Windows 8 In Hindsight

John Kirk / February 20th, 2014

On September 13, 2011, Zach Epstein, explained to us us why Windows 8 was the dawning of a new age. And on February 9, 2014, Paul Thurrott explained to us why the sun was prematurely setting on that age.

Calling Windows 8 a “software design” is like calling bald a hair color.

Between those two dates, a flood of virtual ink was spilled arguing both for and against the existence of Windows 8. But in the end it all comes down to this: Windows 8 was a failure of design.

Good Design Is Less Design

    Zach Epstein:

    PCs are not going away. They will continue to be the primary means of computing for business and consumers alike. Tablets are not going away, either. They will continue to provide a much more intuitive way to interact with a consumer electronics device. Microsoft’s vision, however, unifies these devices.

    One platform to rule them all. The technology exists to enable users to carry a single device that is as portable and usable as a tablet, but also as powerful and capable as a PC.

LESSON #1: Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Nerds tend to focus on what they CAN do and often forget what they SHOULD be doing. More is not always more. And in design, less is always more.

[A]s designers and engineers in general, we’re guilty of designing for ourselves too often. ~ Bill Moggridge

If nerds (and I am one) were in charge of the ballet, they wold note that all the ballerinas were always on their toes and they would “solve” that problem by hiring taller ballerinas.

If nerds were in charge of a Japanese Restaurant, they would offer the option of ordering Sushi medium and well-done.

You think I’m exaggerating , right? But Microsoft’s has both a trackpad and a touch screen. A nerd doesn’t see that as a problem. And that’s the problem.

I think a nerd is a person who uses the telephone to talk to other people about telephones. And a computer nerd therefore is somebody who uses a computer in order to use a computer. ~ Douglas Adams

Good Design Solves Problems

    Zach Epstein

    Apple paved the way but Microsoft will get there first with Windows 8. A tablet that can be as fluid and user friendly as the iPad but as capable as a Windows laptop. A tablet that can boot in under 10 seconds and fire up a full-scale version of Adobe Dreamweaver a few moments later. A tablet that can be slipped into a dock to instantly become a fully capable touch-enabled laptop computer. This is Microsoft’s vision with Windows 8, and this is what it will deliver.

LESSON #2: Windows 8 Is A Solution Looking For A Problem.

Mark Wilson of Fastcode is spot on in his criticism of Windows 8:

    Metro solves the problem of, “How do you map the same interface to disparate devices?” Okay. But is that a real problem for consumers? I don’t think so.

    A phone interface matching a laptop interface is about as important as socks matching underwear.

    The consumer design problem is, “How do I make this device as intuitive as possible?” or “How can I streamline the process of getting someone the file he wants?” People care about speed, efficiency, clarity, and delight. But a phone interface matching a laptop interface is about as important as socks matching underwear.

Good Design Is Not Easy Or Intuitive

    Paul Thurrott:

    When critics described Windows 8.1 as a step backwards, I disagreed: Responding to customer complaints is never wrong, I argued….

LESSON #3: The Customer Is Not Qualified To Be The Designer.

Non-designers routinely argue that the customer is best-positioned to select the features which should be included in a product design. That’s ridiculous. The customer knows where he wants to go but asking him to design the vehicle that gets him there is as stupid as asking astronauts to design the space shuttle. They’re not qualified and it is not their job.

When I was growing up, a guy across the street had a Volkswagen Bug. He really wanted to make it into a Porsche. He spent all his spare money and time accessorizing this VW, making it look and sound loud. By the time he was done, he did not have a Porsche. He had a loud, ugly VW. ~ Steve Jobs

The product should not be defined by the customer, is should be defined by the designer from the point of view of the customer. That’s a subtle but oh-so-crucial distinction.

Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page. ~ Steve Jobs

Good Design Is True To Itself

    Paul Thurott:

    If you can find something everyone agrees on, it’s wrong. ~ Mo Udall

    Microsoft has simply fallen into an all-too-familiar trap of trying to please everyone, and creating a product that is ultimately not ideal for anyone.

About one-fifth of the people are against everything all the time. ~ Robert F. Kennedy

LESSON #4: When You Try To Please Everyone, You Please No One.

Please all, and you will please none. ~ Aesop, “The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey”

Design Means Making Hard Choices

    Paul Thurott:

    If you look back over the decades at the many high-level complaints that have been leveled at Windows, one in particular sticks out: Unlike Mac OS, in particular, Windows has always attempted to satisfy every possible customer need, and as such it often provides multiple ways to accomplish the same thing.

LESSON #5: Offering Multiple Options Is The Opposite Of Good Design.

When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice. ~ William James

Nerds want options. Normals want solutions.

“When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there.” ~ Steve Jobs

Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away…. ~ Antoine De Saint-exupery

When designing an interface, remember that the user of that interface has spent orders of magnitude less time thinking about it than you. ~ Steve Holt! (@steve_holt)

Design Matters

    Paul Thurrott:

    The reason this happened is that while Sinofsky had the maniacal power and force of will of a Steve Jobs, he lacked Jobs’ best gift: An innate understanding of good design. Windows 8 is not well-designed. It’s a mess.

It’s easy (and fun!) to lay the blame for Window 8 at Sinofky’s feet. Try this one on for size:

Sinofsky had the Midas touch. Everything he touched turned into a muffler.

Funny? Yes. Fair? Absolutely not.

Sinofsky — like everyone who worked at Microsoft — was handicapped because he had to start the design of Windows 8 with Windows in mind. That’s exactly the wrong way to do it.

Good design starts anew and that was never going to happen at Microsoft. Sinofsky and whoever was tasked with creating Windows 8 was going to start their design from the existing foundation of Windows and trying to integrate a mouse input operating system with a touch driven operating system was doomed from the start.

LESSON #6: Design Is Where You Start, Not Where You End.

The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. ~ Malcolm Gladwell

Compare where Sinofsky was starting with this quote from Jonny Ive:

    When we’re designing a new product, we not only need to start with a blank slate, but we also need to start with the client’s perspective and work our way backwards. What does the client want. More importantly, what does the client need?

Design makes what is complex feel simpler, and makes what is simpler feel richer. ~ johnmaeda (@johnmaeda)

Conclusion

    Paul Thurrott:

    God knows, Microsoft tries. It’s a wonderful observer and follower.

Say what now?

LESSON #6: Windows 8 Was Both Late And Not Great.

With Windows 8, Microsoft was the very opposite of a wonderful observer and follower. They were late to the party and they came to a formal wearing a clown outfit, including bells and whistles.

Apple SHOWED Microsoft how modern phones were done. Apple SHOWED Microsoft how modern tablets were done. If you want to look at a fast follower, look at Google. If you want to look at a good copier, look at Samsung.

The wise learn many things from their enemies. ~ Aristophanes

If you want to look at someone who arrived late and still got it all wrong, look at Windows 8.

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so. ~ Douglas Adams

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?
  • TheEternalEmperor

    I think one issue is that Windows8 didn’t actually deliver on its promises. One machine didn’t do it all.

    • Kizedek

      There are probably at least 6 issues packed into that statement… …coincidentally, the number of lessons that John Kirk offers.

      • TheEternalEmperor

        Not 15?

        • Kizedek

          Well, yeah, but I didn’t want to list them if asked, so I took the cowards way out.

    • klahanas

      If the Surface is to be compared to the iPad you’re exactly correct. For all the reasons the author states. The Surface Pro is a PC, and thus a different animal entirely.

      The regular Surface, however, is a fine tablet. It lacks apps (not entirely MS’s fault, they might come) and it lacks a Metro specific version of Office. The problem with that product is desktop mode, which is otherwise useless.

      On the desktop, the problems with Windows 8 are overblown. WIndows 8 is the best desktop OS MS has put out to date. Too much emphasis has been placed on Metro, which is an alternate environment, and entirely optional. Granted this is after making a couple of minor tweaks in settings, which means it’s less polished in that regard. It should never have been implemented in such a way to allow this level of controversy.

      • TheEternalEmperor

        Let’s ignore Metro. Let’s stipulate that Windows 8 is, in fact, the best desktop OS that MS has put out to date.
        What does it do for me that Win 7 x64 does not? Upgrading OSes holds no terror for me. I work on Win7 x64 as my main dev system. The problem for MS is that, even ignoring the truly awful decision to make Metro the default, even making it the best ever, you have nothing that I can see, that Win8 brings to the table that makes me want to go out and get it.

        Even as a dev.

        Now, as for the Surface, to me, any tablet that only works well in landscape is not fine. But that’s just for my use. Surface’s main issue is similar to Win8. What does it bring to the table that makes it compelling? Again, nothing that I see.

        • klahanas

          Good points. Win8 is a better “tuned up” Win7. That’s all. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is better.
          As far as the Surface goes, it works in portrait mode. I don’t understand that comment. It also multitasks better, if your into that kind of thing. If you’re not, it’s easy to ignore.

          • steve_wildstrom

            The surface and other Windows 8 tablets work in portrait, but the 16:9 aspect ratio is very clumsy when held vertically. One great advantage of the iPad is that the 4:3 ratio works very well in both portrait and landscape.

          • peter

            The 4:3 ratio of the iPad is easily its most underestimated feature. There are many apps on the iPad where I alternate between landscape and portrait; depending on the task the on or other works subtly better.

            It is a feature that is dead easy to copy, but for some reason nobody does. Yet, it should be obvious that designing software to work well in both 16:9 and 9:16 is really hard to do well. Either the landscape or portrait mode suffers intolerably.

          • TheEternalEmperor

            Look at that 16:9 aspect. And its two window multitasking, to me, is weak.

        • RobbieP

          What it brings to the table????? The Surface NEEDS a table. It should have been called “Searching for a Surface”. But they shortened it to not confuse the Office Depot workers.

          • klahanas

            That was really funny! With the kickstand closed, it doesn’t need a table. Does the iPad with a stand (sold separately) need a table?

          • GlennC777

            The Surface needs a table because, to be practically useful, it needs a keyboard. The iPad doesn’t need a table because it doesn’t need a keyboard.

            (Though with a keyboard case the iPad can be used on your lap, that’s how my wife uses hers; whereas the Surface with its soft keyboards really can’t).

            This seems to me to be the Surface’s most fundamental flaw and, by itself, makes it a lousy product that doesn’t satisfy any real need. It’s not a tablet, it’s a flawed laptop imitating a tablet.

          • klahanas

            In Metro mode it’s better than an iPad IMO. The real problem there is the availability of Apps.

          • TheEternalEmperor

            Metro is awful and live tiles just …bad. I use a tablet for the apps, poor apps and you’ve got a Playbook.

        • Genetic

          Windows 7 is even worse than 8. It keeps raping my eyes with its ugliness and filth.

  • Space Gorilla

    One of Microsoft’s (and the tech industry in general) biggest problems is a sort of cultural sneering at the design aspect of software and hardware. Design is largely seen as a waste of time making something ‘look pretty’, when in fact design is an integral part of how something works.

  • klahanas

    Very good article that makes the case on one side. There is another side…
    It seems that there’s the assumption that features and elegance are mutually incompatible. They are not.
    Looked at singularly, the article proves the case that I shouldn’t be able to salt my soup. 🙂

    • FalKirk

      When you play a piano, you get to decide which keys to hit but not where the keys are placed.

      When you use a toaster, you get to decide how dark the toast is but not whether the darkness selector is a slider or a button.

      When you buy soup, you get to decide if you want to add salt, but you don’t tell the cook what ingredients to put in the soup.

      • klahanas

        These are all vertically integrated things serving a single purpose. I’m certain we all expect more from a broader computing device.

  • Gary Brockie

    The last quote nails what trips up Microsoft.

    I remember right before the initial release Chris Pirillo did a youtube video where his father (an experienced windows user) tried Windows 8 for the first time. http://tinyurl.com/7yq7hox

    That video should have made Microsoft reconsider what they were doing.

  • stefnagel

    Tough designing with your eyes closed, hands over ears, feet in mouth.

  • GeloSolis

    If you look at the position of the home button, it is clear the iPad was designed for portrait mode, and capable for use in landscape if necessary.

    • TheEternalEmperor

      No dice. The button had to go somewhere. I’ve used it upside down and it clearly works equally well in either orientation unlike every other tablet.

  • AndrewL

    Excellent article! You might have also quoted Colin Chapman of Lotus automobiles: “Simplify, then add lightness.”

  • kokotouch

    I can’t wait for Mirosoft to die, I’m still bitter about 1997. I’ll piss on their grave lol.

  • mhikl

    I’m not quite sure of all this. Mr Kirk may be a tad jaded about the possible. There may be some hope in MicroSoft’s exertions, in another twist to this scenario.

    It’s happened before. For example, who ever would have thought that time honoured wrestling could be improved. Someone obviously thought long and hard on the problem, possibly after seeing how pole and dance merged so well. Enlightened, the idea of converging tub with mat came about and, mud and wrestling met. In similar fashion to dance and pole, a selective group were chosen as participants, different from the group that fit the purpose of the spectatorial. The genius was that the new experience conjoined the intellectual involvement of two diverse sports: though there have been expected kinks. One is that the audience, at least in my city, is a very selective group and the older sport of dance and pole seems to have stood the test of time far better than mud and mat. So, thinking outside the box—what if pole were to merge with mud and mat? Anyone hear a little bell go off?

    Such a stratagem takes more creative thinking, so, back to MicroSoft.

    Were MicroSoft to twist its thinking cap back in place and return to the drawing board, it might stimulate another new direction that involved touch, keyboard and some spectacular innovation like chisel or mallet or pigeon. These are only simple suggestions for it will take someone smart, like MicroSoft’s vacationing Mr Balmer, to put in the time to blaze this new trail.

  • jfutral

    “If nerds (and I am one) were in charge of the ballet, they wold note that all the ballerinas were always on their toes and they would “solve” that problem by hiring taller ballerinas.”

    Personally, I think you’re on to something here!

    Joe

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