A Mac User’s View of Windows 8 and the Touch Screen Environment

As a private consultant, I read a number of tech blogs every day. Tech Republic, ZDNet, PCWorld, MacWorld and others. I also tend to follow the discussions that go with many of their articles. I have to admit it amazes me how strongly biased people–supposedly intelligent people–can be against change. With Windows 8 just around the corner, the hype and the outrage is incredible. For many of these people, you would think Apple had just bought out Microsoft and turned Windows 8 into OS X.

I’m sure everyone reading this blog knows what Microsoft Windows is. Most of you have been using it at your work or home for almost 30 years now and have seen it evolve from a very basic program launcher into a highly-developed system that does most of the difficult tasks for you. Still, it’s not as easy to use as it could be; you still have to have some technical know-how or hire a consultant to help you resolve problems once in a while. Windows 8 hopes to make those tasks just a little bit easier. With an all-new launch page you’re no longer confronted with a screen full of hard to see tiny icons with even harder to read text. The complaints? Well, one commenter said, “It looks like it was designed by a three-year-old using crayons.” My opinion? That three-year-old knows what she wants to see.

Ok, Windows 8 is definitely different when you first boot up your computer. This alone is what has over 50% of supposedly professional computer techs crying. But to tell you the truth, the boot page traditionally called the Desktop hasn’t really changed since the release of Windows ’95. Sure, it’s been cleaned up and made prettier over the years as computer power has improved, but it’s still the Windows button in the lower-left corner, a task bar across the bottom and some plug-in information about running processes at the right end of that task bar. You had the ability to customize the background image and even the location of the start button/task bar, but the vast majority of users never bother. When you compare that to the boldly colored blocks that list the many different applications and plug-ins available on your PC, the change is shocking.

However, change is not necessarily bad. I’ve serviced a number of clients whose Desktop is so cluttered with application, files and folders that they can’t even find the one they want to use. Yes, old Windows did offer a number of ways to clean up that Desktop, but these clients don’t always remember how and, like most people, prefer to leave things as they are rather than trying to start all over with a re-arranged Desktop. Apple recognized this problem a long time ago and with OS X they resolved it to a great extent by offering an expanding menu system as part of their Dock at the bottom of the screen. Microsoft has decided to offer similar functionality on the home screen.

But again, roughly half of the computer techs who have tried the Windows 8 previews claim it’s too different and that they will not use Windows 8 unless it offers some way to revert to the old Desktop. What they seem to ignore is that the traditional Desktop is still there–behind the launch screen. Right in one of those colored blocks is one clearly labeled, “Desktop”. Guess where that goes. Aside from that, if you’re so opposed to such a simple method as pointing and clicking on that block, all you have to do is drag your mouse to the lower-left corner and up pops the old, traditional Windows button to access the old-style launch screen. Guys, it’s not rocket science, even if you think it should be. Once you get to the desktop, everything operates in the same old way it always has, though much faster due apparently to some serious clean-up work in the code. It’s almost, though not quite like they chose to re-write the OS keeping the modern parts while leaving out the obsolete. What they’ve done however, is removed a lot of the no-longer used code from the existing code base. They’ve cut the size of the OS by about a third which alone reduces the workload on the computer as it runs through millions of lines of code per second performing its tasks.

Windows 8 then is an update to strongly consider simply for the improvement in performance. However, it goes farther. Some of you know that Windows has had a “Touch” interface available for over a decade. Bill Gates introduced it as “The Next Great Thing” back in 2001 and said that tablets were the PCs of the future. Well, it took almost ten years, but Apple ended up proving him right. Why Apple and not Windows? Well, remember those techs that hate change? When you combine techs who saw no purpose in a touch-based computer (despite all the TV shows and movies that implied otherwise) and software developers who coded to what the techs wanted–well, let’s just say there was very little progress on the Windows side. During that ten-year period many hardware manufacturers built fully Windows capable tablet and convertible laptop computers that could use that touch feature–but very few ever sold. Companies like Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba even built desktop computers called All-In-Ones (AIOs) and HP even advertised their TouchSmart line of computers on broadcast TV demonstrating some of the advantages of touch on the desktop. But still they didn’t sell.

So how did Apple succeed where Microsoft failed? Well, first off Apple hasn’t fully succeeded yet, even though the iPad is a hugely popular device. What Apple hasn’t yet done is put Touch on the desktop–a full-powered version of OS X. On the other hand, Apple approached the concept of Touch from another direction which appears to be more intuitive and natural to the user. What Apple did was release a smart phone in 2007 with a touch interface that was so simple and easy to use that even 4-year-old children could operate them without instruction. The iPhone was so easy to use that consumers, once they discovered it, bought them by the millions and are continuing to buy more each year. It became so popular that effectively stopped the growth of traditional smartphone companies and, with the later introduction of the Android operating system by Google with similar capabilities, effectively drove those other manufacturers out of business. The Blackberry by Canada’s RIM has fallen to insignificance and is struggling to retain what little business it has left while Nokia, once the world’s largest cell phone manufacturer, lost almost all of its smart phone business and has now partnered with Microsoft in an attempt to regain relevance in that market. In other words, rather than starting at the desktop PC and working down, Apple has started small and is working up. But this still doesn’t explain the Windows 8 touch screen environment.

The main difference between Windows 8 and Windows 7 (or previous versions) is that Windows 8 tries to emphasize its touch-screen capabilities. Yes, you can still use the traditional mouse for everything it has always done, but with a touch-sensitive display the mouse is redundant–it’s not needed. Instead of dragging that palm-sized piece of plastic around your likely cluttered desk, all you have to do is point with your finger and touch the screen. What could be more obvious? I watch people every day searching their screen for the icon they want, touch it with one hand while dragging the mouse around–first to find the pointer itself and then to lay it on that icon to click it. With a touch-sensitive screen, that application would already be open.

You see, the mouse has never been the most intuitive tool for accessing screen information, but until fairly recently touch systems were inaccurate, clumsy and broke down frequently. I’m sure every one of you has used these older touch displays on your bank’s ATM machine or at a hotel, airport, mall or museum kiosk. I’m sure you’ll also remember how often you griped when they didn’t work, too. In the last decade capacitive touch systems have become far more sensitive than older infrared or pressure-sensitive displays and with software improvements introduced by Apple and others they have become far more accurate and capable of sensing and understanding the motions of more than one contact point. Now it is possible to do with your fingers what you once did with your mouse and multiple buttons simultaneously. And because you’re using your fingers, it becomes as natural as opening and closing a book; shuffling papers on a physical desk; turning a picture around or enlarging/shrinking it to view details or get an overall view. Windows gives you most of that capability right now and with Windows 8, the launch screen makes your tasks just that little bit easier.

Do I like Windows 8? Obviously I do. Personally, I believe the ones complaining the loudest about it now will end up as its strongest proponents once they finally understand it.

Disclaimer: I have been using Apple products since 1979 and Macs since 1992. Through 33 years I have used those computers to help me in my private consulting and writing even while having to use MS/Dos and Windows based computers at my jobs. I have worked in avionics, electronic engineering and even an ISP through those years and developed a solid working knowledge of both Mac OSes and Windows through all their iterations. I now have the release candidate of Windows 8 in Bootcamp on the iMac I’m using to write this and will replace it with the full version when it’s released in October 2012.

2 Responses to A Mac User’s View of Windows 8 and the Touch Screen Environment

  1. Palmetto_CharlieSpencer says:

    As you know from TR, we disagree on this subject. I’ll skip over the points we’ve both already beat up in those forums and aim for a couple you mention here.

    I think the reason Apple succeeded with a touch interface despite MS’s 10-year lead isn’t the ease of the interface itself. It’s because Apple provided something else that Microsoft didn’t – apps where touch was emphasized over traditional apps. MS didn’t have a ‘killer app’ for its touch systems. (‘Ah, OneNote; we could have had it all!’) It offered the same apps as on the desktop but with touch as a kind of ‘Oh, yeah, you can use a stylus too!’ feature. In a way, MS has reversed the approach with W8; now it’s touch-centric, but you can use a mouse if you absolutely insist.

    You confuse me on another point. You point out repeatedly that one problem with previous versions of Windows are the icon-cluttered desktops. We agree about that, but how do you see the equally cluttered W8 Start screen as an improvement? Won’t users still create the same thicket of shortcuts, files, and app starters?

  2. David says:

    A very good response and a discussion I’m willing to continue.

    First off, You’re right about the apps. However, the iPhone didn’t start out will all the apps is has now and the SDK wasn’t released for months after the iPhone launched and yet it still sold in record numbers for the type. If you’ll note in my post, I acknowledged that both techs and developers were at fault for Microsoft’s initial tablet failure. Had Microsoft done more at the outset rather than relying on their unimaginative user base, they could have blown Apple away back in 2001 even with Apple’s shift to OS X.

    The second point is also valid: What’s to keep the user from cluttering the screen with those blocks in all sizes and colors? Nothing. On the other hand, the major difficulty isn’t the clutter itself but the fact that the majority of my clients simply can’t read their labels due to small text and a busy background image. The problem is worst on the default background near the bottom where you might have black text on green image or, if they’re using white text then that disappears against the blue background. By offering a larger text area with a contrasting color, the titles of all those apps, files and folders are much easier to read while also offering a larger target for the fingertip to hit.

    At the same time, if you keep some of the original Widgets that come with it or add others, weather, stock, news, sports, whatever kind of data you might want to see at a glance is easily viewed right there and offers a one-touch connection for detailed information. All this without the current Widget style impinging on the right side of what may be a busy work screen. To me, Microsoft has taken Apple’s Dashboard idea and made it the launch screen as well. Again, I like the simplicity and ease of use while still getting out of the way when you have to do “real work.”

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