Operating systems

Windows 8: Mixed metaphors

I haven’t yet paid much attention to the Windows 8 Developer Previews, but having found Windows Phone 7 so likeable I thought I should take a look.

It’s very disorientating. It’s as if two different agencies are at work in designing it, one pushing for radical simplification in the mould of WP7 and the other for plenty of extra features. And whoever is responsible for running the show has decided the only way to make everyone happy is to do both, but to flip between them depending on context.

So there’s the Metro home screen with WP7-style squares:

Windows 8 MetroDevelopers are encouraged to produce applications that work in the same style, so when you start one up, it runs full-screen but with a “feel” that is familiar from the home screen.

But when you run up a traditional application like Windows Explorer, it flips to the old-school desktop and comes up with something with more accretions and fiddly bits than ever before:

Windows 8 TradI have a certain affection for that sort of complexity—it reminds me somehow of KDE3—and I can see the ribbon is intended to be more touch-friendly than traditional menus, but it’s not exactly coherent, especially since it isn’t obvious from the Metro home screen which tiles are going to launch you back to the desktop and which will leave you in Metro-land.

There are other idiosyncracies, like the way the right mouse button behaves quite differently in the different kinds of application, or the fact that Metro apps wouldn’t run at all for me at first because they have a fixed minimum size and my VirtualBox window was too small. All this leaves the impression that Microsoft are trying to crunch their way through a major change in interaction style by brute force, without ever really knowing where they’ll end up or how.

A bit like the early days of X11, before the question of what to do with all those mouse buttons had really been settled and the conventions from the now-traditional Windows application laid down. A fascinating business.