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.


It’s All in the Name

Apple also made a small, but very meaningful change to their iOS app store, namely the shift to a button labeled “Install.”

It's a really good app!  You should get it!

While this may appear on the surface to be merely cosmetic, looking deeper reveals a lot of information in light of all the movement Apple has been making recently in building out the data center and rolling out the tall ladders for cloud (or pseudo-cloud) computing.  AppleInsider discusses the physical processes that are beginning to facilitate this, but here is the first

What we see here is a blurring of the lines between local and cloud storage.  If a button is labeled “Install,” it implies that the app is close at hand, just a tap away in order to be in front of us and usable.

Consider the language Apple uses when downloading and installing apps from the App Store.  While the app is being downloaded, the user sees “Loading…” below the app, creating the impression that the app is not being fetched from some far-away place, but that the app is being unwrapped, that it’s simply starting up for the first time.  As the process continues, “Loading…” changes to “Installing…,” which further increases the similarity to a locally-stored app.  Shortly thereafter, the app is ready, and the user can go to town.

Displaying “Install” in the app store, instead of the app’s price, puts the user at ease that they already own this piece of software, that Apple is keeping track and taking care of all of their software for them, and that they have their own personal software vault from which any app they own is accessible to them at any time.

Think about that change in the juxtaposition to the old way of computing, when installing a program meant loading a physical disc into a tray and transferring the data onto a computer.  Think about the programs that actually required that the disc be in the tray.  This is a distinct and marked shift away from that type of application and media, a shift toward user-friendliness, toward ease-of-use.

Once again, this is good technology.  The computer gets out of the way, and we are able to engage our information more quickly, without a break in thought, without losing ourselves to the process.  We are able to focus, explore, create.  We are able to be more human.