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, 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.