Blurring of the Lines

Jakob Nielsen has published a damning usability review of Windows 8. The key problems he highlighted were:

Nielsen concludes that Microsoft’s new operating system is terrible for PCs and weak for tablets, adding that the OS can be greatly improved on the tablet side with a few mild updates:

I have great hopes for Windows 9 on mobile and tablets. Just as Windows 7 was “Vista Done Right,” it’s quite likely that the touchscreen version of Windows 9 will be “Metro Done Right.”

As to the PC side, Nielsen is less optimistic:

The situation is much worse on regular PCs, particularly for knowledge workers doing productivity tasks in the office. This used to be Microsoft’s core audience, and it has now thrown the old customer base under the bus by designing an operating system that removes a powerful PC’s benefits in order to work better on smaller devices.

A year ago I wrote a post on the merging of the two interfaces, Aero and Metro, and have concluded that it’s a mistake to try and push both the mobile and the desktop experiences together into one. Each interface was designed specifically for its own environment where it worked best, so it never made sense to ship both together. Apple’s strategy of maintaining two operating systems side by side, iOS on the mobile, and OS X on the desktop, has so far worked exceptionally well for them, so that path was definitely not a risky one to take for a company like Microsoft, especially having seen their competitor pave the way.

Why did they still do it? Why did they decide to combine the world of mobile and desktop into a unified experience? My guess is that the answer lies in the way Microsoft sees the future of mobile computing. Instead of seeing tablets and laptops as separate categories, they see them as one, as an ever flowing progression towards thinner, lighter and more mobile devices. Just as the laptop has overtaken the desktop in sales, they see the tablet overtaking the laptop. The device gains a touch screen, becomes thinner and lighter, drops the dedicated hardware keyboard. Viewed this way, the tablet is an evolution of a computing device, not a new category of mobile devices.

If this is the view of the market that Microsoft subscribe to, then Windows 8 is the answer to that. It’s a system that caters to that ever more mobile device that is neither tablet nor laptop, and yet both at once. It’s an OS that assumes that most computing will be done on devices that resemble powerful tablets with detachable keyboards, not on the laptops and the desktops of today. It’s an OS that tries to serve everyone at once, to cover all use cases and all markets. It blurs the lines between content consumption and creation, between mobile and desktop.

But this only holds if the original premise is correct, that the tablet is the evolution of the laptop, and I just don’t think that’s right. Where the division lies is not a the desktop and the mobile level, or between the laptop and the tablet, but between professional use (i.e. content creation), and light/entertainment use (i.e content consumption). While tablets are not necessarily used purely for content consumption, their limitations (small screen size and lack of a hardware keyboard) mean that this will always be their main use.

The PC does not die just because there are more mobile devices on the market, it remains to play its own role. There is a clear line between devices you use for things like writing, coding, photo editing, 3D design, and so on, and devices you use for reading, browsing the web, watching videos and playing games. While the latter can be done on both, the tablet and the PC, the former will always require a PC, and because of this, there will always be a need for an operating system tailored specifically for it.

The road to a good OS is not a blurring of the lines between PCs and tablets, but rather an amplification of the differences through a strong focus on the uses that each category serves. The desktop OS should make use of large screen real estate and the precise targeting of the mouse cursor. The mobile OS should be optimized for the small screen and for the rough tap of the finger. The desktop OS should focus on power users and multi-tasking, the mobile OS should focus on content consumption. They environments they run on are different, the use cases are different, and the solutions should be different.

It doesn’t make any sense to port a user interface optimized for mobile touch devices to the desktop, and neither does it make sense to give tablet users the desktop interface. Each was custom built for its own environment, and each is optimized to be operated by different methods. In their compromise, what Microsoft are doing now is giving a tablet to people who want to buy a PC, and giving a PC to people who want to buy a tablet. Since there is no hybrid device that works great for everything, there is no point in compromising the experience by designing a hybrid UI.

  1. Otherwise known as “Modern UI”, but I’ll just call it by the name everyone knows it as here.