“Respect Explorer’s Heritage”

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When photos started circulating yesterday of the new interface for Windows Explorer in Windows 8, I was sure they were a joke. Surely, this was an Onion mock-up. Or maybe they were from some Apple fan making fun of Microsoft’s design aesthetic in which more is quite often… more. I mean, there’s no way that this is something Microsoft could actually release — let alone in 2012, right?

Wrong.

As Windows chief Steven Sinofsky and Windows management team member Alex Simons detail in length on the Building Windows 8 blog, these screenshots are very real. And not only that, the entire Windows team has clearly done exhaustive research and put extensive time into this feature. That’s exactly why they’re crowing on their blog. The entire post screams: “look how much homework we did!”

At the same time, there’s an undertone to the post: Microsoft is nervous. They’re posting these screenshots now so they can get feedback. To me, this suggests that while Microsoft is confident that they did their homework, they’re not actually confident in the product itself. Nor should they be, given the reaction.

While it should be no surprise that Apple diehards dislike the design of the new Windows Explorer, even plenty of Windows watchers are wary. But in my view, this is worse than your typical “Microsoft has no taste” critique. The design and user interface here is quite simply one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in any software — let alone something that is going to be used by hundreds of millions of users.

It’s not just that it’s extremely cluttered, uneven, and confusing (all of which it is), it’s that it shows that a massive part of Microsoft is heading in the wrong direction when in comes to the future of computing. It’s my belief that simplicity and elegance are increasingly going to win the day as computing continues to be interwoven into our everyday lives. This Windows Explorer disaster shows that Microsoft believes the opposite.

Maybe I’m wrong. Microsoft, after all, is one of the largest companies on the planet that makes billions of dollars in revenue each quarter. But I’ve been saying this stuff for the past several years. In that time, Apple, a company which exudes exactly what I’m talking about, has risen from the ashes to become the most valuable company on the planet — jumping far ahead of you-know-who.

Meanwhile, PC makers, Microsoft’s key partners in their fight for the future, are dropping like flies. HP, the number one PC maker in the world, is trying to sell off their PC business. Acer, the number two PC maker, just posted a quarterly loss for the first time ever.

But again, maybe I’m insane. Maybe I’m out of touch. So I ran a poll yesterday to see what a larger swath of the population thinks about this new Windows Explorer interface. After over 1,300 votes, the results are as follows:

  • 47% voted for “It’s awful”
  • 8% voted for “It’s great”
  • 19% voted for “It’s okay”
  • 26% voted for “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen”

That’s 73 percent which had a negative reaction to the feature.

Sure, I suppose you could argue that many of my Twitter followers are likely to be pro-Apple. But I put the poll on Google+ as well, a place decidedly un-friendly towards Apple. And just look at the reaction around the broader Internet. Maybe those vocal on the web have been brainwashed by Apple. Or maybe, just maybe, the design actually stinks.

This morning, an Apple malware blogger took exception to my side-by-side comparison of an iPad homescreen to the new Windows Explorer. Not fair!, he cried — before going on to compare the iPad homescreen to Windows 3.1. Of course, this reaction failed to address two things: 1) That the new Windows Explorer design sucks. 2) The point.

I’ll make it a little more clear for the Apple malware blogger: Apple’s vision of the future is iOS — and more broadly, simplicity and touch. Microsoft’s vision of the future is this Windows Explorer abomination.

Does Apple have their own file system manager? Yes, Finder in OS X. But Apple does not do blog posts touting it in 2011. In fact, they never talk about it. In the last few iterations of OS X, they’ve made it a goal to remove its usefulness for 99 percent of users. Instead, they’ve brought out Stacks and now Launchpad. And if you really need an individual file, why not use Spotlight?

And that’s OS X, Apple’s minority operating system now. In iOS, there is no file explorer — let alone one with 19 toolbar buttons. Why? Because in Apple’s view, the concept of a “file” is changing. The saving of them and the transferring of them is something that a user should never have to think about. That’s what iCloud is all about.

Maybe I’m overplaying Microsoft vision for Windows Explorer going forward, but if that’s true, than so is Microsoft’s own leadership.

“Windows Explorer is a foundation of the user experience of the Windows desktop,” Sinofsky writes. “Explorer is one of the most venerable parts of Windows,” Simons writes. “It’s a bit daunting but also pretty exciting to have the opportunity to revisit and rethink this cornerstone of our product,” he continues.

And both of these statements and the entire Building Windows 8 post itself points to the major problem Microsoft faces here. Twice in the post they use the phrase “Respect Explorer’s heritage”. Microsoft has become a baggage handler.

With each update, no matter how much they intend to change things, they always end up cramming in the baggage of operating systems’ past. This leads to a weird amalgamation that’s neither new nor old. And quite often, worse than both.

“Maintain the power and richness of Explorer and bring back the most relevant and requested features from the Windows XP era when the current architecture and security model of Windows permits.” — the post actually states that as a goal for this new Explorer. This also sounds like a joke. It’s not. Baggage. Baggage. Baggage. Feature creep. Clutter.

Apple famously abhors the idea of design-by-committee and focus groups. Microsoft clearly celebrates both.

They’re two different styles and ways of working, and that’s fine. Again, both companies are doing well right now. It’s just my belief that at some point in the not-too-distant future, Windows will collapse under the weight of this baggage. And I think this new Windows Explorer is the first clear sign of that.

Smartphones and tablets are quickly changing the landscape of computing. The work Microsoft has done with their Metro UI in Windows Phone shows that they’re capable of ditching the baggage and jumping on the train. But unlike Apple, they’re hedging their bet. They’re doubling down on complexity in Windows while playing up simplicity with Metro.

Apple is already making moves to unify their entire ecosystem for this future of computing. They’re re-imagining experiences from the ground-up and destroying old paradigms. If Windows Explorer in Windows 8 is any indication, Microsoft is not anywhere near being ready to do the same.

Sure, Microsoft may have a Metro skin ready for “Windows 8 tablets”, but it now appears it will be a superficial layer on top of heaps of baggage, not a fundamental re-thinking of computing. It will be Microsoft Bob 2.0.

But hey, I’m biased, right? My preference of Apple products over the past seven years clearly has nothing to do with an eye towards the future of computing — I’m just brainwashed. So are millions of others and millions more each year. We should be looking at these screenshots of Windows Explorer in Windows 8 and seeing the future. We should be looking at the iPad and seeing Windows 3.1.