Cut the ribbon: Why Microsoft needs a fresh start with Windows 8

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In June, Microsoft showed us a new vision for its old operating system. Windows 8 debuted with a completely overhauled interface, promising to be touch-friendly and to revolutionize personal computing, bridging the divide between the world of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and our old friend, the desktop PC.

The new interface (learn about it here) was introduced as the future of Windows computing, but with no compromises. Microsoft told us that the next version of the OS, though completely new, would come with a compatibility mode that would allow Windows 7-like applications run as well. This seemed odd, as Windows 7 and the Live Tiled Windows 8 couldn’t be more different, but in the name of backward compatibility, legacy applications, and Photoshop, such a compromise seemed acceptable. After all, who says you have to make a complete break with the past to move forward?

Unfortunately, by giving Microsoft an inch, we may have just granted it a mile. In the last two weeks, Windows 8 lead, Steven Sinofsky, has been blogging about the new operating system, writing lengthy posts about new features and changes to the feature teams that make Windows. The problem: There have been eight posts now and not one of them discusses the new interface. Every post so far has discussed small, incremental tweaks to the Windows 7 interface. Microsoft is making changes to things like USB support, copying and pasting, file name collisions, and the way buttons look when you open up a folder window. What’s wrong with improvements, you ask? Well, nothing would be wrong with them if it was 2008 and Microsoft was discussing its new Windows 7 operating system, but it’s 2011 and the “compatibility” mode of Windows 8 is beginning to look like it is Windows 8. Why is Microsoft putting so much time into building out obscure features like accessing VHD files in an interface that is supposed to be on the outs? The innovative new Live Tile interface is beginning to look like its the minor player. It will be nice for some touch tablets, but not even Microsoft is standing behind Live Tiles as a serious replacement for Windows 7.

Instead of working toward marrying the overly complicated truck of an OS that is Windows 7 with the compact Windows 8 Live Tile Start screen, the company looks like its developing a Live Tile setup that may be too simple, and a classic Windows mode that’s becoming more complex than ever. Microsoft is going to extremes where it should be making compromises. What’s the deal?

Microsoft got their fresh start and we picked out the best Windows phones that show off the new Windows 8 platform.

Making Windows even more complicated

In a recent post, Sinofsky details why the company has decided to integrate the “Ribbon UI” from Microsoft Office 2007 into the Windows 8. I don’t have a problem with the Ribbon UI in Microsoft Office. It didn’t really improve the Office experience much for me, but it did not harm it either. Adding the Ribbon UI to the basic explorer would harm Windows, and is a sign that Microsoft isn’t afraid to make Windows 8 more complicated than Windows 7. The basic file Explorer (file & folder window) does not need to be transformed into a big, thick, four-tab, 100-button Ribbon UI experience.

Windows 7 Explorer

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Proposed Windows 8 Explorer

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How is this an improvement? We’ve gone from a somewhat simple 4 button Explorer to a hulked-out Ribbon Explorer with a bafflingly large number of icons. There are 19 icons on this tab alone and 5 tabs, meaning there could be more than 100 buttons in this new menu. In the post, Sinofsky and his team admit that the “top 10 commands are 81.8 percent of Explorer commands used.” So why are there 19 buttons on this page? There should be 10 and the rest should be hidden. Sinofsky argues that there are more than 200 commands in Explorer and they, presumably, want to make these more accessible. To that I ask: Why are there 200 commands in Explorer in the first place?

Why does Microsoft feel the need to push advanced features on everyone? If geeks like me want to do something and it’s not in Explorer by default, we’ll find an application or add-on that does it, or make an add-on or application. There’s no reason why Windows has to do everything for everyone right out of the box. (Check out Joe Wilcox’s rant on BetaNews for more on the Ribbon UI.) Sinofsky seems to disagree, citing “telemetry data” left and right in most of his posts, hoping to improve core features for power users, but admitting that most of them will still use add-ons. So what are we accomplishing here, really? Not much.

Is this how Microsoft views the future of Windows? If Sinofsky and his team plan to cater to power users, why put on a show with the new Windows Phone-like start screen? Who is Microsoft trying to please? Windows computers have been molded for a million different purposes in the last three decades. Does Microsoft really think it can make every obscure user happy? 

Windows can’t be everything to everyone

To move forward, sometimes you have to lose some weight. In June, it looked like Microsoft understood this truth. By creating the Live Tile Start screen of Windows 8, the company admitted that Windows is big, overly complicated, and has never been fully understood by a majority of its users. (It continues to candidly admit as much in blog posts while it adds to the problem.) The new Live Tile interface attempts to simplify Windows, minimizing buttons and putting ease of use above all else. Sadly, the more we learn about Windows 8, the more we’re realizing that Microsoft may not pull this off, leaving us with a new PC experience that’s only usable for rudimentary tasks. If you want to do anything complex, you’ll be booted back into the old Windows world, filled with more buttons and options than ever before. 

In the last section we discussed Explorer windows. Most Windows users likely have no idea what an Explorer is. If you ask, they’ll probably think you’re talking about the Internet. The vast majority of people who are now forced to use computers (most every job requires them) will never fully understand how Explorer directories work, what a driver is, or how to manage their task processes — nor should they have to learn such things. I grew up using Windows. I’m a relatively advanced user and even I get confused. Microsoft has continually tacked on more and more features to Windows, but seems unable to assess what’s of actual importance to a substantial number of people. There are a dozen ways to accomplish anything in Windows and 10 dozen ways to mismanage and over-complicate the simplest of tasks.

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Smartphone operating systems like iOS and Android have made computing easier for people with touch interfaces, easier application management, easy device connection, and the near elimination of directories — among many other improvements. (Windows Phone 7 is also a leader in delivering these kinds of user-first features, though its market share remains minuscule.) Users are already clamoring for computers that are as easy to run as a smartphone, if not easier, and Apple and Google have already begun scaling up their smartphone platforms to larger touchscreen tablet devices. Soon these simpler operating systems will run on laptops, desktops, and televisions, with new features added as they are demanded. No, they aren’t yet able to multitask and file manage as well as Windows 7, and they probably can’t open an ISO file, but they’ll be damn close in the next year or two. For 90 percent of people, an Android or iOS powered laptop will soon become a very attractive offer.

Microsoft’s biggest problem is that it seems intent on taking the opposite approach. Instead of building up Windows Phone 7, which is a completely capable new platform, Microsoft is trying to pare Windows 7 down. Sadly, Sinofsky and Steve Ballmer lack the courage to simplify or cut anything. The Redmond giant has created a completely new interface for Windows 8, but it doesn’t seem to know how to implement it in a way that satisfies the needs of a majority of its users. 

Windows Business or Windows Touch? 

Twin identities didn’t work for the Nutty Professor, and they won’t work for Windows. If Microsoft doesn’t believe it can effectively create productivity applications and tools using the new Windows 8 interface, why introduce it at all? I’ve heard some tech pundits say the secret of Apple’s success is that it builds its new interfaces so that 90 percent of users will love it 90 percent of the time. If Sinofsky and his team are excited about the new interface, and confident that it can do enough to satisfy 90 percent of users, 90 percent of the time, then why does it need to be tethered to Windows 7 at all?  

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If Microsoft is too scared to leave legacy Windows behind, why not release a simpler version of Office and other productivity apps for Windows Touch and keep the complicated junk in Windows Business? Make these operating systems separate. If you want to make extra money, offer them as a bundle in a Windows Ultimate edition, meant for crazy people who welcome all of the problems and inconsistencies I’ve laid out. If that doesn’t sound like a good idea, well, neither is having two completely separate user experiences in one box that’s intended for the general public. Every time a new Windows 8 user encounters the Windows 7 interface they are likely to get confused, and every time an old Windows user encounters the new touch interface, they’ll probably get frustrated. And you know what will probably happen? They’ll choose one or the other. Everyone will draw a battle line in the sand. That’s no good. If either of the two sides of Windows 8 are to succeed, they’re going to need to remain almost entirely separate from one another. The more users are forced to switch between them, the more annoying Windows 8 will be. 

Tough times, hard choices

Windows has served us well for a quarter century. It’s enabled our digital world and without it, smartphones and tablets likely wouldn’t exist. But now we’re entering a new era where the computer begins to take on an enormous number of new sizes and functions. The success of the iPhone, and now Android, are speeding this transition up. For years, everything was about more power and more features. Now we have a more varied set of concerns. Battery life, speed, and simplicity are king. There is still a place for Windows in the future. After all, we need an operating system that can handle a lot of tasks at once and do strange new things, but we may not need it to look or act like Windows of old.  

I understand that Microsoft wants to cater to power users and make an operating system that is everything to everyone, but it needs to be willing, like Apple, to take real risks and not hedge every bet. Microsoft bet big with Windows Phone 7. The gamble hasn’t paid off yet, but if it holds steady, the OS will likely catch on. (I’m considering a Windows Phone 7.5 ‘Mango’ device myself, assuming it can compete toe-to-toe with Android Ice Cream Sandwich and iOS 5 on features.) Fortunately, unlike the smartphone market, Microsoft hasn’t yet fallen behind in the PC space. Apple remains its only true competition, but that is changing fast. If it hopes to stave off Android and other smartphone players from fully entering the PC space, Microsoft needs to show that it can stick to its guns. Windows 8 needs to be more than a copy of Windows 7 with a glossy new Start screen.

We should learn more about Windows 8 in the coming months. Microsoft, please prove me wrong. I’d love to be wrong.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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