Monday, April 8, 2013

The overlooked issue of Windows 8

Ever since the first releases of Windows 8 a lot of people complain about the change in paradigm for the application launcher (aka Start Button). While this might require from us a certain adaption to the new UI concept, it is actually rather a minor thing. Whether we call it start menu or start screen mostly boils down to personal preferences and while there are pros and cons for both implementations the actual problem lies somewhere completely else.

The way more interesting or worrying (depending on your point of view) issue is the direction Microsoft is heading to. Ever since its introduction in 1985 the main concept of Windows were movable and resizable frames providing the content area for applications AKA .... windows.

In its most basic form you could always tell whether an application was running or not by simply spotting its window. The idea of multi-tasking was also greatly supported by the fact that you could have one, two, three, four, twenty windows open at the same time in whatever form you desired (overlapped, tiled, stacked) and still see the content of the windows you were interested in.

And this is exactly the drastic change in course Microsoft decided to follow with Windows 8 I was referring to. It is not about the way the installed applications are shown (we had such a change in 1995) but about how we actually use and interact with these applications.

Instead of having customisable screen areas defined by us, we now have each single application taking up the entire screen. Yes, there is a split screen option where you can have two applications sharing the screen, at pre-defined sizes but this is not anywhere close to the beauty and flexibility of the 30 year old concept of windows.

We also cannot tell easily whether an application is running or not. As everything is fullscreen we simply physically do not see what applications are currently running.

A related issue is application management. Up until Windows 7 we were in control which applications were running. Windows 8 introduced for the first time mainstream application suspension. The moment we switch away the system decides what to do with the foreground application and in most cases the application will be immediately suspended (in my tests with the Consumer Preview I could not even let a Youtube video run in the background - Windows simply stopped the IE).

In short, our applications and our ways to use them are being dumbed down. I am not blaming Microsoft for coming up with these concepts (these were first introduced by Apple in 2007 with their mobile platform and later more than willingly continued by Google with Android) but rather for simply pursuing them without questioning them and in that process betraying their own heritage in terms of UI development.
Maybe we are entering an era of such simplified UIs, I for myself can only say I consider the previous window concept as far superior in comparison as to what the industry is apparently heading to.