Technology journalists have lobbed darts at Microsoft for a long time. Given the company's sheer size and range of products, it is inevitable that the criticism is sometimes fair and sometimes unfair. One of the common critiques over the years has been that Microsoft lacks innovation. We don't look to it to innovate markets or for radical change even in its own products. Microsoft and legacy support go hand in hand. Its essential conservatism has served it well in the enterprise, where change is looked upon with more caution -- and where an eye is always kept on the bottom line.
But Microsoft has a surprise up its sleeve: Windows 8. After all these years, the old dog has proved it can do new tricks. Windows 8 is the sort of forward-looking gamble Microsoft is not known for making. With a radical change to the default interface and interaction model, Microsoft is betting that touchscreen devices are the predominant future, and that it can deliver an operating system that bridges the spectrum between the old (desktop/laptop) and the new (phone/tablet). Windows 8 is slated to be released this October, but the release-ready download is already available to qualified developers.
I have been spending quality time with Windows 8. The OS is fast and streamlined. It is colorful and employs elegant fonts. Its mobile-inspired DNA obviously draws heavily from both Microsoft's Metro interface for mobile phones and the Windows 7 we all know and, uh, love? On paper, the architecture behind Windows 8 makes logical sense. In practice, I hate it.
At a personal level, I find Windows 8 incredibly frustrating to use -- on a desktop computer. The platform feels like an unholy commingling of desktop and tablet computer, where in normal use I am jarringly tossed between these two very different metaphors. The default user experience in Windows 8 is biased toward the tablet context, so it is all large uniform tiles and live widgets. Yes, there is a legacy desktop buried beneath the shiny new interface, which combines the successful aspects of Windows 7 with the irritating Microsoft Ribbon menu system. In practice, it is unlikely that the desktop user will be able to live exclusively within the legacy desktop, so you wind up bouncing between desktop and tablet interfaces frequently.
But what really bothers me about the new UX in Windows 8 is that it represents a continued dumbing down of the computing experience. To put it bluntly, the Windows 8 Start Menu and its newly dubbed "Modern" UI could be called Fisher Price's My First Computer. Interface elements are simple to a fault -- giant fonts, uniform icons, and minimal visible elements. This trend of increasingly hiding messy complexity is just that -- a trend -- and Microsoft's embrace of it reeks of chasing Apple for the fashion-conscious consumer market. Apple turned its back on the enterprise long ago, and with Microsoft now nipping at its heels, I have to wonder if this company is starting down the same path.
All this matters because the success of IT in the enterprise is based on the premise that users are smart, not dumb. I know IT insiders will enjoy a laugh about this, but let's look at the reality. End users are more experienced than ever. This is not 1985. Every year, more people who grew up with computers from an early age enter the workforce. Soon most of the workforce will be made of digital natives. We joke about how the average 12-year-olds are more expert online than their parents. Computer users are, on the whole, becoming more sophisticated, so why are the platforms we use becoming dumber?
In Windows 8, many apps run (by default, at least) in full screen mode. By building Windows 8 so biased toward the limitations of touchscreen devices, it seems like Microsoft believes there is no future in full-grown computers -- machines with complex interaction models like keyboards, mice, and touchpads. In other words, Microsoft has designed Windows 8 for toys -- the needs of real business users be damned.