Windows 8.1…really?

So, a couple of days after the developers who attended Microsoft’s “Build” 2013 conference, and the various tech journalists and bloggers who took advantage of Microsoft’s “preview” offer, I have downloaded and installed the preview.  I am afraid that my response is the refrain from that old song…”is that all there is?”

This is not a fair response to what is in its entirety, a very good effort by Microsoft to address concerns in the marketplace for its products, while at the same time attempting to maintain a vision upon which its future almost entirely depends: the integration of a common user experience across all Windows devices: phone, tablet, laptop, desktop.  There has never been an effort undertaken by any company in history comparable to what Microsoft is working on today.  And let me take the opportunity now to congratulate Microsoft for firing the acrobatic hipsters that have been advertising its surface tablet in favor of TV advertising that actually does a good job of articulating their vision, and selling some of the sizzle of it.

So now that I have been fair to Microsoft, I need to say why I feel so blasé about this release.  For context, when I started my career in Information Technology, the personal computer was used by a fraction of the population.  These were geeks and nerds who felt they could get an edge by using a personal computer instead of a calculator, a typewriter, and possibly a little timeshare access at the local university.  The transition in user interface for Microsoft (and Apple) customers at that time, (1984 to 1992), was from a blank, black or green screen with a single line of three or more monochrome text characters followed by a blinking cursor, to a screen with rectangular windows, icons and a mouse pointer.  In the former, we were invited to type something on the keyboard.  In the latter we were invited to “click”, which we rapidly learned to do.

Some very prominent journalists at the time opined that the mouse was a fad, and that the “GUI” (for Graphical User Interface) would die out in favor of our old and utilitarian command prompt.  For some really delightful and informed perspective, I recommend Neal Stephenson’s “In the Beginning was the Command Line”, which can be downloaded here:

So after watching the windowed interface, both Macintosh and Windows, overwhelm the civilized world in the space of a half-decade, it is with some disbelief that I witness the rejection of Windows 8 on the basis of “too jarring a change in user interface design”.  I am not quoting anyone in particular, however I believe that I am quoting the opinion of just about every journalist and blogger who has attempted to explain this phenomenon. 

There have been reports of machinations within Microsoft over the degree to which “helpers” and tutorials should have been asserted or withheld in the new operating system, some believing that too many tutorial links would scare people off, and too many options similar to the older Windows versions would stifle the adoption of the new “Modern UI” (or Modern User Interface) that Microsoft proposes for all Windows apps on every platform.  Ironically, when they succeed, there will be no “windows” in Windows!

Truly, most of us that make this transition regularly, upgrading to every new version of Windows every time it is released for the various reasons that we have, adopt a mode of using the new operating system that most allows us to work in the way we are familiar with.  In this way, Windows 8 was very, very new indeed.  I had the choice to use my desktop Outlook program, or my Windows 8 store Windows mail program.  I could install my desktop Skype app, or use the Windows 8 store version of Skype.  Most jarring was the browser choice.  The two most popular browsers available on Windows 8, Chrome and Internet Explorer, both run in a desktop mode, or a Modern UI mode, which in the case of Internet Explorer turns the user experience of the browser literally upside down.

So, within a week of loading up Windows 8 this winter, I made some choices.  The desktop software was richer and more stable.  The Windows 8 Modern UI app store was a little sparse, and many of the programs that I already was using on the desktop were not as mature and full featured in the Modern UI.  This was easy: figure out how to get to the desktop, and then work in that environment as much as possible.  Having made these choices, Windows 8 became splendid!  It is faster, more stable, and has features that really advance the Windows platform.

The “Start screen” simply became an alternative to the “Start menu”, and again, within about two days’ time, I had figured out how to get to everything that I used to get to in the Start menu.  Oh, and by the way, THE START SCREEN IS MUCH, MUCH BETTER THAN A START MENU!!!!

Coming back to Windows 8.1, if you take away all of the enhancements to the Microsoft Store, the extensions to Windows Search, and internal improvements to the operating system, the big change in Windows 8.1 is a little windows icon in the lower left-hand corner to give you a queue as to where the start screen is, a better organized start screen that more quickly allows you to browse every app and setting on the system, and the ability to boot to desktop. 

So, I am underwhelmed.  But my dissatisfaction with this release has more to do with a deeper ennui about what this is saying about Microsoft’s position in the world now, 29 years hence the GUI.  We have Windows 8.1 now largely because of a reported double digit sag in PC sales year over year in the first quarter of 2013.  Windows 8 took the blame for that, and Microsoft was forced to respond.  But if we are really so lazy as to not google a couple of pages for the ubiquitous YouTube videos that explain everything you need to know about running Windows 8, can it really be the absence of an icon and a few features that will make the difference?  Isn’t it true that PC sales are simply being swamped under an avalanche of iPads and Android tablets and phablets and schmablets?

I am delighted with Windows 8, and I am equally delighted with Windows 8.1.  These have provided me with entertainment while I go about my work, and they have improved the overall experience as well as the product that I produce.  That being said, I am stubbornly sticking to the desktop and I remain well on the sidelines with respect to the Windows 8 vision of a unified experience.  I carry an iPhone, and I use a Nexus 7 tablet in the house.  That may make me Microsoft’s worst nightmare.