Microsoft is already screwing it up. Microsoft can’t win. Windows 8 is sunk. Seriously: to read the headlines this last week you’d think Microsoft wasn’t still one of the premier tech manufacturers in the world. While I would agree that it faces a number of challenges, both from Apple and its own OEM partners, Windows 8 will thud into the landscape with more a bang and much less than a whimper.
What we are witnessing, for better or worse, is the wholesale restructuring of the Windows paradigm. Just as Windows 95 changed the way we thought of computers (at least for those of us who focused primarily on PCs), Windows 8 will force us all to rethink what it means to run a Windows program and work within the paradigm set by this new interface. Most early users note that they feel like absolute novices when first using Win8 and that the change is too jarring. I’d wager, however, that the average user will simply take it in stride. Why? Because change, for at least most of the last decade, has been a near constant in the user experience game.
In truth, Microsoft can get away with his massive change for one simple reason: there is no such thing as an “old, familiar interface” anymore. Consider, for example, Windows 7 itself. Although the standard paradigm holds, there are plenty of odd, tacked on design elements that appear and disappear. When you run a game on a PC, Windows is all but gone, replaced by a full-screen experience of the designer’s choosing. Apps have their own design elements that aren’t related to Windows. Even OS X users now have full-screen interfaces for many popular apps. Dashboards pop up everywhere with clocks and widgets galore. In short, UIs are a hodgepodge in the first place. Users honestly won’t care if that hodgepodge appears in a set of colorful boxes on a screen or in a virtual machine running a 10-year-old shell.
This isn’t Microsoft BOB vs. Windows 98. This is a tweak. Our minds, I believe, have become so malleable to new interface techniques that they are considered beneficial tweaks and not offensive changes.
Consider the cognitive burden associated with iOS. After a short period of “You can’t multi-task!” the clear benefits of a single state interface became clear. As long as those interfaces were persistent i.e. you left mail, entered maps, and came back to the same screen you left mail, the perception of multi-tasking was maintained.
The same holds true of Windows 8. Those live tiles offer a bit of information – the tip of the iceberg, if you will – and a richer interaction underneath. Multi-tasking is more like multi-screen-tasking and the odd “dumps” back into Windows Vista will become less and less common as new apps appear. In short, we’re moving from a desktop environment to a more mobile one. Apple has tried to do this with LaunchPad (and they’ve consistently failed) but Microsoft is betting the farm on this new design.
What will happen? The early adopters will complain, OS X fans will gloat, and end users will begin experience Win8 on the new PCs they buy over the holiday. Average users will, in the end, find the Word and Excel icons and maybe run an alternative browser. All of the odd quirks – the “gems” that allow you to move back home and to share information with a click – will become more transparent and fade into the background. Windows, in short, will go back to being the leading desktop operating system and iOS may or may not follow suit with more unique interface paradigms.
Could I be wrong? Could my resigned optimism be misplaced here? Sure, but on the whole we have experienced so many shifts – from text interfaces on phones to rudimentary graphical UIs to the modern iOS and Android OSes we’re dealing with today – that UI is no longer static. Rather than looking at a monolithic whole – a great, dark rock called Windows – we are dealt a continuum of interface aspects that may or may not appeal to us immediately but will inevitably change as Microsoft’s user base changes. In short, Windows is now and will be henceforth always in beta. It may be a little jarring for the purists, but I doubt many users really care.