John Gruber’s criticism (http://daringfireball.net/2011/06/windows_8_fundamentally_flawed) of running applications like Excel in a touchscreen interface is spot on. Having worked with tablet PCs for a number of years, I know that bolting a bunch of touch extensions on top of what is ostensibly a mouse-oriented interface does not make for great user experience.
Yet I don’t necessarily see Windows 8 as trying to do exactly what the iPad is doing, and I think that’s it’s strength. All the “iPad killers” so far have just been mimicking the iPad, and not really offering anything different. You can’t beat Apple at their own game.
So what Microsoft has tried to do is what they always do. Be flexible. This flexibility certainly comes at a cost of elegance and ease of use, but in a strange way that’s their strength.
Apple makes their software and hardware tightly coupled. This gives the customer less choice and flexibilty (such as no bluray drives on Macs) but ultimately a more carefully designed user experience. Microsoft allows their software to be run on a huge range of hardware. This gives the customer more choice and flexibility, but with that comes the pain of drivers, compatibilities, and other usability nightmares.
Apple made a new operating system so that it was completely focused on touch, yet still has the Mac OS that is completely focused on the mouse. To that end, Mac OS is excellent at being a mouse-based operating system, and iOS is excellent at being a touch-based operating system, but they’d be terrible the other way around. Mac OS will never be a touch-screen operating system, and iOS will never be a mouse-based operating system.
Windows 8, on the other hand, is trying to be a jack of all trades. And of course, with that could well come the flipside: master of none. While you can run mouse-based Excel on the touch-screen, it will suck. But at least you have the flexibility to do it. And I’m sure there are some apps on Windows 8 that work great as touch-screen apps, but suck with a mouse. But feel free to go nuts with that.
So ultimately, I think the way it’s going to work well for Microsoft is the flexibility. With the iPad, Apple created a computer that was so easy to use your grandma could do it. That same grandma would struggle to use Mac OS. With Windows 8, Microsoft has a platform that is also so simple your grandma could use it… as long as they don’t install any “advanced” apps like Excel. Yet that same operating system could be used by an expert to do advanced tasks… but grandma is once again out of luck.
Time will tell if the lack of tight hardware integration is as bad for novice users as it is in Windows 7 and below. This would, of course, throw the grandma argument out the window. It also remains to be seen if the somewhat limited multi-tasking abilities of Windows 8 will threaten the expert users; though it seems Windows users for the most part prefer running things fullscreen (more on this observation in a future post), so it may not be an issue at all. It’s also entirely possible that over time, advanced applications like Excel will become more touch-friendly, and the line between basic user and expert user becomes more blurred.
On the whole, I reiterate that I think Windows 8 looks very promising. Instead of trying to out-Apple Apple, Microsoft has perhaps realised its success can be in emphasising the ways it is different from Apple. Apple is the best in the industry when it comes to user experience, but Microsoft can’t be beat on flexibility.