The Problem with Multitasking on Windows 8

Monday, 10 March 2014

Paul Thurrott on Windows 8.1:

It doesn't do a thing to address the fact that Windows isn't a single OS. It's two of them, mobile and desktop, fused together unnaturally like a Frankenstein's monster.

More specifically, it didn't do anything to improve multitasking. This is my biggest problem with the Surface Pro 2. 

In Windows 8, if you click on the upper-left hot corner, you can switch between apps but there's a caveat. It only switches between the Desktop and a Metro app, or between Metro apps - it can't be used to switch between Desktop apps. That's because the Desktop only occupies a single slot in the Metro App Switcher irrespective of the number of Desktop apps open. 

For example, when I'm making changes to mtrostyle.net, I usually have three Desktop apps open: Chrome, Sublime Text and FileZilla. 


Desktop Taskbar

When I open the Metro App Switcher, the only apps I can jump to are Metro apps.


Metro App Switcher inside Desktop and outside Metro

And when I switch to a Metro app (or go back to Start) and re-open the App Switcher, there's only a Desktop app visible. This is fine as long as the Desktop app I wish to change to is its currently active window i.e. Chrome in my example. But if it's not, then things are unnecessarily convoluted.


Metro App Switcher inside Metro and outside Desktop

If I wanted to change to Sublime Text, for example, I'd first need to click on the Desktop from the Metro App Switcher and then click on Sublime Text from the Desktop's Taskbar. Needing to transit in the Desktop before reaching my intended destination is neither fast nor fluid. It should however be noted that this isn't the case if I used alt + tab as this lists each Desktop app (and window) open, thereby allowing me to jump to Sublime Text from Metro even though it's not the active window on the Desktop. 


alt + tab inside Metro or Desktop

I'm assuming this inconsistency exists to appease Windows 8 power users. Not modernising a legacy multitasking aid makes sense, but the rationale behind the Metro App Switcher's app discrimination policy is less clear. It could be because its vertical single column layout doesn't accommodate many apps (six on a Surface Pro) and grouping Desktop apps together meant more Metro apps can be switched to. If yes, then this self-imposed space constraint has resulted in a design that inadvertently de-emphasises the Desktop.


Metro App Switcher at full capacity on a Surface

Alternatively, the Desktop's de-emphasis may have been intentional. That is, the Desktop has been relegated to a secondary citizen within the context of the Metro App Switcher on conceptual grounds. Other moves, such as the absence of a boot-to-Desktop option when Windows 8 was released, makes this plausible. Or it could be for another entirely different reason that I've not thought of. What cannot however be speculated is the serious effect this move has on using Windows 8 every day. 

When I'm multitasking in Windows 8, my intentions are never to switch between a Metro app and the Desktop but between apps in general. Microsoft needs to recognise this. I don't think of Sublime Text as a Desktop app and Tweetium as a Metro app. I think of them as apps. One a text editor and the other a Twitter client. What environment they live in is not a detail that I'm concerned with. I should be able to move freely between them unconditionally. I'm only reminded that I can't after I make a mistake; something that shouldn't really matter turns into something I must be attentive towards.

For example, when I'm working in Visual Studio, I'll instinctively have Chrome on the Desktop parked at Stackoverflow; not a coding session goes by where I don't click on the upper-left corner to switch to Chrome. I consistently feel stupid when I do, but then quickly become frustrated because I need to go through all open Metro apps before the Metro App Switcher returns me to the Desktop. And then I feel stupid again because I accidentally click past the Desktop and need to go through the process again but this time more carefully. This could be avoided if I depended entirely on the Taskbar and/or alt+tab to multitask within the Desktop, but I find clicking on the upper-left hot corner a more convenient way to switch to an app due to Fitts' Law. And because it does switch me to the correct app enough of the time (i.e. when wanting to switch to a Metro app or to the Desktop's currently active window), using it becomes a reflex whenever I want to switch to any app. 

I however accept that it would be odd to use the upper-left hot corner to switch to a non-full-screen Desktop app. Even OSX's multitasking app queue doesn't accommodate this behaviour: its Desktop is considered a full-screen app and any non-full-screen app can't be swiped to using the Mac's four finger swipe gesture. That's however where the similarities end. The Dock, unlike the Taskbar, is accessible when you're in a fullscreen app. This means you can jump to any app from any app.1



Rdio in fullscreen mode on Mavericks


Dock still there if/when needed

Furthermore, an OSX app in full-screen occupies a separate slot to the Desktop within OSX's multitasking app queue, unlike a full-screen Windows 8 Desktop app, such as Internet Explorer; the ability to swipe between full-screen Desktop apps in OSX is behaviour reserved only for Metro apps in Windows 8. What exacerbates matters is that when a Desktop app is in full-screen mode you actually can't access the Metro App Switcher nor Taskbar; you need to exit its full-screen mode first. 


Internet Explorer on the Desktop in full-screen mode looks a lot like its Metro equivalent but there are fundamental differences


Most notably when you move your cursor to the upper-left hot corner, the Metro App Switcher doesn't appear - the App Bar does instead


Multitasking on my MacBook Pro is unquestionably easier than my Surface Pro with Type Cover 2. And that's not because Windows 8 is a Frankenstein OS, but because Metro and the Desktop have been sellotaped together; the two need to be bound with glue. Making the Desktop look and feel more like Metro and less like Windows 7 is an obvious starting point. But visual consistencies such as a shared Desktop and Start screen background doesn't make Windows 8 any easier to interact with i.e. multitask. Here are a few changes that may:

  1. Standardise full-screen mode support in Desktop apps. At the moment, this feature is left to developers to implement. Some do, others don't. That's fine, but using a non-standardised toggle isn't. For example, although F11 causes both Internet Explorer or Sublime Text to enter full-screen mode, the non-keyboard shortcut toggle is buried within different titled menus in each app: "File" in Internet Explorer and "View" in Sublime Text.



    Full-screen menu option in Internet Explorer is found inside Settings -> "File"


    Full-screen menu option in Sublime Text, on the other hand, not in "File" but "View"

    Not only does F11 not work in Word 2013, I embarrassingly needed to refer back to this to remind myself where the toggle is located. Moreover,  I was also reminded Word 2013 has in fact a pseudo full-screen mode: the Taskbar is visible and the Metro App Switcher also accessible. These type of inconsistencies are expected when the implementation of full-screen mode support within Desktop apps has not been standardised.

    OSX, on the other hand, elegantly surfaces this feature on an OS level. 

  2. Make the Metro App Switcher available inside full-screen Desktop apps.

  3. Likewise with the Taskbar.

  4. Allow swiping between full-screen Desktop apps like you can with Metro apps.


Ironically, my multitasking Windows 8 gripes would be softened if Metro apps were not useable with non-touch input i.e. I never venture out of the Desktop as if it's still 1995. But they are, I do and it isn't. What apps I use is input-agnostic when I'm using the Surface Pro as a laptop.3 For example, I use Tweetium all the time and not only when I'm using the Surface Pro 2 as a tablet, even though MetroTwit is an excellent Desktop client that's perhaps more optimised for Type Cover use. But despite Metro apps' increasing viability as Desktop app substitutes, I expect to continue using Desktop apps alongside them for the foreseeable future.4 Future Windows updates need to acknowledge this reality and ignore the fantasy that the Desktop will be going away any time soon. From what I've read of Windows 8.1 Update 1, Microsoft seem to get this. But they need to move faster. The bulk of the changes necessary to make Windows a more cohesive OS are incremental improvements that don't need to wait till Windows 9/next year.

1. Windows 8.1 Update 1 partially addresses this by showing the Taskbar inside Metro apps when the cursor is moved to the screen's footer, similar to how the Dock in OSX is activated. However, I doubt that this is also now possible inside a full-screen Desktop app; I'll confirm when the update has been released.

2. Inversely, multitasking on my Surface Pro without a Type Cover is unquestionably easier than on my iPad.

3. Although I never hesitate to use a Metro app with my Type Cover, I mostly avoid using the Desktop when I'm using the Surface Pro as a tablet. I only do when I absolutely have to; that's usually either changing a setting only accessible via the Control Panel or when troubleshooting a technical problem such as network connectivity. Windows 8.1's expanded Metro PC Settings has made both more manageable inside of Metro, but Desktop dependency can still be reduced significantly further.

4. Some professional apps may always need an app optimised for keyboard and mouse when precision is a necessity; in these exceptional cases, touch support would primarily be catered to in a separate app that may not be as feature-rich but still functional enough for most tasks.


Running Two Apps Side-by-Side is Surface's Hook

Saturday, 8 March 2014

There are switching costs when you try to try to perform two tasks simultaneously. This has been scientifically proven. But Snap on a Surface isn't really designed to help you shift between goals i.e. tasks 1. From my experience, it does the complete opposite. Its implementation is elegant with sensible restrictions to keep things simple. If it's not a second screen, then it's there to support whatever I'm doing. This feature could have been designed in California. 

You may actually never invoke Snap explicitly but still use it regularly. For example, the feature reveals itself organically whenever I click on a link from NextGen Reader, Tweetium or Mail. When I do snap an app explicitly, it's usually either as a reference point for something I'm working on or to provide a second screen experience without an actual second screen. This could be a blog post that I'm referencing like here, or keeping an eye on Twitter or a live stream video while doing other work. 


Anyone who continues to defend the iPad for not allowing you to have more than one app open at a time and who insist it's a productivity booster because it means your focus is undivided must have never completed a task on their PC that required context to assist the task's completion. Or never used a Surface/Windows 8. Or is an Apple apologist. You pick. 

1. Snap on a screen that supports three or more windows is designed to enable you to work in Metro more like you would traditionally in the Desktop i.e. have multiple windows open for two or more concurrent tasks. The unshackling of Snap in this environment fundamentally alters its purpose and is a true multitasking enabler. This may make sense on a 27" monitor but not on a 10.6" Surface.


More Thoughts on the Surface Pro 2

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

I was 22,500 feet in the air on a seven hour flight. The original plan was to use the time to do some light reading. But when I read this, I felt the urge to write. And so, moments later, I changed my tablet for a laptop.  And I didn't even need to move from my seat. 


A great tablet can't be a great laptop. And a great laptop can't be a great tablet. That's what the popular consensus seems to be. I was never convinced by this theory before buying a Surface Pro 2, and especially not after - the last two months have only reaffirmed my position. 

Let me be clear. If you're looking for one device that is both a great tablet and great laptop, the Surface Pro 2 is not that device. But I've used the Surface Pro 2 plenty as both a tablet and laptop to know that an utopian hybrid is inevitable. It won't necessarily be built by Microsoft, but this device is coming.

I don't want a Kindle to read books on my way to work. I don't want a MacBook to write a blog post with. I don't want an iPad to watch videos in bed. I hate having so many devices in my life 1. And just because no device exists today that can be all without compromise doesn't mean the concept is not worth pursuing. 

There were smartphones before the iPhone. And tablets before the iPad. Their failure to gain market traction was not because people were not ready for touch input but because they were executed misguidedly. Similarly, the problem with the Surface and Windows 8 is not conceptual. The problem is in its execution

1. The iPad Air is more suitable for certain tasks than the iPad Mini and vice-versa. If you don't mind owning more than one device as long as each is the best at something, then why not buy both an Air and Mini?


Four Hours

Monday, 17 February 2014

That's approximately how long my Surface Pro 2 lasted before it needed a charge today. This on full brightness running only Visual Studio. Although my expectations were not high when it came to the Pro 2's battery life, even after Microsoft claimed it had improved it by 75%, I've still been very disappointed. Much work still clearly needs to be accomplished before the Surface Pro can be considered truly mobile. 


Surface Pro 2 in One Word (And Then in a Few More)

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Versatile. 

What I wasn't expecting is how much I've used it as a tablet. It does feel slightly heavier than my girlfriend's iPad 4, and that's not great because I find the iPad 4 too heavy to use. I realise this is no longer an issue with the iPad Air, but do you know what is even more comfortable than using a tablet with one hand? Using none. Most (if not all) Surface Pro 2 reviews I've read seem to think the kickstand solely exists to accommodate laptop usage with a failure to recognise how this feature enables it to be used legitimately as a tablet. It's made using the device in bed or on the sofa incredibly convenient. Much more so than the iPad 4 from my experience. 


The Surface Pro 2's guts (battery life and weight) may be more PC than post-PC 1. But, without wanting to trivialise the engineering required to better both, this is relatively low hanging fruit that will inevitably be addressed, if not with the Surface Pro 3 then most certainly with the second-to-next iteration. Until that day, one thing is for certain - this is a Surface I won't be selling.

1. Having said that, it's been very silent, screaming fast and not got warm hitherto i.e. the performance of a PC without some (but not yet all) of its drawbacks.


Track 2

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

This suggests I'm on the way to accomplishing what I'd set out to do a year ago. It may be clichéd, but being recognised for my work by one of my peers is incredibly flattering and hugely motivating. Matt, I won't let you or any of your smart readers down. 

Fortunately, with a Surface Pro 2 and my first Windows Phone app on the way, I'll have plenty more to write about this year. 

Thank you for reading. 


When the Windows Phone Back Button Doesn't Work

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Going up an app's hierarchy on Windows Phone can be inconsistent and sometimes impossible because of a dependency on a hardware back button. I'm regularly reminded of this when I'm listening to music and want to change to another song. Let's begin at the start.

I've no apps running. 



I go to the Start screen and tap on Xbox Music's tile.



I tap on the top left tile in Xbox Music to start playing a song.



I'm now listening to Apparat's Goodbye.



I go back to the Start screen by tapping on the phone's Start button.



Imaginary time passes. Time to change song. I press my phone's volume rocker to get the playback controls to slide down, and tap on the song title.



This is when things start to get confusing. I tap on the back button to check the other songs on the album. 



When I do, I'm not presented with the album's tracklist, but I'm instead taken back to Start.1



Confused, I tap on the back button again. I'm now taken to Xbox Music. More confused.


I tap on the back button again but this time more in hope than expectation. I'm returned to the Start screen once more.



Tapping on the back button now doesn't take me anywhere. At this point, I decide to change my strategy: try again but this time without the back button. I slide down the playback controls and tap on the song title.



Back here. I tap on the artist/album title this time.



I'm presented with Apparat's discography. I've jumped two levels up in the app's navigation hierarchy. I wasn't expecting that. 



If I tap on the album title, I'll see the album's tracklist. But if I want to browse other artists, I can't. There isn't a way up Xbox Music's navigation hierarchy from here. I'll need to go back to Start and start Xbox Music anew.2 This wouldn't happen on an iPhone because its apps are not designed to have any external dependencies. That is, irrespective of where in an iPhone app I am, I could reliably move backwards because their navigation is solely internal. 


When Windows Phone 7 launched, the hardware search button worked contextually. When tapped, it would present either an in-app search or Bing web search depending on the app you were on. In Windows Phone 7.5 to avoid any confusion, this was changed so that it consistently sent you to Bing.3 As a result, developers had to present search as an option accessible from within their apps. What motivated this change can also be used to justify dropping the back button Windows Phone hardware requirement. If the back button doesn't always work, then it doesn't work. Total reliability should never be compromised for occasional convenience. At least one Windows Phone 8 app ironically developed by Microsoft themselves already acknowledges this.

Hopefully the rest of the platform will soon follow.

1. According to Microsoft's Peter Torr, this is correct behaviour. That is, "back means back" and must always return you to the previous page. This can be practical when multitasking but hinders in-app navigation.

2. This was one example. There are many others that I encounter regularly. Ironically, they're usually experienced when I interact with of one my favourite Windows Phone differentiators: secondary tiles on my Start screen that are deep links to apps. An app when entered from this context usually has restricted navigation. For example, when I tap on my weather app's pinned London weather secondary tile, I will need to return to the Start screen and tap on my weather app's primary tile if I decide I want to check the weather of another city as well.

3. I know some people didn't like this decision. However, I don't think their problem was how Microsoft made the search button behave consistently, but rather how Microsoft chose to prioritise Bing search.


The Problem with Launching Metro Apps from the Desktop

Monday, 7 October 2013

When a file is opened from the Windows 8 Desktop and is launched in a Metro app, the Start screen becomes sandwiched between the two. This only becomes apparent when the Metro app is closed by holding the top of the app and dragging it to the bottom of the screen1. Instead of being returned to the Desktop, you're unexpectedly diverted to the Start screen.

A constant and unnecessary reminder that you are switching between two different environments. What's worrying is that even though this behaviour can be corrected easily, Windows 8.1 doesn't address it.

1. I know you don't need to close Metro apps, but I'm still used to closing apps that I've finished using. Furthermore, although keeping a Metro app open in the background may not affect performance, the app when no longer needed can unnecessarily clutter the app or task switcher lists.


On Not Being Around Recently

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

I've been busy preparing this. If you live in Europe 1, please sign up. The recently completed pilot was strangely addictive, and even if you don't win, the experience will be educational.

1. Time difference unfortunately means it's impractical for non-European based readers to participate.


On Why the Windows 8 Launch Didn't Touch Users

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Steve Ballmer at the Build 2013 Day 1 Keynote:

When we brought out Windows 8, we talked about touch, touch, touch, touch, touch, touch, touch, touch and more touch. When you went into the stores last Christmas to look for a Windows 8 machine, most of them didn't have touch.

He didn't look very happy. Furthermore, most, if not all, people who've upgraded their machines to Windows 8 have done so on a machine not optimised for it either 1. Microsoft encouraged these users to upgrade early by giving them a financial incentive to do so. This may have accelerated the number of existing Windows users who moved over to Windows 8, but there was a concession made. These users' first impression of Windows 8 wouldn't be on the stage that Microsoft would've preferred them to initially experience it from. 

I'm not suggesting Microsoft shouldn't have allowed the ability to upgrade on non-touch devices, but that making it inexpensive to upgrade to a touch-first Metro environment yet needing to use a mouse and keyboard once upgraded has inadvertently negatively contributed to Windows 8's perception. 


The good news is that Metro apps in Windows 8.1 are more conducive to non-touch input. Whereas I perceived them to be functionally inferior touch-first alternatives to existing Desktop apps on Windows 8, I consider their Windows 8.1 updates to be modern touch-friendly interpretations of Desktop apps and, more significantly, potentially effective replacements in the medium-term.

1. The upgrade was available not only to Windows 7 users, but also Vista and XP users.


When Product Differentiation is Prioritised over Usability

Friday, 28 June 2013

In a trade-off between longer battery life and a fresh coat of paint, HTC has prioritised the latter. The HTC One that ships with Sense lasts a full hour less compared to the same phone running stock Android.




When Mobile App Developers Get Ripped-off

Friday, 28 June 2013

Going back1 to Windows Phone 7.5 after a few weeks on Windows Phone 8 has been non-problematic. I've comfortably resisted the impulse to upgrade back, and I'm happy to continue to do so until Nokia release a new Lumia that I must buy. This wouldn't have been as easy were it not for a few third-party apps that cost me less than six dollars in total. I've used these apps daily for more than two years and have received numerous free updates2 in this time. In short, they've offered incredible value. So much so, I actually feel bad. 

I don't think it's right that a single micropayment entitles me to receive unlimited updates for the remainder of an app's development. I want developers to have the ability to charge their app's existing users for an update they consider merits an additional micropayment. This has never been an issue with traditional software, and so I'm puzzled as to why there appears to be different expectations for mobile apps. When an update inflates the value of software, which was both feature-complete and useable3, at no additional cost, there stops being a correlation between the amount of money paid in and the amount of value got out. In other words, that's the moment the developer gets ripped off.

An alternative app monetisation model I'd like to see introduced is the ability for apps to be sold as a service with recurring subscription micropayments. If I'm seeing value from an app every day, it's only fair that I continue to support its development beyond an initial transaction. It's in our best interest. After all, the extra revenue this would generate for developers will be reciprocated through higher quality and/or more frequent updates. 


Given Windows Phone's still insignificant market share and the scarcity of great apps available for it, on the odd occasion that I do come across one, I feel like a few dollars is not enough to justify and support the app's development. The problem I have at the moment is that there's nothing more I can do4.

Update: I've discovered that Metroblur on Windows Phone is a free app that enables its users to offer their support by donating through an in-app purchase. Clever. I remember visiting the official sites of London Travel, NextGen Reader and Rowi and being disappointed that there was no option to send a donation. So, it's refreshing to come across a developer who has creatively identified an unconventional method to finance their app's development. 

I don't think that an option to donate should be restricted to free apps either. If you're charging for your app and are actively updating it, like any of the aforementioned apps, then I'd encourage you to add an option in your next update that enables your users to donate. Not all your users will, but you'll be pleasantly surprised by how many are willing.

1. Involuntarily.

2. The updates are usually incremental improvements, but occasional major iterations have not been uncommon.

3. Not Windows 8.

4. Other than to recommend the app to other Windows Phone users I know. The problem is I know only one in the real world. And I'm not John Gruber on the Internet.


Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good #7

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

When editing an event's details on your Outlook.com calendar, it can now be supplemented with a charm. That is, an icon describing the type of event. November is setting up nicely.


The Difference Between the PS4 and Xbox One

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The PS4 wants to be a device in your living room. The Xbox One wants to be the device in your living room.


When the Start Menu Turns 18

Sunday, 9 June 2013

This is what it will look like.


On Gmail's New Inbox

Friday, 7 June 2013

I suffer from email overload. According to research, others do too:

The average interaction worker spends an estimated 28 percent of the workweek managing e-mail. 

Meet Gmail's new inbox that aims to address this phenomenon:

This isn't the first time Google have designed a solution either. The eerie similarity between the blog posts introducing the Priority Inbox in 2010 and the new inbox in 2013 confirms 1) the former didn't solve the problem and 2) the problem still exists. I don't think smart tabs are the solution though.

The Priority Inbox divided the inbox into three distinct lists: 1) unread and important 1 messages, 2) starred messages and 3) everything else 2. The biggest change with the new inbox is that it doesn't make the mistake of mixing important unread messages with unimportant unread messages 3. Furthermore, the ambiguity of an 'important' message has been removed as the default secondary tabs, 'Promotions' and 'Social', can't be misinterpreted. So, although the primary tab won't necessarily contain only 'important' messages, you know it definitely won't have any emails from Twitter or Groupon. 

That's certainly an improvement, but it still doesn't stop any unwelcome emails from coming through. Sure, they're no longer immediately visible and now require a little more effort to get to, but the new inbox doesn't bury them completely - it just hides them temporarily. Moreover, the tools to automatically manage the incoming flow of email are not new. What the Gmail team should be commended for is making them accessible with sensible defaults. 

This isn't going to solve my email problem though. I'll still get the same excess amount of email, only it will now be distributed across a number of tabs to minimise the perception of being overwhelmed. What I want are new tools. For example, make it easier to unsubscribe to emails. Don't make me have to carefully scan an email for an incognito link. Do that for me. And then show the link on the inbox-level. 

What I want, more importantly, is a belated recognition that all email are not the same. For a meaningful distinction to be made between emails that can be replied to (i.e. from people) and those that are essentially a wrapper for external calls-to-action (i.e. newsletters or notifications). One is used as a communication channel and the other as an information medium. For example, I get a separate email every time I get a new mention or follower on Twitter. The data consistency of these emails, however, makes them conducive for aggregation into a single view. Just because they were sent as emails doesn't mean they need to be presented as such. 

For an inbox to successfully confront email overload, it needs more than a few set of tabs. That can be a start. It's what goes on in those tabs that now needs re-evaluating. Whichever service figures that out first will help email attain version parity with the rest of the web. Email 2.0.

1. A variety of signals are used to predict which messages are important.

2. Oddly enough, unread messages that are signalled as 'unimportant' are actually duplicated here.

3. Important unread messages are displayed in the 'Primary' tab, whereas the secondary tabs are used for the unimportant unread messages. 


Steven Sinofsky on Disruption

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Steven Sinofsky at D11 1 on product disruption and what can be done to ease its effect on the user:

Any time you change a product you introduce that challenge. If you have any install base at all. And that is one of the biggest things that really makes disruption sort of a challenge. If you have no market, no customers then you're not disrupting any body but all the other companies. And if you have a product with customers and you introduce something that's not exactly the same as the old one, by definition you're going to disrupt them. And that's a balance that you face in anything you do. Whether you're making a sequel to a Star Trek movie. Or anything. And, so, can you always do more? Well, after the product comes out, if it turns out that it was easier or harder, then you can do more or less and change it and you just adapt. And that's part of what it means to do this. There's no magic answer. But you can't sort of A/B test your way to it. Because a billion people don't get your product until a billion people have your product. 

Tim Cook loved to say you make a set of choices and people are sort of paying you to make those choices. You use your product development intuition to do things. Cause when you test a product, any product, not Windows 8, any product before it's in market, the people who naturally go to use it will use it and push it the way that they push the old one. Eric Ries talks about this in The Lean Startup. You come out with a brand new product and you let some enthusiasts use it and then you just have to break from them and re-do it. Those first hundred people are very upset. But you want a million people. Not a hundred. And to get a million you're going to do something different than that first hundred. And so all the pre-release testing in the world doesn't necessarily help a product that's going in a different direction because the people that are just there are the experts and enthusiasts that like the old direction. That's why they signed to the pre-release.

Windows 8 was disruptive. I get why. Microsoft's mistake wasn't that it was, but that they didn't make a concerted effort to mask its disruptive qualities. Yes, it is a new era for Microsoft. But, it was naive to expect a billion users to sign up, let alone be ready, for change of this magnitude. They were not prepared for the future. Especially not a future that wasn't even feature-complete. However, whereas Windows 8 made no tangible concessions to facilitate the transition, Windows 8.1 does the opposite. And that's not a bad thing. Those billion users will be given the tools, and more importantly the time, to familiarise themselves with the future without needing to commit to it. And once the future becomes the present, whether that's Windows 9 or 10, users won't be blindsided. And there lies the answer. To successfully 2 release a disruptive product update, unless it is objectively and immediately better than its incumbent, the execution of its vision needs to be gently spread across a number of releases. With each iteration boasting more of the future and less of the past. Eventually, a release will be stripped entirely of its legacy. And the best part is, when this happens, users 3 won't even notice.

1. If you've not watched the entire interview, then I recommend you do.

2. Keep in mind, success can be considered in any number of ways. Such as, if you lose only a small sub-set of users. Or if you win more new users than lose old ones.

3. There will be users who are adept at detecting early the implications of the changes. Some of whom will jump ship immediately, whereas others will use a wait-and-see approach. That is, executing your vision periodically, as opposed to suddenly, doesn't necessarily mean you won't lose any users - you will but on a smaller scale and at a slower rate. Losses that won't hurt as much. And, anyway, let's not forget you can always be replacing lost users with new users.


One Wallpaper Makes Metro an Extension to the Desktop

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Windows 8's problem wasn't bundling a modern and legacy environment together, but the failure to dispel the perception that the two are entirely independent entities. The Desktop was falsely presented as an app. And not an operating system feature. Metro, on the other hand, was carelessly introduced as an additional operating system layer. And not an extension to the Desktop. Windows Blue appears to address this, despite earlier concerns

The Start button clarifies that the Start screen is the Start menu's successor (and not a Desktop replacement). As a result, transitioning between the Desktop and the Start screen should now make more sense on a conceptual level. However, perceptually, there would remain friction because of the absence of visual uniformity. That is, clicking the Start button is akin to time travel. One moment it looks like 1995. Suddenly, 1995 feels like 18 years ago. That's a lot of change to absorb in one click. But there's an obvious and cost-effective solution. And Windows Blue implements it - the ability to use your Desktop wallpaper as your Start Screen background.

I've actually always used a common solid colour background for the Start screen and Desktop to make the transition between the two less jarring. Compare the difference in transition to the Start screen from a Desktop with the default daisy flowers wallpaper to a Desktop with a customised solid background colour.


More Jarring


Less Jarring

Judging by the screenshot of this leaked feature, the Start screen is now essentially a visual layer on top of the Desktop resulting in an even less jarring transition 1. This seemingly trivial addition may significantly influence people's perception of the Start screen. That it's an evolution of the Start menu. And an extension to the Desktop. A big win, potentially.

Update:  See a video of the Desktop to Start screen transition on Windows 8.1. Pretty smooth. 

1. It could even be smooth depending on the animation used during the transition and the effects applied after.


Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good #6

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Outlook.com's Calendar1 features a five day weather forecast. Each day has its weather represented with the appropriate icon - clicking on it gives a basic forecast.

1. I don't know if the Calendar web app is considered an extension of Outlook.com, or a product of its own. If the latter, I've no idea what the correct title to refer to it is. 


Review: Surface RT - Going Once, Going Twice, Sold.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Surface RT launched to mixed reviews, but they all shared one thing in common. They were written on the back of artificial time spent using the device as opposed to living with it 1. My experience with a Surface RT, however, has been real. I pre-ordered a Surface RT last October. I had it for six months. But then I decided to sell it last week. Apps were not the problem. It was the stage they were set on. It was not the ultimate stage for Windows.

A session without an app crashing was rare. And not just third-party apps either. Internet Explorer, the app I spent most of my time in, was the biggest offender. I question Microsoft's decision to accomodate the "full web" by supporting Flash. Sure, the correlation between Flash support and IE's stability doesn't imply causation (there was never any feedback about the cause of a crash), but I know at least one person who would think it does. Even when Flash wasn't necessary, such as on websites that offered a HTML5 video alternative, Flash was still used by default. And other than video, the only other application of Flash I would encounter on sites I visit was for interactive ads, leading me to conclude that the full web isn't necessarily the best web. At least not for me.

Crashes in general happened often enough that the experience of using the RT became defined by anxiety. As my confidence in the RT eroded, I used it less. It was never reliable enough to be consistently an arm's length away. Its unreliability violated my trust. And once trust became an issue, no amount of monthly firmware updates was going to regain it.

There were occasional gains facilitated by the Touch Cover and an Arc Mouse. Touch, keyboard and mouse coexisted effectively. This setup made sense and felt really good. It was empowering. There were tangible results too. If writing is considered work, then I got some serious work done. But it was always from a desk. I expected the kickstand to be a trivial differentiator, but it did add meaningful value as a laptop desktop (with Touch Cover) or second screen (without Touch Cover) enabler; away from a desk, I also used the RT in bed quite a lot because of it. Finally, the combination of USB port and MicroSD slot made transferring data to and from the device, specifically from my DSLR, a breeze. My next tablet must have both.

I didn't expect to get any work done on the RT when I bought it. Yet I managed to. But I didn't buy the RT for work. It was for play and it was here where the experience fell apart. Issues with reliability, as established earlier, made it impossible to feel relaxed when using it. The slightly underwhelming battery life exacerbated matters. 

I considered it an achievement when I comfortably managed to get a full day's use out of it on a single charge. The strategy implemented halfway through the day usually involved reluctantly reducing the screen's brightness. This was annoying because the screen was too dim on anything other than full brightness. This dilemma was somewhat counterbalanced by the exceptionally quick charging times, but I was still disappointed because I remembered reviews generally being impressed by battery life. But then again these are usually based on benchmarks involving looping a video at a specific brightness setting.

The terribly low sound from the speakers meant I disappointingly refrained from using the RT to watch TV or movies (or listen to music or Skype even). Any media consumed inconveniently used my earphones - the RT's mobility meant the earphones were rarely within easy reach. Although the 16:9 aspect ratio was a relatively unused feature, it still had an indirect effect on my experience. Unfortunately not in a good way as it stopped me from doing any long-form reading on the device 2. I tried using it in portrait a few times but I felt silly every time. So I stopped entirely. 


Ironically, playfulness and not productivity was my RT's greatest shortcoming. The seeds for abandonment were planted early, but being an early adopter you're programmed to persevere. My threshold for accepting the RT's inadequacies may have elongated as a result, but it wasn't boundless. Last week, my patience was finally up. And not because of any particular incident but a belated acknowledgement of the diminishing returns the experience offered. An experience severely compromised by the guts of the hardware. 

I probably won't be pre-ordering the next Surface RT, but I'm still hoping it will address the first-generation's deficiencies through the necessary hardware improvements and software optimisation. As long as the first-generation RT on the Microsoft campus was the same as mine, I'm cautiously optimistic about its next iteration as its problems are as obvious as they're solvable.

Although my experience wasn't positive, I've still come out of it respecting Microsoft's vision. I get it. Its the execution that isn't there yet. Fortunately, modest sales mean Microsoft have a second chance at a first impression with the majority of Windows users. If you were considering on picking up a discounted first-generation RT, don't. If you're waiting for the next RT, either be careful or be conservative (i.e. get a Pro instead 3).

1. This problem isn't specific to Surface RT's reviews, but applies to reviews of software and hardware in general. Someone needs to start a site where stuff is reviewed after reasonable real-word usage.

2. PDFs or ebooks.

3. The Pro's hardware shares some of the same problems as the RT. And has some of its own. But it's at least reliable. That is more fundamental to the user experience than a few less grams in weight or a few less hours of battery life.


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