Windows 8 and the marginalization of geeks

— 10:23 AM on September 16, 2011

On Tuesday, Microsoft made the Windows 8 Developer Preview available publicly without demanding so much as a Windows Live login name and password in return. I know, I was surprised too. After a bit of poking around, I managed to get the DP up and running in a trial installation of VMware Workstation 8.0, and I've spent a good few hours tinkering with it.

Now, I think we can safely assume that the full release of Windows 8 is still a year or so away. That means what we're looking at here is very much a work in progress, and criticizing Windows 8 for specific bugs or omissions based on this early build would be unwise. Nevertheless, we're beginning to get a clear sense of where Microsoft is heading with Windows 8, and I think some general observations (and predictions) are in order.

I believe consumers are going to love Windows 8. I don't mean just any consumers, mind you. I'm talking about the kind of people who use technology on a day-to-day basis but aren't intimately familiar with it. To those people, Windows and Mac OS X must seem like strange, Byzantine concoctions, with layers upon layers of unexplored settings and features. Today's tech-aware citizens may be comfortable enough to browse the web, send e-mail, exchange instant messages, and write reports here and there, but they lack the assurance to venture too far beyond that familiar realm. As a result, they might endure annoying pop-ups from an unregistered anti-virus program or leave all of their files scattered across the desktop, not imbued with sufficient confidence to explore the file system and harness the file-and-folder metaphor.

People with that level of technical expertise unarguably make up the majority, and I think their problem lies not with education, but with the excessive complexity of modern operating systems. With Windows 8's Metro interface, Microsoft is tackling that problem head-on. The goal seems to be to streamline the everyday PC experience as much as possible: present the user with a friendly start screen full of application tiles, an app store where he or she can fetch more software, and a solid web browser. Make everything modal, track down and viciously destroy any traces of user-interface clutter, and simplify access to advanced functionality.

Put yourself in the shoes of a non-expert user, for example, and imagine your computer is on the fritz. Things aren't working right, say, and software keeps crashing. What are you gonna do about it? You could open the Control Panel, click on System and Security, then look around the mess of items for the words "Backup and Restore," click on those, then click the unexplainably small link at the bottom that says, "Recover system settings or your computer." You might then end up with something like the screenshot below... and, in all likelihood, System Restore won't be of any great help.

But let's not kid ourselves; you're not actually going to do any of that. Instead, you're probably going to call your friend, coworker, nephew, or kid brother who's good with computers. Failing that, you're going to overpay someone underqualified and hope they manage to fix it without wiping all your family photos.

In Windows 8, your odds of resolving the situation by yourself are much better. Just open up the Control Panel, click "General" in the left pane (the description underneath helpfully includes the words "refresh your PC"), then scroll down the right pane. It's all right there, literally two clicks and one flick away: "Refresh your PC without affecting your files" and "Reset your PC and start over."

We're still talking about the Windows 8 Developer Preview, so those options might change slightly or move to a different place by the time the operating system is finalized next year. Still, this is a fine example of what Windows 8 is all about: turning the PC into an appliance, something with a considerably softer learning curve than today's systems—something you'll need to waste far fewer Sunday afternoons to become familiar with.

There's a reason Metro looks so much like Windows Phone 7, by the way. I reckon it took smart phones to make everyone realize that PCs don't have to blind users with science so much. When was the last time someone called you for help installing an app or sending a text message on their iPhone?

But I digress.

I also think people with above-average technical expertise, especially enthusiasts, are going to loathe Windows 8. I think those people will cling to Windows 7 for their dear lives as long as humanly possible. The new Metro interface, you see, is a double-edged sword.

Think of it like Russian nesting dolls—or peeling an onion, a more appropriately unpleasant metaphor. Doing anything remotely complex in the Windows 8 Developer Preview involves a strange waltz between the classic desktop and Metro. All of the functionality power users need, like file management, advanced configuration options, and access to legacy applications, is constrained to the desktop. However, Metro takes over as the application launcher and treats the classic desktop just like another tile or app. That leaves you dancing between layers of very different and conflicting user-interface conventions all vying for attention: Metro, Aero, and all the Windows 95/98-style interface items Microsoft still hasn't cleaned up. Add an Office-style Ribbon to every Explorer window, and the picture is complete. You've got what might be the most confusing hodge-podge of UI conventions this side of the Milky Way.

Some of those inconsistencies will no doubt be smoothed over by the time Windows 8 is released. However, the underlying issue will remain: Metro is designed for simplicity, so complex options and tasks will need to be stashed away in the Desktop. Yet Windows 8 will put Metro front and center, so power users may not be able to shove it into a corner and forget about it. They may be forced to maneuver around its big, chunky, friendly UI whether they like it or not. The need to maintain backward compatibility, which Microsoft usually fulfills with religious fervor, may prolong this unhappy marriage until the desktop has faded into irrelevance—something that could take decades or possibly even never happen. Microsoft was never able to get rid of the command line, and the traditional desktop metaphor provides too many benefits to power users to be fully replaceable by something like Metro. Attempting to merge the two would make Metro more complex, which would defeat the point entirely.

Microsoft isn't the only one facing this problem. I already complained about the strange mix of UI conventions in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, and Apple still hasn't given an indication of how it plans to deal with that. Will iOS and OS X merge into a single operating system, and if so, will that OS also turn classic and modal interfaces into unhappy roommates? Will Apple attempt to produce a hybrid of the two? Or will the two operating systems remain separate, borrowing from each other on occasion?

Such thorny questions are inevitable as the personal computer continues its transformation from a niche product once reserved for an educated elite into a commodity appliance operable by everyone. We now have computers in our offices, in our cars, on our couches, and in our pockets. We might not call them all computers, but we're fooling ourselves if we don't. Consequently, the target market for our most powerful personal computers is shifting from the elite to the common man, and user-interface designers are responding accordingly. That's great news for most folks, but I think it's eventually going to leave us geeks longing for the good old days—back when computers were designed by geeks for geeks.

That feeling of longing will be rendered all the more bitter by the fact that, as our computers become simpler and simpler to use, us geeks will lose two things we prize ever so dearly: control and routine. We're the smart ones—or so we tell ourselves. We're the ones who should be deciding how our computers are configured, how our data is backed up, and which applications should run in the background. Yet in a few years, we may find ourselves no longer needing to do any of those things... and with a lot of free time all of a sudden.

Perhaps I'll take up fishing. What about you?

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