Saturday, December 1, 2012

End of the Windows eXPerience: Windows 8 is not my idea


It was bound to happen some day. It's finally happened. Microsoft Windows as I loved it is dead. Let me perform its funeral and give a eulogy. Microsoft killed the Windows I loved. What remains is a system that you must use only in the way Microsoft wants you to use it. As XP is killed, Microsoft has forgotten long ago what the company was all about. It has turned into a battle with Apple and Google to control over digital lives, how we should use our PCs will be dictated at every step. Every system after XP has been retarded at usability. They changed a perfectly good, consistent UI into something gimmicky, non-customizable and unproductive. Apple-envy has made Windows end up as a convoluted contraption that is neither simple nor logical and powerful. You have to constantly fight against the OS to do what you want and in the end, you still can't do what you want because Microsoft removed the feature. Windows XP is the last OS for power users, developers, IT pros. All later Windows systems are so consumer-oriented that you must struggle to work the way you want, features are just lacking. And yet this scam of eliminating features is openly continuing.     

It started with this:
Features removed in Windows Vista
Features removed in Windows 7
and ended with this:
Features removed in Windows 8

Windows 8 is definitely far worse than Windows Vista. The vision behind Windows Vista was good but the execution flawed. The vision behind Windows 7 was the same as Vista, and slightly better execution (+some blackmail about XP getting unsupported) resulted in Windows 7 succeed despite it being not as good as Windows XP. Now it's not that I completely overlook the important innovations in security, graphics, networking, audio, management, deployment - just about every core improvement Vista/7 brought over XP so as soon as my UX issues were resolved, I upgraded, even though I am not really pleased with the Windows 7 desktop UX at all. It's far from my idea, it pisses me off many times but I still use it.

Windows 8 on the other hand is a horribly flawed vision. So it doesn't matter how they execute it. It won't be accepted.

It is neither my idea of customizable, powerful and backward compatible desktop computing, nor productive and usable mobile computing. I just don't like it because it is dumbed down, it removes what I liked and what it is ugly. Liking an interface, liking a design, liking its features, liking its compatibility - all these are very important to enjoy its UX. Windows 8 is engineered on the fundamentally incorrect decision that Microsoft took to merge their mobile platform with the desktop when they should have been separate or merged without any compromises. Microsoft has lost the value it once had for backward compatibility of design, UI and features. This is similar to the rant that Jim Allchin made around the Windows Vista timeframe. They have lost their way, they do not understand how important current ecosystem and current features are. For power users who expect a little more customization, Windows is not what it used to be. Form, over-simplification and bad design have completely taken over the User Experience at Microsoft so function, usability, compatibility of software are all harmed.

While Windows Vista had other issues, mainly the ecosystem not being ready, one of its core issues was that the UX was not up to the level of backward compatibility we had come to expect from Microsoft. It made dramatic changes to the Windows XP UX. For the most part, Windows 7 had a backward compatible design with Windows Vista, although many features were carelessly dropped. Windows 7 nearly reached that same level of usability, customization and compatibility that Windows XP offered, but not because Microsoft fixed things, but because the ecosystem caught up and created workarounds, fixes and replacements for missing features. They just "made it work".

The feature loss problem that has cropped up at Microsoft has made Windows 7 a half-baked successor to the venerable XP, with many shell features missing. Efforts like Classic Shell made it almost worthwhile but it can’t fix everything. Microsoft's failure to understand good usability and backward compatible design made basic scenarios difficult. I noticed this problem with Windows 7 and Windows Vista and listed those issues which Microsoft should have fixed, but they continued to ignore those under the new policy of engineering the OS entirely based on internal decisions, and telemetry, ignoring all direct outside feedback.
Most of the world is now going to see and experience those same issues with Windows 8 - because the changes made this time around are even more drastic, even more reckless. Windows 8 acceptability is absolutely out of the question because of far too many interface issues that Microsoft continues to ignore. While Windows 7 got the seal of approval from most casual PC users who just wanted to get their job done and switch to a modern OS from the aging XP platform, enthusiasts like me who demand UX perfection cannot use or recommend even Windows 7, because Microsoft ignored all design bugs and issues which were not present in XP and moved to an engineering process that works in total secrecy. A little feature, bug or two that got ignored or broken, I can tolerate. Hundreds of ignored issues that make up a truly annoying experience, no I cannot accept. And what about design? That Metro-style design will appeal to millions? Does Microsoft really think that? Microsoft's Design has also collapsed with Metro, not just their understanding of usability and backward compatibility.
I seeked perfection and aimed to restore balance to power user features by sharply criticizing Microsoft's careless approach to OS design after XP, because no amount of feedback would work in this secrecy-centric development model that has decided to make desktop computing secondary and more dumbed down. Unfortunately, the Windows team misunderstands any criticism of their product as hatred and anti-Windows propaganda. They are just interested in taking your money, but have no commitment to delivering a backward compatible, high quality product.

So, I think it is time that I bid a tearful farewell to the great OS I once fell in love with, back when Windows 95 was introduced. Now it is getting easier for grandma (if you love Windows 8, you are a grandma in denial, no offense meant to those who are real grandmas but efficient at using computers), but it is just getting impossibly difficult to use my computer with Windows the way I want. It is time to give up the enthusiasm and loyalty, and find another platform, one that simply retains the features and customization of the previous version and is committed to the same backward compatible design and feature set that Windows once offered - not a big thing to expect, is it? Windows was special, and backward compatible design was what made it succeed and dominant that like no other OS, Apple was never committed to such a level of backward compatibility which is why the business world uses Windows.
Hopefully, some day, someone at Microsoft will come to their senses. Even if they don't, most people might still upgrade because they are all casual users, they just want to get their job done and run their favorite app, as long as they don't miss any particular feature they used, they will find this OS okay. But they will sooner or later come across a deal-breaking feature omission. It really is a shame because Microsoft almost fixed Windows Vista with Windows 7, but never quite got the UX perfect - still too many ignored issues. Due to the change of management, the development changed to a process of total secrecy and then they behave as if the problems don't exist because it is too late in the lifecycle to fix them. The engineering process is also flawed because it leaves no time for the core design to be changed when the public gets to see it.

Windows 7 was the Longhorn vision realized - it was a hit based on Windows Vista innovations, people's passion and goodwill it generated by promising to fix Windows Vista's flaws and the illusion which they created that the mistakes with Windows Vista won't be repeated. Windows 7 only came to dominate because Microsoft stopped all sales of XP and XP being a very old release, they could trash it and convince casual users to upgrade because they don't have the same requirements of backward compatibility or customization. But Microsoft blew it again with Windows 8 by oversimplification, arrogance, overconfidence and refusal to listen to customers.
It was a pleasure using Windows for 20 years while the eXPerience lasted. Thank you Microsoft for that. Now it is getting long in the tooth. And should they ever realize this problem, they will always find power users like me ready to assist them with User Experience because they have been failing miserably to make it as backward compatible as it should be after the 2001 release, Windows XP. Backward compatibility isn't just about being able to run older third party apps, it's about features in the OS itself and that is exactly the problem Microsoft's upper management does not understand. The problem with upgrading isn't about adapting to change or fear of learning new ways to work. It is not the case that the UI is simply different and features are the same, the problem is - missing features in the "upgraded" release. The problem isn't the end of life of XP after supporting it for 12.5 years, I would have dumped XP the next day if there was a true replacement available. The problem is that its replacements do not have a large amount of essential features, and successive versions of Windows also continue to drop features of their predecessors.

If you really care about customization of core UI, productivity, usability, shell features and backward compatible design, stay away from Windows 8 even if you use Windows 7 and not XP. You will never get a higher quality Windows if you "upgrade" to this low quality OS. If you are just a casual user with basic computing requirements, then this OS is for you, you won’t even notice that stuff is missing. But you should stick with Windows 7 as long as possible because of the way this OS ignores power users. The Building Windows 8 blog goes to great lengths to convince you that Windows 8 is "improved" but it really is a regression in many ways - whatever changes they have made under the hood and on the desktop side are also merely changes to adapt the OS for the mobile market in most cases, and actual improvements are too minor. One example is the Task Manager, which is "new" and "improved" but it really is an abomination designed without any backward compatibility in mind, mainly for Metro style apps. Let me put it this way - they are no longer capable of wholly improving anything while preserving the existing design and feature set. They change everything causing massive regressions in functionality. If something is broken or not working as well, they don’t fix it or improve it, they abandon it and build a half baked replacement from scratch. Believe it or not, Windows 8 is a heavily dumbed down version of Windows 7, and I am not talking just about the Start menu. You will come across hundreds of little features and options missing here and there - in Explorer, in Task manager, in Control Panel, in Accessories, in RDP client, in Windows programs. It's like a cancer spreading inside Microsoft, someone deliberately pulls features and configurable settings randomly from everywhere.
Windows XP will serve me till it is supported. Windows 7 can be my idea with a few hotfixes from the shell team which change the design of the Windows Shell to make it USABLE from its current UNUSABLE state. But I think I must try Apple now - all these years, from Windows 95 to Windows XP, Microsoft was so good, that I didn't have the need to try Apple at all - Apple is elitist, Apple has short life cycles, Apple is way-overpriced, Apple enforces planned obsolescence faster than Microsoft, Apple is dumbed down, Apple places simplicity above all else, Apple removes features - but still I think it can't be any worse than Windows 8. Once it becomes impossible to run Windows XP I think I will switch to Apple's OS X or Linux Mint and iOS or Android platforms but it is not a guaranteed move until I find them as comfortable as Windows. Then there is always Android to keep Apple and Microsoft on their toes. Google has not cheated users so far by "simplifying" a more advanced, more capable product. Even though I have said my goodbyes to my enthusiasm of Windows, it is not an irreversible decision. While I won't be using Windows on a daily basis, I will still be keeping a tab on the Windows side of things once in a while to see if a good enough Windows OS for me comes along. And of course to continue testing Classic Shell. All those poor souls stuck with Windows need help, because some of them don't know how to install another OS, some of them have app dependencies on Windows at home or work. I will certainly be running evaluation versions of Windows to test Classic Shell. But if you are a wise business user or personal user of Windows, now is the time to dump this OS which doesn't respect your choice, opinion and investment you made in the platform, and in previously included features. The current trend at Microsoft shows that things won't be as backward compatible as they used to be. Windows Vista was supposed to be a modern fresh beginning while maintaining a relatively high level of compatibility with most apps and system features, but it didn't turn out to be that way. How many resets and fresh starts they will keep making? The best days of Windows and Microsoft innovation are behind us because they have lost the value of backward compatible product design and do not understand how it affects their users. Just how bad the situation at Microsoft is right now? It's pretty bad in my opinion. They have not only lost their way, but they cannot figure out what's wrong with their failing products, when I can clearly see it ever since Vista. Microsoft has lost all understanding of importance of backward compatibility, usability, productivity, good user interfaces, and good UX. Period. At least during Vista development, they were listening to external feedback. Now they aren’t interested in listening to outsiders either.

It's not like I would have rejected the new Windows 8 interface completely. Touch and mobility are two important factors why Steven Sinofsky said a new kind of Apps model with touch-friendly UI and battery life awareness was required. I completely agree with that. I was actually enjoying the interface (despite the terrible Metro design) until the Start Menu and other desktop features were removed. The desktop should be there unharmed. The moment, they harm even one bit of the desktop, they lose credibility and trust. The new Apps model doesn't make sense for serious productivity, it lacks a number of must-have features. Two core elements lacking are an efficient way to switch between Apps and extremely low data density on-screen due to oversimplification or an incomplete job on the Apps and controls being larger to accommodate touch.

The Windows UX/Shell team is so incompetent that I would like to offer my services to Microsoft to help them. I have focus and direction, I have a very clear direction and vision of what needs to be done to compete with Apple, I am not lost like Microsoft is. They just build new experiences without maintaining any continuity. I have been helping to fix Windows 7 and Windows Vista as well since 2009 with Classic Shell and it's time Microsoft sorted out their UI and design issues or risk getting increasingly irrelevant. The day when the foolish Windows Shell/UX team stops damaging existing features to promote new ones is when Windows will return to its former level of backward compatibility and users will start upgrading their systems as fast as they can. It has become an issue of trust. We can't trust Microsoft any more, they will randomly yank something. By the time you like it and start using it, it will be removed citing some stupid reason and you will be told to use something less capable in its place. Microsoft's basic thinking and outlook regarding how they should design for customers needs to change. They need to go back to their roots and understand why it is super-important to fix regressions with the highest priority, why the user is intelligent enough to make choices when given different options and why there should be more openness in the entire design/development process of such a widely-used operating system.

What's happened to Microsoft today is that they have lost touch with their customer base. They're removing Windows features based on telemetry which their users are telling them to retain! In fact, that's the only user expectation. We users love what Microsoft does, what we don't like is innovation getting killed in the next release. What Windows users want Microsoft to do is to preserve all the innovation that came in earlier releases by doing incremental changes, and adopting once again a backward compatible design strategy like they did in the 90s. That's exactly what Microsoft is refusing to do!
Okay so another question people ask me is why is Windows 7 not my idea. Windows 8 is not getting universally accepted they understand, but why not Windows 7? It's a perfect OS, right? Wrong. Windows 7 and Windows Vista, the shell team made some pretty unacceptable regressions and oversimplified it. I will not accept a dumbed down file manager or use a third party one, none of them have a pleasant UX. The Shell team needs to create hotfixes for the Explorer to fix some major usability flaws. Things like auto sorting make it UNUSABLE, it just makes folders UNUSABLE. After making these design changes with hotfixes or in a Service Pack, Windows 7 will be my idea. Well, that too only till 2020 because Microsoft thinks Windows 8 should replace Windows 7 and everyone should be happy about it. So, XP users upgrading to Windows 7 is pointless because Windows 8 awaits you with its "simplifying" agenda. At what point, will I switch to Apple? I don't know but I have started exploring Apple products definitely, while still on Windows. It is not an overnight switch for me, but a very gradual one when at some point, when the alternatives allow me to do all the things I do with Windows XP and Windows 7.
How does Microsoft fix the mess that is Windows 8? The answer to that is simple, the trouble is whether Microsoft is willing to bend backwards to understand how important backward compatible design is. They just have to restore all desktop features of Windows 7. Restoring only the Start Menu isn't going to help fix Windows 8. They must keep the two worlds entirely separate where the user's scenario doesn't involve switching between them unless he's done with his "Work" and "Play". Above all, don't sacrifice or make drastic changes to previously shipped Windows features for any reason - that makes users mad with rage. If Microsoft need help how to seamlessly integrate new features with the old stuff, my consultation services are available. I have comprehensive knowledge of end user-level Windows features that add value along with how to make the OS more likeable, more usable.
Another sad thing in these platform wars is that Microsoft has abandoned their originality. In their fight to copy Apple's success, they forgot what they were good at - what their own strengths were vs Apple, why their loyal customers chose Microsoft over Apple, what was absolutely special and unique about Microsoft products, why their innovation used to be so good that they didn't need to copy Apple in every single area, giving up their core strength of backward compatible design and consistent UI. They were the only company that could beat Apple in the 90s. It was because of the superior backward compatible UX of Windows, which protected the user's investment in time, money and effort. If Microsoft continues with what Windows 8 introduced, Windows is no longer my idea. Apple was the greedy conscience-less demon from which Microsoft saved us all and now it's become just like them. So if both companies are the same now, I might as well go for Apple as it has superior design and a desktop OS less crippled than Windows 8.
I have decided to try OS X and Linux Mint (a usability focused Linux distro!). Both are decent representations of what a modern, uncrippled pure desktop OS is, with high battery life as an advantage over Windows. Microsoft knows where to contact me for helping them if they want to bring Windows again on the right track.