June 14, 2011

Windows 8 - The Next Windows, What Do We Think?

We all watched the videos out there about Windows 8 and here. Microsoft really put on a good show. We have to make up our minds with the information that we have and with what they decided to show. It looks good and our first reaction is this feels in many ways like a giant Windows phone. Well the last time we had that thought it turned out pretty well for that little loved iPad device!

What was Microsoft really trying to do by showing their product so early? It could be many things:
  • Preempting announcements from Apple WWDC the week after;
  • Helping enterprise customers wait with WebOS and Blackberry PlayBook poised to make a run at their business;
  • Floating concepts out there to see what the interweb has to say.
It could be all of the above but who cares - we're going to tell you what we think anyway; this is our job!

I discussed Windows 8 with Scott Plewes, our VP of UX and our interaction design guru. Here is what he had to say:

Fred: What do you think of Windows 8?

Scott: It's a giant Windows Phone 7 (laughter).

Fred: I had the same initial reaction.

Scott: No seriously - the big trend here is we're pushing more into gesture based UI. Windows 8 wants you to interact with things directly.

Fred: Innovation from the mobile is finding its way back into the desktop.

Scott: Exactly. The big breakthrough of the smartphone/tablet is how much more natural the interaction is. We manipulate real objects with our hands, so why not "soft" objects. Now it is rebounding backwards from the smartphone and tablet to the desktop. Why not put gesture on the computer and just use the mouse and keyboard when you have to.

Fred: So it's like endorsing HP Touchsmart.

Scott: Yeah, HP Touchsmart was a great success and a great innovation on HP's part when gesture was just getting off the ground. I think Windows 8 is pushing into new areas though with the way one launches apps and the notifications. It's the desktop being more like the phone. It's also saying something indirectly. The smartphone is now a central part of the computing universe for most people. The desktop is still important and will be used more selectively for tasks, rather than being the be all and end all of the computing world; might as well make it work like the phone to make it more natural and consistent for people to interact with every type of device.

Fred: What about backward compatibility?

Scott: In terms of interaction, with Windows 8 Microsoft is saying point and click is not the future. At the same time, Microsoft has a huge legacy in point and click and believes strongly in backward compatibility - think of Windows 3.1 backward compatibility to DOS. Windows 8 is about navigating both realities. Gesture UI is here now and is key moving forward AND point and click is key for specific use cases where gesture doesn't apply i.e. high end precision and backward compatibility.

Fred: So enterprise customers will find their fix in Windows 8 for legacy applications and the future model of interaction.

Scott: It looks that way. Of course, one thing that is not clear in the demo - and you could never get just from watching a demo anyways - is how challenging it will be to transition between the different ways of interacting with the device.

Fred: Why would that be a challenge? You have certain types of applications and activities that are mouse/keyboard based and other ones that are gesture based. Wouldn't that be the case?

Scott: Good insight. And I think that's what they are likely constructing it around. However, users don't do activities based on how we construct software, but rather on how they need to move in and out of certain tasks. If it's awkward to jump back and forth between gesture and mouse/keyboard and/or the user has to do it a lot, it could become a real challenge. Even deciding how to partition different activities is tough. Something might be more suited to gesture, but you may not want to do it because it forces too much switching between gesture and mouse. If they've solved this, of course, no one will even notice it was a challenge. But I bet they've put quite a bit of effort into working on it.

Windows 8 is a pretty good and very clean demo right now. We are looking forward to getting our hands on the real thing. We will be sure to tell you more about what we find then! Stay tuned for September time frame when developer's preview should be available.

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