Windows Everywhere

Microsoft, in its usual self-assured way, has shouted the refrain of “Windows Everywhere” as long as I can remember. This strategy has served them well, leading to consistent profits—until this quarter. By all accounts they have been hugely successful, so who can blame them for following the same playbook year after year after year after year after year? The sure-fire method to satisfy shareholders has been Windows and Office since 1995. In 2007 they had a smart phone called—surprise!—Windows Mobile and a then-fledgling console called the XBox. While these products were not Windows, they were an obvious side dish to Redmond’s main offering. Then everything began to change.

The iPhone arrived and, despite Steve Ballmer’s mockery, destroyed Windows Mobile and remade the entire phone industry with Microsoft as spectators. While this was certainly a bitter pill to swallow for Microsoft it was not their core business. Nobody was going to replace their Windows PC with an iPhone. Then the iPad arrived.

The iPad was a whole new threat to Microsoft. It was a more capable device than the iPhone because of its larger screen and suddenly 90% of what people do on computers was very doable on a $500 device coming from Cupertino instead of a Windows OEM. This was something they paid attention to, and for good reason. Just as Windows OEMs are suffering iPads are selling as fast as Apple can make them. Mac market share is slowly growing, probably as a halo effect from mobile devices. Microsoft’s answer to this threat is Windows 8.

When Windows 8 was previewed, designers like myself were very excited about the Metro interface. It seemed like Microsoft was finally innovating and pushing in a new direction, but we should have known better. Microsoft’s answer with Windows 8 was the same as it has always been, “Windows Everywhere”. The Metro interface is not a separate product for tablets. All Windows PCs and tablets will run Metro as well as the their familiar desktop environment. Microsoft thinks there should be no compromises, you should be able to use desktop productivity apps on the same device you use stripped down tablet software. Windows 8 is their integrated answer to Apple’s separate OSs. This seems like a great idea, but the truth is that “no compromises” is a lie. I have been using the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and I can say it is the most compromised OS I have ever used.

These are some the issues with Windows 8 in my experience:

  • Metro is lovely to behold, but does not work very well with a mouse. Clicks are often not registered and side-scrolling (a very common task in Metro) is extremely tedious without a touchscreen or trackpad. This would not be an issue if Windows 8 were only destined for tablets, but Windows is the same everywhere.
  • Another problem is the software itself. When I click on an app in Metro I often don’t know where it will open. Will it open in Metro or the Desktop? I feel like the computer is in control, not myself.
  • Many of the controls are not obvious, requiring swiping in from screen edges. These is extremely tedious with a mouse.
  • Metro on Windows Phones seems fast and fluid, it does not feel as responsive on Windows 8 (maybe due to using web technology instead of native code?).
  • Metro icons are blurry. As far as I can tell, they are vector based and are not hinted to the many sizes at which they are displayed. This means blurry edges. By their nature icons will not appear sharp until your display is a high enough resolution to eliminate the need for constant hinting. This clues us in to the fact that the wonderful designers that created Metro were probably not involved as soon as the engineers got involved.

All of these problems can be traced back to the “Windows Everywhere” mantra Microsoft keeps repeating. While trying to appeal to everybody and create “no compromises” they have reduced the overall quality of their product across the board. Metro is not as good as it could be if left as its own OS. The Desktop feels crippled as you constantly switch away from it to launch applications. In trying to do everything, it does nothing well. It is the Subaru Baja (or El Camino depending on your age) of operating systems. It does not know what it wants to be. By bolting Windows on everything, Microsoft has revealed its true problem, indecision. Windows wants to be all things to all people, but regardless of what Redmond says, there is always compromise.

I don’t see Windows 8 sinking Microsoft. I suspect they’ll be around for a quite a while, despite the failings of its products. Here’s what I do see. Metro becoming a vestigial tail to Windows that nobody uses or develops for. Developers will create software for traditional Windows, not Metro, because Microsoft keeps giving them the option. I see Metro in a few years the same way I see Mac OSX’s Dashboard today. Wait… I rarely see the Dashboard at all.