Thinkertry
The danger of backtracking Windows 8
Jan 31, 2014

News started circulating yesterday that an update to Windows 8.1 would make PCs boot to the classic desktop instead of the Start screen by default.

The Verge:

We understand the latest internal builds of Windows 8.1 Update 1 have the boot-to-desktop option enabled by default, a change that Wzor noted earlier today. The update is still in development, and Microsoft could alter this further before it ships, but it’s currently being changed to appease desktop users. It may seem like a minor change, but the move reverses parts of Microsoft’s original vision for Windows 8. While some critics argued Microsoft simply forced the Start Screen interface onto desktop PCs with little regard for keyboard and mouse users, the company pitched its “Metro” environment as the future of Windows.

Changing the face of Windows to appease desktop users…

I am not a fan of that plan.

Thinking back to 2011

2011 was a big year. Everyone was happy with Windows 7 (which launched in 2009) and it was expected that Windows 8 would build iteratively upon that success. Microsoft was going to play it safe, make money, sell Office – the usual.

For most people, that was totally fine. Windows 7 was a ‘worthy’ successor to XP after the Vista failure, and people were comfortable using it. For many users the desktop had reached a point of near-perfection thanks to the ability to pin favorite programs to the taskbar and snap windows around.

It was fast, efficient, and people liked it. Great.

But the writing for Windows 7, and Microsoft more generally, was on the wall. The iPad (launched in 2010) proved that a full-fledged computer wasn’t always necessary, and that touch-based tablet computing was going to be the next big thing.

You would think that Microsoft would’ve been totally blindsided by the iPad, just like they were with the iPhone. The company with “a complete lack of taste” would try to convince people that Windows 7 + Tablet PC + Stylus was better than the iPad because it had full Windows on it, and the world would move past them. Again.

The enormous sense of relief that Windows 7 provided after Vista was temporary. Microsoft had gotten its footing back, but it was headed toward another fall – potentially its last – and very few people were talking about it.

So what happened?

“Holy crap, Microsoft has a vision”

It turned out that Microsoft had actually looked into the future further than 4 years and realized that Windows needed to change, even before the iPad was announced. Windows 8 was first revealed at D9 in June and detailed at BUILD 2011 that September, and it felt like looking at the future. I still remember having a “holy crap” moment when I saw the first demo.

What Microsoft was doing was incredibly ambitious. Somehow a design team with vision had taken control of Windows, and they were shaking up the entirety of Microsoft, including its mysteriously flag-shaped logo.

Windows was one experience, on all of your devices, for everything in your life. Wow.

Reimagining Windows

The sheer number of changes and improvements made from Windows 7 to Windows 8, even if you exclude Metro, was amazing. Microsoft did a ton of work between the two releases, but hardly anyone gives them credit.

The battery-sucking Aero glass effect was removed, boot times were cut to 3-10 seconds (which is still nuts), performance was even better than Windows 7, task manager was massively improved, Security Essentials was built-in, Gadgets were removed, SkyDrive was leveraged to sync settings, and everything was just, better.

From a purely technological perspective, Windows 8 is better than Windows 7. I feel absolutely no doubt in saying that. If you’re a power user (as in, you use task manager and know about the registry) then Windows 8 is better for you, absolutely.

From every other perspective, however, people have found a lot to hate.

The Backlash

“WHAT IS THIS METRO  SH** I JUST WANT DESKTOP + START –> M$ = FAIL!”

Clearly, Microsoft’s decision to mix the touch and mouse/keyboard worlds was poorly-received. People hated the fact that the desktop didn’t show up when you first booted, and that the Start menu and search bar were missing entirely. These two things confused a lot of people, and for whatever reason Microsoft did a really bad job at introducing the edge gestures to new users until it was too late.

Windows 8.1 did a lot to fix these issues, but it’s still Windows *8*.1 – not a Windows 9. Until Microsoft re-numbers or re-brands the OS, the bad perception, warranted or not, is going to stick.

Heck, even the IT crew at my school hates Windows 8 – apparently students are blaming their viruses and hardware defects on the fact that their computer is simply running Windows 8. That’s a sign of terrible, irreparable damage.

The bad publicity Windows 8 has gotten isn’t the most dangerous thing though – it’s what Microsoft now appears to be doing about it.

Un-imagining Windows

You know who considers Windows 8 to be the next Vista? Microsoft itself, and that is terrible.

I’m sure that behind closed doors the design team that architected the new Windows is taking a lot of heat, and at this point it’s obvious that their hands are being forced. They’re reverting back to designing by committee, metrics, and whatever made people happy about Windows 7.

The return of the Start button (sans menu) and seamless wallpaper were good decisions, but the rumored changes in the next update to Windows – the power and search buttons on the Start screen, and the boot-to-desktop default – reveal that the designers are no longer in control of the asylum, so to speak.

These changes backtrack far too much on Windows 8′s original vision, and that is a really bad thing. The designers who were once in total control of Windows’ future now seem to building Windows 7.5, and the marketing/ad team is (as usual) not being blamed for its mistakes.

Here’s why I’m worried about these changes.

The desktop is no longer a killer “app” – it’s the second face of Windows

By not consistently booting into the Start screen on desktops and laptops by default, Windows is now 100% two-faced, just as people have made it out to be.

If the Start screen is no longer the starting place for the majority of users, then what is it? It’s not a Start screen – it’s a screen you have absolutely no incentive to customize, no desire to explore, and no reason to spend more than two seconds in. It becomes a glorified search screen with a power button. A ridiculously blown-up Start menu.

Despite what Microsoft would ever officially say, all of the design decisions made in Windows 8 and 8.1 treated the Windows desktop as just another app. A “killer app” that differentiated it from the iPad, sure, but one that was never intended to once again be the face of Windows (except for geeks who knew where to look). The advertising team reinforced that notion by focusing on Metro in their ads. They only started emphasizing the fact that the desktop is still present when 8.1 was released.

For many people, the Start screen will be nothing more than a weird distraction like OS X’s Launchpad, and they’ll still want the old start button and menu back.

Touch is becoming secondary

By de-emphasizing Metro’s importance in Windows, Microsoft is also de-emphasizing touch. Touch always has been and always will be better in Metro apps and the Start screen – not on any app that you run on the desktop. Considering how committed manufacturers have been in including touchable displays in their new laptops, a sudden switcheroo that boots these users to the desktop doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Backtracking on touch is backtracking on the future. Microsoft has a great thing going with its edge gesture idea, which makes touchscreens on laptops not suck as much as Apple had us believe, but after this update users are going to be trained to go to the Start screen and use the search button instead of swiping their screen’s edge. This change also discourages them from learning about sharing things between apps, quickly switching settings, or printing things, which are all found in that same right-hand edge menu.

Windows 8.1 Corner Tip

It’s understandable for users to have a hard time accessing what they can’t readily see, but somehow Android and iOS have managed to not have a problem with this. Users often come across Notification Center or Control Center accidentally, but once they do, they quickly learn and can repeat the same behavior. One of my family members, for example, accidentally discovered Notification Center’s “Today” view and liked it, so she continues to use it.

The same could’ve been true of Windows’ edge gestures if only Microsoft had made it more apparent that they existed. They eventually did in Windows 8.1 during the setup process and with the one-time tip shown here, but a better job could have been done when Windows 8 originally launched.

One extra implication of this change is that apps from Microsoft’s store will be de-emphasized as well, which isn’t good for anyone.

People will still hate Windows 8

Power users – the ones who use stuff life Command Prompt, Task Manager, and sometimes tiptoe around in the Registry – will still continue to hate Windows 8/8.1/8.2 despite the vast improvements to so many of the things that power users care about, which I still don’t understand. The commenters on tech blogs are all more than capable of understanding Windows 8′s Start screen and Metro UI, but refuse to do so because Windows 7 is good enough for them (and they want people to know that).

Casual users – grandpas and college kids, apparently – will still hate it because of its invisible edge gestures and lack of a tried-and-true Start menu. The new power and search icons on the Start screen are meant to help them, but I’m not convinced they’ll care or notice the change (if they even update at all).

Enterprise admins will also still hate it. Windows 7 is their clear upgrade path from XP, and I don’t think anything involving Metro and personalization/customization stuff will make them change their minds.

As for a generally happy user like myself, if these changes are implemented then yeah, I’m probably going to dislike Windows 8 more too. I don’t need the Power or Search icons to be in my Start menu – I’m completely trained at this point to hover over my screen’s corner to access those settings where they’re supposed to be. Eventually, if I ever get a touchable Windows-based device, I imagine the switch to edge gestures will feel perfectly natural.

Why I’m rooting for Microsoft’s design team

Even with this update, the people who hate Windows 8 are going to continue hating it. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it seems the designers responsible for Windows 8 don’t stand a chance – tried and true Windows users will hate anything that makes things less like Windows 7. Apparently people really friggin’ love their Start menu.

My Windows 8.1 Desktop

Unfortunately, many angry Windows users just don’t stop to consider what would’ve happened if Microsoft had stayed the course – kept improving the desktop, didn’t try to unify its platform, and decided not to bother trying to enter the “PC Plus” era at all. I know that some people consider Microsoft next-in-line after RIM/BlackBerry at the moment, but if this whole “One Microsoft” thing weren’t happening, I think they’d be much, much closer to death’s door. The tech press wouldn’t care about them, that’s for sure.

In my mind, the innovation – yes, innovation – that Windows 8 is and represents is the only thing keeping Microsoft up there with Apple and Google right now in the consumer market. The people who made Windows 8 (and Windows 7) have the ability to secure their company’s future by finishing what they started, but unfortunately they seem to be busy butting heads with Microsoft’s old guard.

Metro has to be Windows’ future, but it can’t succeed if its designers are forced to integrate the past. Microsoft needs to approach this problem not by enslaving its design team, but by changing its stance on delivering what customers need vs what customers want. Honestly, it has to pull off something Apple has done time and time again: say no (and advertise better).

Right now, under Steve Ballmer, it seems like Microsoft isn’t prepared to do that. At the risk of hurting itself permanently, the company is kneeling before its perpetually-unhappy enterprise customers and desktop loyalists and hoping to be forgiven with the next update. So long as the future involves Metro, that doesn’t seem likely.

Microsoft’s next CEO, it seems, has an important decision to make.

Is the desktop an app, or Windows itself?

My Windows 8.1 Start Screen

T-Mobile CEO John Legere at CES 2014
Jan 12, 2014
Link · News · Tech · Video

Really fun to watch him rip into the competition. The honesty is really refreshing.

I wish someone like this was poking and prodding the cable industry. He may be off-putting, but so are the competitors he’s constantly making fun of.

He also reminds me of Randall Boggs from Monsters Inc. Not sure why.

“You had me at scrolling”
Jan 12, 2014

The original iPhone was first shown to the public on January 9th, 2007.

That was 7 years ago. Wow.

Listen to the crowd as Steve Jobs demonstrated swipe-to-unlock, pinch-to-zoom, visual voicemail, scrolling, double-tapping, and all the basic smartphone features and interactions that we take for granted today. The presentation was carefully planned to avoid the surfacing of bugs and crashes, and it went flawlessly.

“Why The Pull-To-Refresh Gesture Must Die”
Jan 9, 2014

Sensational headline and a weird argument from Co.Design. Starting to dislike them.

Until syncing and refreshing stuff is completely automatic, instantaneous and works 100% of the time (seriously, 100%) users need a way to manually refresh their lists/feeds, and I don’t think we’re going back to refresh buttons.

“I got an iPad!”
Jan 9, 2014

Awesome. Via Reddit:

For some background on this video and my uncle – Henry is hearing & speech impaired. He has a heart of gold and everyone who meets Henry absolutely loves him. Henry is also a kid at heart and loves hot wheels, cars, and especially games on his iPhone. Because we appreciate Henry so much and wanted to show him how much he is loved, we all pitched in and got Henry the ultimate gift (as you can see, he was quite happy). That moment was pure joy and excitement. Henry is probably playing games on his new iPad right now :)

Many years ago, before the iPhone, my family all pitched in to buy my grandpa an iPod for Christmas. I’ll never forget the moment he realized what was in the box.

It’s always 10:10 in watch ads
Dec 8, 2013
Design · Fun · Link · Tech · Video

Good observation by Brady Haran.

Rationalizing it:

  • Neither hand should be pointing downward (because down is just a bad thing psychologically)
  • The longer minute hand should be on the right (again, just psychological, it’s like we’re reading the watch’s face)
  • The hands should be mostly symmetrical to look clean
  • The hands should be readily discernible, which means they can’t be in a line (9:15 is out)
  • The hands should frame rather than cramp the logo near the top of the watch face (11:05 is out)
  • The thin and less important second hand can go wherever, so long as it doesn’t overlap one of the other hands (below 6 and 9 is common because it slightly balances out the long minute hand and doesn’t further crowd the top half of the watch face)

And that leaves 10:10, or somewhere thereabouts. Neat.

MOGA Ace Power iOS Controller
Nov 23, 2013
Design · Future · Gaming · Link · Rant · Tech · Video

Haven’t tried it, but it looks like a dud. The A/B/X/Y buttons click too much, there’s no headphone jack, the plastic quality isn’t great, it costs $100, and it isn’t going to attract enough developer attention to make adding gamepad support standard practice. It also has a reset switch, for whatever reason.

Not entirely related, but interesting to hear at 4:27:

You can play over AirPlay via mirroring, but the problem with that is the tiny, tiny lag between the controller and your iPod Touch and then all that getting blasted up into AirPlay and then down to your Apple TV and back to your TV, adds enough latency that it becomes pretty noticeable, especially in games where any kind of precision is valued.

The current implementation of AirPlay is fine for showing photos and videos to your family and occasionally mirroring your screen, but it isn’t good enough for gaming – when response time becomes extremely important.

AirPlay Direct, the thing I’ve been waiting for Apple to announce for over a year now, would be the solution to this problem. Both the Wii U GamePad and Xbox One controller utilize their own variations of WiFi Direct technology to offer extremely quick input with minimal lag, fast data throughput, and in the GamePad’s case, full display mirroring over the air. Bluetooth 4.0 would also work and be more power efficient (the PS4′s controller actually uses Bluetooth 2.1) but wouldn’t be appropriate for multi-screen interactions, which is what Apple would probably want. Xbox’s SmartGlass app uses WiFi Direct (when available) for this reason.

At this point my best guess is that AirPlay Direct will launch whenever Apple’s TV does. It would be useful for the many reasons I’ve mentioned previously, but the most obvious benefits are all TV and media-related. Here’s to late 2014

How Sapphire Glass is made
Nov 23, 2013
Future · Link · News · Tech · Video

Looks like this will become a thing in the near future. I wonder what Gorilla Glass will do next – it seems that they’ve been outclassed.

Relying on autopilot
Nov 23, 2013

The FAA commissioned a study to identify the biggest threats to flight safety that exist today. One threat in particular stood out.

Via the Wall Street Journal:

A soon-to-be-released study commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration determined, among other things, that “pilots sometimes rely too much on automated systems and may be reluctant to intervene” or switch them off in unusual or risky circumstances….

Relying too heavily on computer-driven flight decks—and problems that result when crews fail to properly keep up with changes in levels of automation—now pose the biggest threats to airliner safety world-wide, the study concluded. The results can range from degraded manual-flying skills to poor decision-making to possible erosion of confidence among some aviators when automation abruptly malfunctions or disconnects during an emergency….

According to the draft, “the definition of ‘normal’ pilot skills has changed over time” and “has actually increased to being a manager of systems.” Concerned about the hazards of cockpit “information overload,” the draft noted that several manufacturers told the panel that “today’s technology allows for too much information to be presented to the pilot.”

Automation has made commercial airline travel safer and easier than ever before, but it’s definitely not a perfect solution. Semi-automatic systems that require humans to oversee them never are, because we humans have laughably short attention spans compared to machines.

As the report notes, commercial airline pilots today are more like watch guards than aviators – constantly checking to make sure that all the blinking lights are green and good to go. That’s incredibly boring; almost as boring as driving on a long, open road at night with no music and nobody to talk to. Humans need something to do at all times, and we can’t be expected to remain diligent for long periods – we’re just not built that way.

The extra flight training and simplified flight panels the report recommends will help somewhat, but unfortunately whatever protocols are established will never be able to change as fast as technology does. Human Factors professionals are the ones responsible to try and bridge this gap, helping both machines and humans understand each other’s current status more accurately. Unfortunately that’s the best we can do, and it’s a constant struggle.

Admittedly, these issues are kind of out of the public’s eye right now, but you can bet they’ll become a big deal in the news when self-driving cars, wearable computers, and automated homes start to blow up. Some automated mechanisms in our cars have made things safer, like ABS, but other features like active lane-assist and adaptive cruise control are exactly the types of “helpful” semi-automatic behavior that these pilots are struggling with. Car manufacturers insist that they make things easier, but they also add complexity to our dashboards and allow us to pay less attention to the road conditions around us.

The day will come when a court has trouble determining whether a car driver or the car’s manufacturer is responsible for the injury or death of another person. “The car was supposed to stop” is the phrase that will let us know when that day has arrived.

Here’s a (rewritten) Verge article that I expect we’ll see sometime around 2023:

The tendency of drivers to rely on automated systems now represents the biggest threat to road safety around the world, according to a new study commissioned by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Drivers now struggle with manual driving tasks and in some cases fail to keep pace with changing technology in the driver’s seat, according to the Wall Street Journal, which saw a draft copy of the report. As a result, some drivers lack the knowledge or skills to properly control their cars, particularly in unusual situations.

The report acknowledges that automation has made driving much safer overall. At the same time, when the 34-member panel examined reports from accidents, they found that about two-thirds of drivers had struggled with driving their cars manually or made errors with the onboard computers. Among other incidents, driver errors and automated systems were found to have played a role in a 2023 highway crash that killed 57 people and the failed stopping of an automated Electric Megabus in San Francisco in July.

Vanamo Online Game Museum
Nov 3, 2013
Gaming · Link · News · Tech · Video

Awesome Kickstarter project that’ll collect and photograph video game hardware so that the world has unrestricted access to high-quality photos of old consoles. Really glad it’s funded -  the quality of his work speaks for itself.

Also note: Evan Amos, the photographer, isn’t keeping the consoles; once he’s done taking photos he plans to donate them to The NYU Game Center and The International Center for the History of Electronic Games to be stored in their archives. That was my only worry when watching the intro video, and I’m glad he’s doing the right thing.

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