the end user. There is an understanding that there should be some similarities and this leads to similar aspects in both of Apple’s OSes. However, it would be stupid to have to regularly leave a keyboard to move something on a monitor. OS X is NOT iOS.

    Microsoft, as its stated goal, wants to put Windows everywhere. There is no concern about the usability of the interface as long as it is Windows. Theoretically, this makes sense. If you know how to use one Windows-based device, pick up any device and you should know how to use it. Somehow, within Microsoft, there was the realization that this machinecentric and marketingcentric solution doesn’t work on a practical level. So rather than simply have two or more OSes, Microsoft kludged them together. Putting the late Zune’s Metro interface on a desktop makes zero sense. Having the ability to put and evolved Windows 7 interface on a phone makes no sense. Microsoft’s rapid demise in phones and history of over a decade of failure with tablets proves this, but the MS powers that be ignore it.

    My guess is that Windows 8 will be a success on the desktop because so many manufacturers will include it. Most people, however, will ignore Metro. For phones and tablets there will be a small spike in sales as Microsoft spends tens of millions advertising it, but the phone will quickly die out and it will remain a distant third in tablet sales.

    Eventually, Microsoft will “get it” and get it right. But not with Windows 8.

    1. The problem is that you cannot ignore Metro. Windows 8 is always going to come up in Metro. And as long as there are certain operations that require Metro and others that require Desktop, you are going to bounce between the two UIs. Both Microsoft and Apple have a set of core APIs common to all devices, but Microsoft went further and decided to have a basic UI common as well. And that, I think. was the mistake.

  2. ” It’s not necessary to bring back the Start button in all its complexity….”

    I don’t know about that. I still have not figured out how to shutdown. Yes, I can spell “frustrating”.

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