This is the third article in the Windows 8.x: Cutting Through the Noise series.
When the Developer Preview for Windows 8 was released, it was trying to accomplish a lot of things that Microsoft had been working towards in one radical step. Because it was so different, it is often a temptation of bloggers and (part of what we are seeing lately) consumers to react to what they like and don’t like with no sense of context among the competition. As someone who uses or used multiple operating systems including previous versions of Windows, I think that by looking at other operating systems we can gain some context for some of Microsoft’s choices for Windows 8. Usually bloggers start comparing Windows 8 to earlier versions of itself. However since Microsoft was trying to do something new, I think we should also compare it to what we see on two other major players at the time, Ubuntu 11.10 and OS X Lion.
Let’s start by setting the stage. When the Developer Preview was released in September 2011, OS X Lion had been released almost a year earlier in October 2010, and the current version of Ubuntu was 11.10 (11.04 was release about 6 months earlier). Windows 8 was attempting to be an operating system that required no compromise, working equally well on touch based devices and for keyboard/mouse users.
OS X Lion is the version where Apple débuted their Launchpad app as the launcher for OS X. Launchpad sits on the Dock, and when you click on it, you get a full screen filled with applications you have installed. If there are too many for one screen, you can click and swipe, or scroll over, and access more apps on other pages (it is essentially the experience you have for the iPad, just for computers.) Having something like the Magic Mouse or track pad can make it’s use a little less cumbersome, but if you don’t use a keyboard to search for your specific app (in Launchpad, all you have to do is type for the program you are looking for) then your mouse may have to do some traveling to select what you want.
About six months before Win8 DP, Ubuntu 11.04 was released and that is the version where the newly default interface was Unity. In Unity to access your apps you click on the Ubuntu icon from it’s “taskbar” and this brings up a menu that is either full screen, or if you choose to have it smaller, it fills most of the screen. It shows the apps you have access to, and since it is a full screen interface, usually you need to scroll to see them all. Again, in this interface, if you don’t use the keyboard to type the program you are looking for, then your mouse may have to do some traveling to select what you want.
In Windows 8, Microsoft made a new Start Screen as the application launcher. While in the Start Screen, you have full screen interface that shows your favorite pinned apps that you have installed with access to all of your apps, and for keyboard/mouse users if you don’t type the program you are looking for and hit enter then your mouse may have to do some traveling.
Interestingly however, even though the start screen was on par with what users experience elsewhere, there was a lot of backlash, so much so that this is probably the primary thing that critics complain about for Windows 8. Even though similar systems were in place as the go to app launcher for Keyboard/Mouse users on OS X and Ubuntu, some Windows users decried it as something intended for touch devices, and demanded a start menu like older versions of Windows had. I am not saying this was bad, or not understandable, but I can definitely see where Microsoft was coming from here.
This is an example of something we are seeing more of lately. Microsoft is making a lot of improvements to how it is doing things, their customers have been demanding more change, and more parallels to the rest of the marketplace, and it looks like they are responding well to try to give users what they want. Yet sometimes when Microsoft integrates features that are popular elsewhere there is backlash. The Start Screen was one example, another is the Xbox One. For a time, Microsoft was going to make the Xbox One like the hugely popular Steam where all of your games were online and tied to your account. However gamers who use Xbox, many of whom probably also use Steam if they do PC computing, were not ready for this change, and due to backlash, Microsoft discontinued that strategy.
There are some other changes that took place in Windows 8 that were significant and could use a little context. We will look into that more in the next post, as well as look into the future of Windows across a range of devices.