Why is Windows 8 so bonkers? Imagine a parallel universe where the mouse was never invented and you have your answer.
Windows, Icons, Menus, and Pointers (WIMP) is one of the oldest acronyms in computing (though predated by RTFM, which to some extent it was meant to make irrelevant). And it has guided operating system design since the first machine to use it – The Xerox Alto – came into being. It was this machine that Jobs and Apple apocryphally ripped off to create the Lisa and ultimately the Macintosh.
(We know this history, so I’m not going to labour it. However, the story is more subtle than that and features less larceny; here’s a good piece on the topic. Let us speak no more of it.)
What is clear is that the idea of pushing a mouse around on a desk and manipulating windows, hitting icons, and selecting from menus works. The market has pretty conclusively validated the principles of WIMP.
But you know what other idea that the market has successfully validated? The iPad proves that we don’t need WIMP anymore.
When you only have fingers to work with, lots of the WIMP proposition doesn’t make sense. Moving windows around is fussy and difficult, not necessarily because of real estate, but because the “hit targets” that you’re dealing with are so small. With a mouse you can be really confident of hitting the “minimise” button. By contrast a finger is so big that smushing the general area of the minimise button might hit what the screen thinks is the “target”, or not. The solution then, as the iPad did, was to just get rid of overlapping windows.
If we look at Windows 8, Metro-style apps run full screen. There are no overlapping windows. There’s limited support for popup windows (eg, click on a button on the app bar and you might get a small window), but you rarely see dialogs. This, then, is where we can start to see the deprecation of WIMP in Windows: Windows 8 Metro-style has no windows.
Next up: icons. There are icons on the iPad, I accept, but a different interpretation is that icons really become “files”. This blog references Steve Jobs talking about deprecating the file system in iOS. Again, looking at market validation, people and businesses buy iPads even though iOS doesn’t have a user-visible file system. In every version of Windows since v1 there’s been a file system front and centre. In Windows 8 Metro-style, the file system is buried.
Menus? Gone. On the iPad some applications use toolbars to access things like menus, but there’s nothing like the ubiquitous menu bar in OS X. Likewise Windows 8 Metro-style apps don’t have a pull-down menuing system like Old Windows. What you have instead is the app bar, which is a reinvention of the toolbar, not the menubar.
Pointers? Well, obviously gone. But a subtle point here relates to why you can plug a keyboard into an iPad, but not a mouse. The expectation is that you will touch it, even if you’re sitting down at a desk to work.
So, if you’re one of those people who still doesn’t “get” the reimagining of Windows 8, just imagine that the guys in Palo Alto got it wrong, that every OS designer since then got it wrong, and that we’re only just starting to get it right now.
Why deprecating WIMP works
Well, we’re not quite getting it right, because ditching WIMP on PCs doesn’t work. And now you think I’m contradicting myself…
Defining a “post-PC device” is not an easy task. The way I think about it is that post-PC devices are the first class of computing devices that we use that are not about work. Up until this point we’ve always co-opted devices designed for use in work and bastardised them so that we can do non-work things on them such as posting Facebook updates or hilarious meme images on Tumblr.
Although manufacturers tweak devices to make them more palatable for domestic sale, the design of an HP desktop has a lot in common with an HP server sitting in a rack in a data centre somewhere. Think about things like the disk, the amount of empty space in it, connector standards, even the power buttons. True story: a friend of friend of mine use to have a Jaguar XJ220. That had the same door lock as a Ford Mondeo.
The one thing that we’ve dragged into our non-work computing life from the commercial PC market is the keyboard. For me, post-PC devices do not have keyboards. If you want to get semiotic on it, keyboards are a symbol of work. This is why most people are perfectly happy to take an iPad to bed but not a laptop. Or perhaps more precisely, it explains why spouses normally object less when their partners bring an iPad to bed than if they pull the same move with a laptop.
It’s also why a Surface doesn’t have a (proper) keyboard. The Surface’s quasi-keyboard exists solely to sell Office licenses and for no other reason.
Given the current capability in our supply chain, if you want to build a computing device without a keyboard it happens to look like a tablet. Not all tablets are post-PC devices though. The Nexus 7, launched last week, is a simple and basic media player, just like the Kindle Fire that it’s paying tribute to.
While we’re on the subject of the Nexus 7, can we please kill off this idea that post-PC devices are about consumption as opposed to creation? They’re not. A well-timed tweet during the X Factor final is just as creative as a sentence in a doctoral thesis. And who’s to say the next Banksy isn’t out there ready to smear social satire all over Tumblr via his iPad?
Windows 8 is a split operating system – one that you can take to bed, and one that you can take to work. One on which you can put together a killer report for the board, and one where you can tweet while watching Hot Shots back in your dystopian Relaxation Pod.
Using a non-work OS at work
There are two ways to use a computer at work – you can either spent all day staring at it and hacking away, or you can do something else but happen to need a computer available to you from time to time. A lot of people who have jobs where they’re always in meetings or travelling, where most of the work they do is face-to-face, now find that they can just ditch a normal computer and use an iPad.
And it’s this part that Microsoft doesn’t like. In the enterprise, the value proposition of Windows gets nibbled by people who can get on just fine with a web browser, iPad email and Evernote. In the consumer space, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that unless you’re a student or a hobbyist, you don’t need a PC. Look forward 10 years and I believe virtually every home will have post-PC tablets for each family member – and zero PCs.
So the side of Windows 8 that’s based on Metro-style and doesn’t use WIMP fits perfectly into that future vision. You can use it in the boardroom for checking football results-slash-taking notes, and you can use it at home for all of the social networking-type tasks that you fancy. Where Windows 8 feels a bit wrong is if you use a computer all day, every day.
I don’t want to labour this point – I wrote a not particularly gentle article back in March about how the mismatch of Metro-style and Old Windows in Windows 8 doesn’t work.
I do want to revisit this though based on my experiences using Windows 8 over the past three months, and my thought is this: “What else could Microsoft have possibly done?” They can’t not get rid of WIMP, but they can’t keep WIMP either. Hence the tension between these two sides of the operating system. There’s no neat A-B route that takes Windows 7 over to a world where Windows isn’t required, at least not one where things don’t get even more confusing than they are now.
WIMP is dead. Long live touch.
If you’re confused about Windows 8, there’s one simple thing you can do. Remember that this is an operating system designed for a world where overlapping windows, menus, and pointers will become a niche activity in our world. Windows 8 becomes much less barking mad if you do that.