Monday, May 06, 2013

[Tech] Figuring 8

Figuring 8: My new laptop has Windows 8. The Windows 8 user interface is based on the Windows tablet interface. Tablets are for consumption and computer (laptops) are for production. My laptop is for writing and picture editing -- production. There is no easy way to do that without an attached mouse and keyboard and a big ol' external monitor. Reading emails and browsing the web and consuming music/books/videos are better done on a tablet. Microsoft's plan with Windows 8 was to closer sync up the user interface for computers with its excellent tile-based mobile interface. This is the interface I have on my phone and it really is nice -- much slicker and more usable than the rather haphazard conglomerations of icons on an iPhone or Android. But it is something of a shock to suddenly find it replacing your desktop. I'm not sure it works so well for production.

Now, before I turn into Bitchy McWhiner, I have to point out that you can still get your old desktop back -- it's just not the default and it's not immediately discoverable how to manage switching between the standard desktop and the tile interface. It's enough of a problem that in an upcoming patch, Microsoft is making some tweaks to clear things up and let you have the old desktop back by default.

It has not turned out to be a popular update. Why on earth did they make this change? Was it a just bonehead mistake? Do they fundamentally misunderstand their market? Well, let me confess, I have done this myself; in my day job I manage a software team, including design and implementation. On a couple of occasions I have been involved in throwing a new interface paradigm at the unsuspecting populace. So maybe I can explain.

Unsuspecting people will reasonably believe that there is no reason for software to ever change other than incrementally. If there is some functionality to add to product, just add it to the existing product, why do you need to re-make anything. The problem with that is that it pre-supposes your design specs to the programmers were something like "Here's what we want to do but please allow us to do anything else we may think of in the future." The business of allowing anything else in the future is a) impossible to do comprehensively (anything is, effectively, everything), b) prohibitively expensive to define and approach. Often the idea of "allowing" something and actually implementing it on speculation is pretty close to the same thing. So "allowing" such things means more code, more testing, more maintenance, more testing, more documentation, more testing, more time, more testing -- the project will spin out of control before you even have a prototype. It might be possible to build such software but no one could afford it.

So a piece of software, not surprisingly, becomes an exercise in compromise, targeting and prioritizing. You get a controlled architecture that provides enough value to sell and allows as much flexibility to add on as possible. If you do it right, it can go for quite a few years, but eventually changes in the market or technology will require you to provide something you can't feasibly support. The wise trade-offs you made in design become roadblocks. That's when you build the next gen product. The next-gen product is another exercise in compromise and often that means compromising old users' habits in the service of viability in the brave new world that caused you to re-write the damn thing to begin with.

In the case of Windows 8 -- and this is pure speculation -- Microsoft saw a receding and graying desktop market. Tablets, phones, and touch technology in general were taking over. At some point our user interface is going to have to be driven by the mobile market, not the keyboard and mouse users. So they bit the bullet and designed a tile-centric version of Windows. People freaked. They didn't know how to manage the tiles with mouse and keyboard. The famous "Start" button is gone so when they finally find their old desktop they can't figure out how to access an application that isn't on the desktop without it. There is a way, of course, I figured it out via stumbling about but I'm used to this sort of thing -- Mom and Pop aren't.

In fact, I bet that thanks to all the usability testing Microsoft does, once you know how to do everything and get the settings to match your desires, it's probably as easy, if not easier, to do what you want in Windows 8. But getting there is a big problem. So Microsoft responds (correctly) by adding a few tweaks to an update to ease the transition. It's the right move. This will mitigate criticism and still keep Windows on its course of mobile-first design.

Although I did struggle along with everyone else, I can't fault Microsoft for the re-make. It has to be done in this business. The problem I have with it is two-fold. 1) I don't see any obvious advantage to Windows 8 over Windows 7. I'm sure it's faster and more stable, but an interface upheaval was not needed for that. This may come in time though, if Microsoft is right in their interpretation of the future. 2) Relatedly, I am not sold on the One Paradigm to Rule Them All plan. This is really a philosophical point, but it seems to me that we tend to obsess a bit about making everything similar. As if we should have this one interface that can handle all sorts of different tasks and if we do it properly, we can write it once and reuse it in different circumstances and the big benefit is everyone will immediately have an easier time jumping from phone to laptop to kiosk to tablet to the dashboard display in your car. I think that's not going to work. The actions and workflows required for disparate tasks are in themselves disparate. Trying to wedge them all into a single interface paradigm is going to mean they will likely all be compromised in some way -- in many cases they will be compromised with complexity and bloat.

So where does that leave us? If you are thrust into Windows 8, don't panic -- it'll just take some time, you'll get there, and it will be easier after the upcoming tweak. On the other hand don't expect great improvements in your life either. The net result may just be a mild, but temporary annoyance.

Software aside, the hardware has been sweet. It is a Dell XPS13. Dell had been on my avoid list for years because my first Dell laptop had been such a disaster. In fact, my first laptop provided by work was also a Dell and it was not very good either. Both had serious problems with their power management. My second work laptop has been much better. Enough that I was willing to give Dell another try. My personal HP was on its last legs -- freaky power management, unreliable boot ups, constantly running hard disk and fan. Death was close.

So I bought the Dell from the Microsoft Signature Store where they take the time to remove all of the crapware you find taking up space and doing strange things on so many brands. It's got a 256 gig solid state drive which is totally sweet. Nearly instant on and off. Dead silent. No unexpected freak outs hooking up peripherals. Light as a feather. So far it's been well-nigh perfect. Highly recommended.