I’m deep, deep into Windows 8. When you write a book about an operating system, you wind up rummaging around in dark corners of it that very few people ever see. You learn its quirks and virtues just as you would a person you live with.
A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated
some really great Windows 8 features that nobody talks about. There are plenty of bright spots like that.
(A note: I have written a how-to manual for Windows 8 for an independent publisher; it was neither commissioned by nor written in cooperation with Microsoft.)
But I’ve always been troubled by the duality of Windows 8: the fact that it has two completely different environments. One is for finger operation on touchscreens; the other is the traditional mouse/keyboard desktop.
The traditional desktop runs regular Windows programs (Photoshop, Quicken, iTunes, and so on); the new touchscreen interface, which I’ll call TileWorld, requires a whole new set of full-screen, fairly simple apps.
(Several readers wrote to me to scold me for not calling it the Metro interface. Sorry, but that is not what Microsoft calls it, as we learned this summer
. Nor is its name the Modern interface; that was an early, internal name Microsoft had for it. When you ask Microsoft what it’s called, the company says it should simply be called “Windows 8,” insisting that it’s not two different environments at all.)
As you may have heard, the Start menu is gone in Windows 8. Instead, you have a Start screen — the Home screen for TileWorld. If you use Windows 8, you will be spending a lot of time here.
For the longest time, this screen didn’t bother me. It’s just the Start menu, expanded so that you don’t have to burrow through all those menus. In fact, the Start screen even has groupings of tiles that correspond to the submenus of the old Start menu: Microsoft Office, Accessories and so on.
But the more I learned to do things in Windows 8, the more I wrote tutorials for doing them, the more I realized the enormous drawback of this setup: you have to search for everything.
Over and over and over again, in Microsoft’s help system, in online tutorials, and in real life, you discover that the first step when making some adjustment in Windows 8 is to search for it. Want to add or remove features? Go to the Start screen and search for features. Want to set up remote access? Go to the Start screen and search for remote. Turn on Compatibility Mode? Go to the Start screen and search for compatibility. Adjust error reporting? Go to the Start screen and search for problems. Convert text to speech? Go to the Start screen and search for speech. Use the System Restore feature? Go to the Start screen and search for restore. Set up the new File History feature? Go to the Start screen and search for file history.
And on, and on, and on.
And you know what makes it worse? There’s no way to search your entire computer at once, as the Mac or Windows 7 does. You must search for either programs, or settings, or files. You can’t search all three categories at once.
If you’re operating on a touchscreen, that means it takes an extra tap (on “Settings”) every time you search for a setting. If you have a keyboard, there’s a keystroke just for searching for Settings (Windows key+W). But that’s still one more keystroke than Windows 7 required.
Why have we gone back to typing filenames to open them? Wasn’t that the beauty of the graphical user interface — of the Mac, of Windows? That you could point and click instead of typing out commands?
Now, this is Windows, after all; there seem to be 63 ways to do anything. You don’t have to search. For the Settings example, you could, of course, go back to the desktop and open the Control Panel and burrow into it just as you did in Windows 7.
But guess what? There’s no Start menu anymore to list the Control Panel. So getting to the Control Panel takes four steps (go to desktop, open Charms menu, open Settings panel, select Control Panel). You can choose its name from the secret X menu that normal people don’t know exists (point to the lower-left corner of the screen, wait for the Start-screen thumbnail to appear, right-click). Or you can make a shortcut icon for the Control Panel and leave it on your desktop, if you can figure out how to do that.
None of those methods are as simple, obvious or quick as the old way: just listing Control Panel in the Start menu.
Yes, I know there are ways to restore the Start menu (one good one: the free Classic Shell
). And you should absolutely do that; it makes Windows 8 infinitely more efficient.
It’s clear from the engineering team’s blogs that Microsoft put incredible amounts of thought into re-imagining Windows. I mean, blood, sweat, and tears over every design decision. (They have a post
about designing the on-screen keyboard; they used eye-tracking systems to figure out where people look when they type on a tablet! Another post discusses multiple-monitor setups
So that’s why this gigantic conceptual breakdown absolutely baffles me. Surely, in all those millions of person-years of testing, somebody at Microsoft must have observed that opening things — arguably the single most immediate task of an operating system — requires more steps now than before.
When you consider the slow sales of Windows 8, the general public bafflement, and the departure
of Windows 8 mastermind Steven Sinofsky,Microsoft probably realizes that the split-personality design of Windows 8 was a misfire. It’s inevitable that Microsoft is already hard at work fixing the problem; that’s how Microsoft works. Refine, refine, refine, no matter how many years it takes.
My question is: How do you fix something whose founding concept is flawed?
This should be an interesting plot to follow.