The Skeptical Coder: Fixing Windows 8 and WinRT
Here’s a bit of news for you: Despite all the criticism and despite all the naysayers, Windows 8 is actually a very good operating system. Improvements to the desktop are good and welcome. A lot of the underlying tech for WinRT is quite impressive. Microsoft should be applauded for their willingness to invent and change. However, because of a long list of puzzling decisions, and due to a lack of polish and packaging, Windows 8 just doesn’t add up to a good product that serves all the market segments it aims to serve. That’s a tall order, of course, but anything less has to be seen as a dramatic failure for any version of the Windows operating system.
So what does it take to whip Windows 8 into shape? Is it a lost cause or would a few adjustments make a world of difference? This question is difficult to answer, but this article aims to make a few suggestions for the better.
Start Me Up!
You don’t need to read this article to know that the Start screen is the center of much controversy. Some love it, some are impartial, and, although I have never met anyone who loves it, someone must. Looking at it critically, there are two different issues related to this topic. One is that Microsoft replaced the old (familiar) Start menu with a Live Tile-based Start screen. The other is the removal of the Start button on the Taskbar. Microsoft can justify the introduction of the Start screen because they want a consistent look across all their operating systems and they want users to get used to that new approach. Removing the Start button, on the other hand, is a bit more baffling. What could benefit from removing that button?!?
In Windows 8, a user reaches the Start screen by hitting the Windows Key on the keyboard, or by hitting the dedicated Windows hardware button on a slate, or by swiping in from the right edge of the screen (or moving the mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen), which brings up the Charms Bar, from which the user can select the Windows icon. Hitting the dedicated Windows button on a slate is quite intuitive, but all the other options are not. Could it possibly hurt to allow an additional Start button on the Taskbar? Especially on a conventional PC? Even if pressed, I can’t think of a reason why a Start button that launches the Start Screen would be counter to Microsoft’s strategy or philosophy. At the very least, Microsoft could allow users to enable a Start button as an optional feature.
This simple issue is a perfect example for a few patterns we will discover time and time again in this article. For one, there is Windows 8’s unwillingness to allow the user to work the way they want. A cardinal sin in all software, even if Apple shows that a company can be successful despite it. Instead of allowing the user to do things their way, Windows 8 constantly forces the user into patterns they may or may not like. In many cases, whether the user is likely to like the approach depends on whether or not they are using a slate. On tablets, Windows 8 works quite well, while on conventional PC scenarios, users get what has to be seen as a two-finger-salute, and for no apparent reason.
Another emerging pattern is the lack of obvious UI features. For years, developers have been trying to design UIs in ways that offered obvious features and ways to operate them. If there is a button, users will sooner or later click it. If the same feature requires a key combination, a very large percentage of users will never discover that feature, which is a problem. One reason why many modern operating systems remove such obvious “affordances” has to do with limited screen real estate on mobile devices. For full-fledged desktop PCs or even laptops, Microsoft didn’t need to cut such features. Most Windows 8 PCs have enough space to render a Start button. Why annoy users by removing it?
Presumably, however, users will sooner or later discover how to get to the Start screen. But are they going to get a lot of use out of the Start screen? Some of the fundamental ideas around the Start screen are quite appealing. Live Tiles turn simplistic and static icons into more powerful and flexible representations of the apps they stand for, including the ability to show data right in the tile. Windows Phones feature these abilities. Pull a Windows Phone out of your pocket, glance at the Start screen, and you get a good overview of the data that is most important to you. Often there is no need to even go any further than that as the user may see everything she was looking for right there. A similar scenario might apply on a slate. But on a PC?
After having used the Start screen on a laptop and desktop PCs for a while, I have come to the conclusion that the system is lacking in some ways and completely useless in others. One main problem with the Start screen is that it gets almost no use on PCs. How often do you just sit in front of your PC starring at the Start screen for minutes at a time? That’s right: Never! It just doesn’t happen. So when do you actually see the Start screen? As it turns out, the only time you see it is when you want to launch an app. You open the Start screen, you select an app and the Start screen disappears again. How much data did you just see in Live Tiles? Chances are you didn’t see any except when you were fumbling around the screen trying to find your app in the sea of tiles, which is an annoyance, not a benefit.
The Start screen could be an interesting “mission control center” type of screen if you had some way to keep it open. Advanced users routinely work with two or three computer monitors, so why not allow the Start screen to remain visible on one of the monitors while working on the other(s)? You could glance over to the Start screen to see interesting data cycle by in the Live Tiles. But as things stand, as soon as you open anything in the Desktop, the Start screen disappears. The same applies for WinRT apps since they always occupy the same screen as the Start screen in a maximized fashion. As a result, the data cycling by in the Start screen can almost never be seen and thus is practically useless for conventional PCs. The simple fix? Allow for an option to keep the Start screen open. “Pin” it, if you will. A relatively simple tweak one would think.
By: Skeptical Coder
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