Friday, November 9, 2012

. . . the Intuitiveness of Windows 8

Before we jump into the next issue that has arisen with respect to Microsoft's newest incarnation of its flagship product, the Operating System known throughout the world as "Microsoft Windows" and for the purposes of this series, as "Microsoft Windows 8" or Win8 for shorthand (and Win8 is how I will be referring to it pretty much from now on), it would be a good idea for us to recap some of the previously noted points and to cover in general terms the issues that apply, to wit:

The blog entry here at Speaking Of that specifically proceeds this one is called "Speaking of... Windows 8" and in general terms it touches upon the anger that the new OS and its radically different approach for its User Interface (UI) that was previously called "Metro" (more about that in a bit) has and continues to generate among the user base, and examines issues that are related to that focus.

Today's post is going to revisit the issue of the UI and cover an interesting development over at Microsoft that deals with how they want the public to think about the UI, and specifically how they do not want the public (or their own people) to think of that UI as "Metro" or refer to it as the Metro Interface, or Metro anything...

It is NOT called Metro

Before we get too far into today's post I want to make a request of you -- it may be a bit inconvenient but I will very much appreciate it if you indulge me in this request, and do as I ask you.  It is a simple and actually easy task really, because all that I want you to do is follow the link below and read my column over at The Cape Cod Times.  I want you to do that because it will provide you with some information that I think is important and having absorbed that information, I feel that it will make taking in and using the rest of the contents of today's post that much easier and better.

So please click on the link below, read the column, and then return here.  I will wait for you, no worries mates, I don't mind.  Seriously!  Go ahead and do it!

(Digital Grind Column, Cape Cod Times, 6 November 2012, Business and Tech Section

 My column began with the observation that "Windows 8 is not what you heard it was" and goes on to explain why that is in simple terms.  

In the world of American journalism there is an age-old tradition of placing blame that even the best of the men and women who are members of the Fourth Estate succumb to every now and then.  It can be difficult not to when placing blame often helps to move a piece forward, providing the writer and the reader an easy to recognize focus for their emotion and their ire.  In the case of Win8 perhaps the most obvious issue -- some would say "flaw" if they have a negative impression of the new OS, while those who find it to be a good thing and move in the right direction might call it an "asset" but no matter what position you take, the reality is that the new User Interface in Win8 is the front door for the OS and the first thing that most users will see and focus upon as they attempt to define their feelings about it.

The title for this section of today's post is "It is NOT called Metro" and, considering the fact that in my column (which I asked you to read) I called it Metro, that might be a bit confusing.  If we go by the position that is being taken by Microsoft, right now the UI for Win8 does not have a proper name, and as they are insistent upon characterizing the term "Metro" as little more than a code name that was applied to the UI during the development stages continuing to refer to it as Metro seems wrong somehow...  But Microsoft has not provided an alternative -- official or otherwise -- as of the writing of this post, so to cut down on the possibilities of confusion, to honor their instance that it is not called Metro, and to avoid the ugly and imprecise feelings that replacing references to it with the term "User Interface" or UI would have, I have decided that until Microsoft officially announces the proper name for the UI in Win8 I will, from this point on, call it NotMetro.

If you are curious about the reason behind both my bringing up the matter of NotMetro and explaining to you why I had to find a new name for it, the matter was actually brought to my attention in an email that I received from a reader who works for Microsoft and who wrote to thank me for the Windows 8 got Game column and its success in clarifying the fact that Win8 is not restricted to tablet and touchscreen computing.

It may help you to read the original article that he including the URL for and referred me to in his email, which is Columnist Mary Jo Foley's column in Ziff Davis' ZDNet – which is the online magazine for the tech media company – which appeared on 2 August 2012 under the headline “Is 'Metro' now a banned word at Microsoft?” and includes some background information you may find interesting...

Now that we have the matter of NotMetro addressed, I feel comfortable in moving on to the actual subject of today's post here at Speaking of. . . so how about we do that?

The Blame Game

As touched upon previously (and in other posts) there is a tradition in the news media to make placing blame a central element in most news features when the issue at hand is one in which blame can be placed.  And really, if you think about it, that is often the case with most issues.  It is easy, in other words, to place blame, and the act of placing blame often serves as an end of its own in that it can offer the writer and their audience a convenient target at whom emotion, ire, and anger can be directed, while offering the write a fertile field from which to harvest subjects to write about.  In fact once you have managed to successfully place some blame -- any blame -- that makes every element of the life of a person or company fair game!  You can explore their childhood, drudge up past mistakes, the sky is the limit!  And if they happen to be an astronaut even the sky is no longer a limit!

In the case of NotMetro there are plenty of laps in which to toss a variety of neatly packaged packages that are all clearly labeled "Blame" and what is more, plenty of takers who welcome receiving those packages, because in the end when we really look hard at this, clearly the blame game has some legitimate targets at which to aim those packages.  Or does it?

Bill Gates likes Windows 8 and knows you will too...

In my column at the Times I mention that NotMetro is actually not new -- in fact if you happen to own a Microsoft Xbox 360 you have been using a variation of NotMetro for the past six months, and if you also own (or rather alternatively own) a Windows Phone, a copy of Microsoft Office 2013, or Microsoft Visual Studio 2012, well then just like the folks who own an Xbox 360 and so have been using its LIVE UI, you too have been using the NotMetro interface for months.  So why are you upset that it was integrated into Win8?

The nasty little secret here is that you probably are not all that upset or even upset at all!

I say that because having spent weeks investigating the issue, I have uncovered a startling fact: most of the people who are angry over the NotMetro UI in Win8 have not actually used it.  They have Windows 7 on their PCs and the anger that they are feeling is, largely, fomented by the doom-and-gloom coverage of the subject being created by journos all over the world spanning pretty much every type of news media, who have been assuring these angry users that (1) Win8 was created for tablet and touchscreen computing, and (2) it is difficult to use on a regular computer and makes the use of the UI with a mouse nearly impossible or at the very least, very painful.

Both of those allegations and claims are not true.

Considering that NotMetro was initially designed for and rolled out on platforms that do not (CAN not) make use of touchscreen interface technology, the idea that NotMetro is touch-centric is not just laughable, it is clearly a manufactured issue.  The fact that a large number of consumers not only buy into the claim but have allowed themselves to be manipulated into feeling anger or anxiety over the issue is more proof that the news media outlets need to improve their oversight and prevent that sort of manipulation than it is proof that there is a problem with the NotMetro UI or Win8.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, feels that the UI for Windows 8 would have benefited from more work and refinement, and feels that the way it behaves when it is applied to a multi-headed PC (a PC with more than one display) is problematic at best and annoying at worse...
Understand something -- I am not a Windows fanboy.  My record of holding Microsoft to task for the many mistakes that it has made in the past, my honesty in ripping apart Vista and recommending to my readers that they avoid that lump of trash at all costs is another example of how not-a-fanboy I am, but if you need a recent example of how I do not consider Microsoft always right, ask my about my opinion of Microsoft Internet Explorer some time -- or better yet, read the things that I have written about it.

I point all of that out to you because I feel the need to make it clear and to establish that I am not one of those journos who consider Microsoft right no matter what.  I am not a fan, and you need to know that because I am about to tell you that I think Win8 is a step in the right direction, that the NotMetro UI makes computing on a PC a better, easier, and more intuitive experience, and that the policy that has been demonstrated by Microsoft that it is willing to standardize the NotMetro UI and apply to their products across the board is probably the smartest thing that they have done in a long, long time.

Foresight is often not Forearmed

In my column on Win8 one of the points that I touched upon was the fact that Microsoft seemingly helped to create the issues that presently have consumers upset when it chose to use the newest tablet and touchscreen computers as the venue of choice at the special press briefings at which the company introduced the new OS to the news media.

While nobody at any of those events actually told the assembled writers, reporters, and journalists of every persuasion that Win8 was created for tablet or touchscreen computing, what they did say was that it was ideally suited for them.  And when you are addressing representatives of an industry that made its nut on reading between the lines, and can not only be expected to make broad and unsupported presumptions based upon related "evidence" but do so as a matter of course in their  day-to-day existence, well, what you had was a recipe for disaster sitting right in front of you, and NONE of the PR people saw it.

Let me explain that.

The connection between tablet and touchscreen computing and Windows 8 was present, though unintended, and despite the fact that the representatives hosting those events was aware that even the possibility of a tenuous connection between a specific and popular computer tech that happened to not be the dominate interface for most users and their client's new OS could have predictably disastrous consequences if the news media somehow got it in mind that the OS was being created for tablet and touchscreen computing...  

I am not doing a good job of explaining this...  Let me try again.

Windows 8 is a pretty girl who has been tied up with rope and placed upon the railroad tracks.  She is wearing a new colorful dress called NotMetro and it has useful pictures on it that, when she presses them take her right where she wants to go.  Too bad there is not a picture on her dress that shows her not on the railroad tracks because right now, at the special press breifings that are being held to introduce Windows 8 to the news media, that is certainly the one she would be pressing over and over again...

The huge -- monstrously huge -- train that is bearing down upon her is the physical representation of the risk that the assembled news media representatives (the very people for which this series of special briefings was arranged) could somehow (predictably) misunderstand that the reason that the new OS was being shown to them on tablet and touchscreen computers was not because it was made for them, but because on them the demonstration process for the new UI was particularly effective, and what we have is the perfect collection of circumstances to not only promote the wrong idea, but to ensure that that wrong idea is accepted as the new reality to the point that almost every one of the press present would return to their publication and pass on that wrong idea as the new reality.

The PR people should have seen that coming.  Alarm bells should have been ringing.  The Captain on the bridge of the Starship PR should have been screaming orders at the bridge crew: Shields Up!  Red Alert!  Hailing Frequency!

Instead they passed out refreshments and expounded upon how much cooler it was to be able to tap on the app you wanted and have it instantly available to you.  I can only imagine that the PR person in charge of organizing those events, those special briefings, now has perfect insight into the thoughts and the feelings that Captain Edward Smith, RD, RNR, as he stood on the bridge of RMS Titanic and asked the helmsman "Did you feel that?"

What the Windows 8 NotMetro UI Is Not

The RMS Titanic reference I made earlier has to do with the fact that the impression that has been formed in the public mind -- helped along by the incorrect assumptions that were made by the news media and its willingness to promote them -- and specifically relates to the fact that consumers who own PCs that lack a touchscreen interface and that are not tablet PCs are less likely to move up to Win8 for the simple reason that the news media has convinced them that Win8 was not made for their computer.  That is a problem.  That problem will have an impact on the sales of Win8.  That problem may very well cause software developers to stick with Windows 7 as their OS of choice as they create new games, software, and apps,

The reality is that the NotMetro UI was not created with a focus upon touchscreen computing.  It works very well using touchscreen computing, that is certainly true, but it was not created FOR that platform.

Not only was it created for computers that use the mouse and keyboard as their primary input source, it works very well for them and the intuitive interface makes using a PC less intimidating and easier for most users, which was the whole point of the new UI design I should probably point out.

The focus of today's post was to share all of that with you -- and now you know.

What the Windows 8 NotMetro UI Is

I have made it something of a point to chat with the people that I know who have made the switch to Windows 8, both to obtain their initial impressions and later, to see what they think once they have worked their way past the natural learning curve that is present in all new products that make significant changes over their previous versions.  The news that I am taking in is mostly positive.  Many of the users I am corresponding with had general misgivings that were based upon the negative publicity that the UI and OS had been receiving in the weeks leading up to its launch, but once they had the OS on their PCs or, like myself, started using the new PCs and Notebook Computers that they bought to replace old ones and that came with Win8 installed, their experience has been very different -- and better -- than what they were lead to expect.

The NotMetro UI basically approaches the PC with an eye towards presenting the user with easy access to the apps and programs that they use the most.  The idea being that the new Start Screen eventually populates its scalable icon collection in groups that make sense, containing the apps that you use, while the "Information Cubes" (groupings of icons that lead to apps and information sources, like news, collections of your friends on social media platforms and the like) begin to gather familiar and preferred apps and programs as well as information sources based upon what you, the user, have been accessing.

In simple terms as the OS learns what you want from it, it tries to serve those expectations better.  

When a company like Microsoft chooses to make a significant change to the interface for their product they do not do it with very little thought, but usually have a good reason for making the changes that they make.  Microsoft, I point out to you with only slightly tongue-in-cheek humor, is not Facebook.

Once you give NotMetro a chance I believe that you are going to be surprised at how much more convenient your Windows experience is. 

In the next post I am going to share with you now annoying it is to not be sure you actually closed an application you meant to close under NotMetro in Windows 8...