Windows 8 and Microsoft’s Fate

I’ve been to two Windows 8 trainings from Microsoft in the last few weeks, as we at Abelssoft build Windows software for consumers and Windows 8 will be a pretty big market, as it will ship with every new PC sold from Octobre on. I’m not sure how much I can tell about this, so I’m keeping out stuff where the speaker directly stated to not tell the public, but basically all I’m telling has already been leaked before or is directly stated on Microsofts MSDN pages at http://dev.windows.com or http://design.windows.com. Also I’m not from Microsoft, so take everything written here with a grain of salt.

Windows 8 logo

Possibilities

It was presented that we now have about 600M Windows installations, and googling just found that half of them is on XP, 6% Vista and the rest Win7. I guess the Vista users, some of the XP users (XP support is over) and everyone buying a new PC will have Windows 8. Everyone of those people will see the windows market and everyone who tries to use the Metro interface will very early need to have a live ID, which enables them to enter the windows market. The tablet users will only have the Metro interface as the only desktop apps working will be the office products Microsoft preinstalls.

So the market will be big. Very big. For Metro apps at least. With Windows 8, every Metro app that Microsoft thinks to be a good design example for Metro will be shoved into a large amount of people’s eyes.

The Metro Design Language is nice, clean and minimalist. I like it. On design.windows.com everything needed is shown, including design decisions, metrics and what you need to design a Metro interface app.

Frameworks and the Market

Most of the other technological stuff that was mentioned is already known to everyone who looked at the Apple store concepts. For example it’s the same mechanic of declaring which permissions your app needs to work, if it needs to have access to your location, sensors, etc. Microsoft here copied from Apple where it made sense, which is basically everywhere.

Interesting differences include:

  • The Microsoft cut is 30% unless you app is very successful – as soon as it reaches a certain threshold in earnings (the number 25.000$ appeared somewhere), Microsofts cut lowers to 20%. This is a very nice move from Microsoft, although it won’t affect most of the apps it keeps the hopes of developers for getting rich high. As far as I know, this is counted on a per-app basis.
  • Trials. There’s a (feature-limited & time-based) trial mode, recurring payments (subscriptions), in app purchases – including a mock windows store for testing.
  • Not as strict as Apple. I questioned if we would be able to harvest the users email to give him an otherwise free app, I got no definitive answer but the basic message was that Microsoft won’t  stop you from using the business models you’ve used so far. They only said that the windows store team will check your app, and if they cannot get in or see the functionality based on a trial version, they will likely reject it. From a user perspective, I don’t like it so much, but from a developer’s perspective, this is good news.
  • Synching is easier. Everyone who can buy stuff from the store automatically has the credentials to use Microsofts Dropbox Skydrive. An SDK for this is provided to work with it in code. This means that synching will be really easy AND cross-plattform (as you also have Skydrive for Mac, iOS, Android and such), which on Apple’s platform iCloud is designed to lock people in the Apple world.
  • The app sandbox will be one-sided. The Metro app has only access to a few places on disc, but from the “old” Windows apps you’ll be able to scan through the (hidden) app folders of the Metro apps and theoretically influence them. This has an impact on security considerations, as you cannot openly put private user data on disc, but it also means that you can use file-based communication to communicate with your “old” desktop apps and services. The implications of this could be manifold. For example, you could implement a way for Metro apps to recognize if there’s already a full version of the apps’ desktop equivalent is installed to automatically make the trial free for the user.
  • No system database will be provided. No core-data for Windows 8 now. You can use file-based databases in your app, but that’s it for now (SQLite and one other thing I’ve never heard from are supported).

.NET 4.5 is something I’m really looking forward to. .NET 4.0 already is a heavenly programming language from the future, and .NET 4.5 will be another evolutionary improvement. The asynch language feature automatically makes your synchronous spaghetti code asychronous. Which is not only big for your code, but should also make the whole framework faster, as Microsofts talented engineers provide you with asych representatives of usually blocking code.

In the developer and designer trainings is was oftentimes emphasized that you more or less automatically have a valid metro design when you use the new grid-based application template, as it scales and reformats contents automatically based on device and portrait/landscape orientation. I got the feeling that this was stressed a lot as Microsoft doesn’t think people design good UIs. If I look at the Windows world, this is mostly true.

The semantic zoom is another big paradigm that will be greatly supported by the grid. The idea is that you can zoom out and in on everything so you have only a single view in your application that shows different levels of detail,depending how far zoomed in you are. You can see with in the Windows 8 start screen, where you can zoom out to have an overview of all your icons, while zoomed in you see interactive tiles and program names.

One other interesting thing is that SVG graphics might be usable, which is a feature I wished for a long time ago. Sharp graphics without big file sizes should be good for everyone.

The Developer and Designer Trainings

Overall, I would have expected more.

  • First, I was expecting more non-official information. The non-official information I gathered was merely what everyone would expect to happen anyways.
  • MS’s own stance on details isn’t very universally consistent. The to trainers I met didn’t have the same knowledge about things, and some information was even contradictory.
  • The number of trainings and the overall low number of participants oftentimes let me think that Microsoft is desperate to train developers to make something else than the 10 year old windows forms that we all know and hate. In a non-representative questioning of the audience, only about 1/3 of the attendees knew about MVVM, which is the de-facto technical standard design pattern for modern Windows applications since about 2007-2008. This means that most of the Windows developers are about 5 years behind in knowledge. Maybe this is the reason why the trainings didn’t dive very deep.
  • The early beta-like release of code isn’t very good to test. While I like the idea of the semantic zoom, the code base is buggy so it can hardly be tested now. On a sidenote, of course it’s still better than not releasing stuff beforehand.

The User’s Point of View on Windows 8

Users will see Windows 8 very differently than developers. In my opinion, you need a desktop and different windows for real work, while having the minimalist full screen experience for tablet PCs will be the primary way to go.

Having seen Windows 8 weeks and having played with it a lot, in the developer trainings I learned a lot of hidden gestures that a user won’t understand. Asking for Microsofts plan to make the user understand the new interface, I didn’t get much more than “Yes, we’ll have to do something about that”. UPDATE: Windows 8 is out now, and they didn’t.

Therefore I guess that many will be puzzled, and that many will stick to the edition of Windows they currently have. In fact, I even think that Windows 8 will be Metro’s Vista – an unfinished product that lays the groundwork for a really great Windows 9. Sadly, no Microsoft representative was going to talk to be about Windows 9.

UPDATE: Microsoft screwed it

1.) Discoverability: While working with Windows 8, I noticed that there’s no indication if there’re options and if  the charms work on this page of the app. In Microsoft-theory, every app should implement a way to share stuff, the search charm etc, but if this isn’t implemented or there is just nothing to share or search the charms don’t work. I would have expected that in the final implementation they’re greyed out, or hidden, if thats the case, but it isn’t.

In terms of discoverability, it would be better to have a visual indication that a search or a sharing charm is available, as when you want to share or search something, you don’t want to check if thats possible at the moment. Same problem with the lower options bar – you can never know if there are options unless you find out on every page of every app. This will lead to users testing out swipes and strokes all the time.

This makes Windows 8 a bad tablet OS.

2.) Touch on Desktop: Soon the Surface Pro will be the first real Windows 8 device where you might want to try to do some work on a touch device. Microsoft promised to make the old Windows Desktop more “touch-friendly”. This is necessary, because it’s where you’ll have to do work, because the Metro part of Windows 8 with it’s one-window open approach won’t work for most people. What happened? They increased the padding on the Ribbon interface. That’s it. Users who really try to do work in Office on a touch screen will often miss their touch targets.

3.) Two worlds: The distribution of settings you want to make in two different system settings are deeply frustrating, when you cannot find the setting you look for – because it’s in the other settings. When you wanted to drag a file in Mail, you can’t now. When you wanted to look at a Wikipedia page while writing something for reference, know you can’t. (Well, you can, but then you’ll try to have to ignore the Metro “Windows 8 – Sytle” part of Windows, which makes Windows 8 a worse operating system than Windows 7).

2. + 3. makes Windows 8 a bad Desktop OS.

Summary

TL;DR: Windows developers will finally have to learn something new, as the market will be big and I believe that the Windows AppStore will initiate a new gold rush. Windows 8 is technically a very nice concept, but the trainings were a bit shallow and Microsoft seems to be desperately hoping to find developers who will learn all the new stuff their brilliant engineers have been working on in the last 10 years, that nobody used because of Microsoft’s backwards compatibility (the old shit still runs), and devs who will look at MS’s style guides. Users will like Win8 for tablets, but not for PCs, where it will not be too successful before Windows 9.

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, Posted Monday, May 14th, 2012 under Business, Programming, Usability.

2 comments

  1. I’m not much of a Windows user, but that still was an interesting and well written article, thanks!

  2. What’s your point? Besides, it’s a Consumer Preview. For something that’s supposed to show what Windows 8 is capable of, the apps sure do leave a lot to be desired.

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