Cutting to the Bone


The announcement of Windows 8 and its subsequent demos were interesting for many reasons, not the least of which was its inevitable comparison to Lion, iOS, and Android. To be fair, Android should generally be left out of this comparison since it doesn’t have a true desktop operating system (yet), but periodic comparisons have to be made.

Windows 8’s user interface, at least the touch portion, looks good. I like the clean, muted-color aesthetic, and the transitions between apps looks natural and pleasing (similar to the Star Trek LCARS aesthetic, but a little bit sharper). The way that Microsoft is pushing this thing, however, is silly to me. Recently, I wrote about Apple playing “catch-up” with this release, but something I failed to address was the simplicity of the whole experience, and this is ultimately the most important aspect of the entire OS.

I can wax poetic about the history of the personal computer and its role in our lives, the changes that personal computing has brought to our lives and how we experience the world around us, but it’s unnecessary. We all know that the face of personal computing is changing rapidly and being redefined constantly. Instead, let’s ask a fundamental question:

Why are computers becoming “simpler”?

I know lots of people who lament the “over-simplification” of today’s computers. Computers should require lots of specialized knowledge and time to learn, in the opinion of many folks. They don’t understand that all the layers of schlock the operating system puts in between a user and the task that they wish to accomplish are unnecessary and silly. In order to build a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, for instance, I need to understand Microsoft Excel conventions and jargon on top of Microsoft Windows conventions and jargon. This is difficult, and it gets in the way of actually accomplishing things. The learning of the tool takes up more time and energy than using it. This is bad technology, but has come to be accepted.

Companies that design software continue to simplify it so that it gets out of the way of the user’s intentions and goals, so that it helps them accomplish what they need to accomplish. This is good technology, and has difficulty gaining traction because the software almost looks like a toy compared to the byzantine and grotesque software hydras that have become commonplace in the world.

I remember using my Palm Treo 700w, the Windows Mobile version of the popular Palm smartphone. It had a custom build of the Windows Mobile software that was tuned for the Palm “experience” which meant that it worked better than standard windows. I thought it was really great, but what really blew me away was a software shell (a layer over the standard Windows Mobile OS that looked way better than the standard home screen) by SPB called “SPB Mobile Shell”. This was right around the time the iPhone was introduced, incidentally. I tried using this OS shell for a while because it was “touch-friendly” (where have we heard that before?), but ultimately gave up because the phone was still using a really ugly, really unusable OS designed for styli under all the gloss and shine.

This is what Windows 8 is, and it’s flawed. The key is to change what the OS is at its heart, change the way that interacts with the user, change the way that OS feels. IF the user gets the opportunity to “peek under the hood” of the OS, he or she will see the ugliest, most confusing parts of the system laid bare. The gears, cogs, oil, chugging engines…everything. In Windows 8, this is still confusing, ugly, overcomplicated. In the Apple world, this is simpler, easier, uncomplicated. This is where Windows will fail. If I start to use an app that hasn’t been designed for the new “touch-friendly” shell (which is essentially all Windows 8 looks to be), then it fires up in its old, byzantine, bloated-hydra form. With iOS and the future of MacOS, this isn’t even an option. If an app hasn’t been designed to be used full-screen, it doesn’t matter, it’s still usable in its beautiful, native form.

This brings me around to the initial question of “Why are computers becoming simpler?”

The computer-savvy elite that used to be the only folks for whom computers were intelligible are no longer the only ones who can use computers, and computers are becoming simpler because that’s what we all want. Even programmers, developers, and coders want everyone to use computers. Everyone! They want their software to shine on beautiful hardware, too, and we’re seeing this happen from the world’s most innovative companies. Microsoft, however, doesn’t seem to get it. They want their software to be archaic, opaque, and impenetrable when it comes to interacting with the user.

Maybe that’s why they keep losing.




First off, don’t ever use WordPress for iOS. I just lost 1,000 words of article I was writing because WordPress decided it was going to just delete the whole thing instead of actually saving it like it usually does. No big deal, right? Just a half dozen hours of research and writing. Hey WordPress, give me three hours of my life back and we’ll call it even.

Here’s what I was going to say, in a nutshell.

Google is one of the most hypocritical companies ever. My disdain for their Android operating system and what it has potentially done to the mobile landscape is now amplified by the fact that I have to write this all over again.

The FCC ruled against net neutrality for wireless carriers in part because Android is open. Don’t get me started on how that doesn’t make sense. I’d make Andrew Jackson look tame.

Now there’s this. After all of the ads, propaganda, superbowl commercials, lobbying, and lies, Google is holding their Android OS back from release to work on the user experience. To most people, this won’t matter, but this is and always has been what Apple has done. Apple has always put the user first. They’ve always had the user experience in mind. Google, on the other hand, has always had the handset makers and manufacturers in mind. Not you or me, not your mom, not the average consumer on the street. Suddenly, they’re eating crow.

Still, device makers took the code and dished out subpar tablets. This time around, Google appears to be reining in openness in favor of a highly controlled release of Honeycomb.
Rubin says that if Google were to open-source the Honeycomb code now, as it has with other versions of Android at similar periods in their development, it couldn’t prevent developers from putting the software on phones “and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones.”

Oh really? You think that maybe you should make an operating system that people can actually use? Madness.

Furthermore, I’ve always felt that Google’s whole “We’re open and friendly” thing was BS. I think they’re using Android as a low-quality push into the mobile space and they’re banking on widespread manufacturer adoption at the expense of the consumer. I also think they’re using Android to push their agenda in the larger scheme of things (government, Net Neutrality).

Nevertheless, the open-ended delay will likely generate unease among device makers, application developers, and members of the open-source community, many of whom are financially and philosophically invested in Android. Some critics have long questioned Google’s commitment to openness, and this latest news will give them added ammunition.

It just seems like a veiled and subtle move to shift away from “openness” now that the FCC has given mobile carriers free reign to do whatever they want to the mobile Internet space.

What a crock. This is awful for everyone.

Pic attribution