In Defense of the ‘Modern’ App

Metro. Modern. Universal. Windows Store. Windows App. Whatever.

There have been many names for the new programming model/application type that debuted on Windows 8. These were designed to truly be more modern representations of applications. Simpler design, clean, sandboxed, all the things that people say they want. They were also designed to conform to the Metro Style–a look derived from the classic Metro designs used in subways and international airports. The design is heavily type dependent, and symbols are clear simple, and non skeuomorphic (do not try to imitate real world objects, but be ‘truly digital’). And primarily focused on touch as the main UI interaction. It is an elegant and dare I say, modern way of interacting with a computer.

And you know what? Microsoft basically did just that. They delivered a clean model for new style applications. These were not designed to replace heavy, hardcore applications, but rather serve as the operating system’s app platform. Small, single focused programs like on mobile devices. And that’s exactly what they did. They did not replace desktop applications (although if you listen to some people whine and complain it’s as if they can’t run their desktop applications) except on the ARM based Surface devices.

The complaints

A lot of people then complained these were too simple, too basic, for what they need. Yes, these were not built to replace Photoshop, they were built to be tablet and mobile apps. Single purpose, quick, clear, easy enough to use without a two inch manual or 100MB PDF guide. These are mobile apps. The real problem appeared when developers ignored this model in record numbers, especially the mobile app vendors. I’m not entirely sure why, I tend to think this stems from Silicon Valley’s startup culture that loathes everything Microsoft and if Apple didn’t make it there’s no point in doing it. But a few developers did, and as time went by, it was actually possible to put together a suite of apps on Windows that really provides a nice experience.

But really, it’s nicer than people give it credit for.

Personally, I find the Metro design language extremely easy and pleasant to use, the concepts are modern rather than tired old retreads of the same computer app design. I always felt the ‘grid of icons’ interface looks like Windows 3.1. Modern apps are clean and clear.  I found after a brief learning curve that a Windows 8.x tablet experience could be a real productivity machine for typical tablet use, and cooler that the grid of static icons you’re confronted with on other devices. Swiping through running apps, quick access to the system menu, share contracts, and everything getting out of the way for content. This became my way of doing things, and some Metro apps I like so much I can’t be without them even on various desktop systems. [Note–it remains to be seen if Windows 10 ruins the cool experience on Windows Tablets].

So as an IT management professional my tablet needs may be a little different than the average consumer, but I don’t think too far off the mark since I use these for both work and recreation. One thing of note, I’m not really a ‘casual gamer’, if I play a game, I like a big, cool, immersive experience of a true PC or Xbox game. Once in a while I like a crossword puzzle or Words with Friends, but the whole tablet game thing leaves me cold. But if these kinds of casual games are your thing, you need an iPad so go get one.

So here is what I would call a Metro tablet suite of apps to do almost everything natively in modern apps. No desktop required. And yes, several of these are paid apps, when they’re worth it you really should pony up the couple of bucks for valuable software. Developers deserve compensation for their work, and a lot of these guys have built some amazing stuff.

NEWSREADING

The central part of my reading experience for news, information, technology stories is a Feedly RSS news feed plugged into what I consider the crown jewel of modern applications: Nextgen Reader. I’ve used newsfeeds to keep up with internet sites and stories, articles and information forever, and this tool is absolutely indispensable. I go through literally hundreds of articles per day to keep up with the world and the tech industry and without this tool I would be lost. It syncs read, allows me to break out in groups, is fast, clear and makes good use of the share contracts so if I find a long form article I can push it out to Reading List for later or OneNote to save. And speaking of that, Reading List is a fantastic add on to Windows for that kind of thing. Pumping articles into it allows for you to bookmark things for later reading. Only drawback is it doesn’t store for offline reading, but I am rarely offline. This combo can’t be beat. I also fire up Flipboard occasionally for a pretty version of the news, but it’s really not any better than just getting the news in the Nextgen Reader, just nicer looking.

Notes

The compliment to reading is note taking, and OneNote is the best thing out there for it. Syncing across all my PC’s and phones, my notes are always right there, and using my favorite Toshiba Encore 2 Write I can take my notes the way I am most comfortable, with a pen like a notebook. Being able to fire off a meeting notes page from inside Outlook on the desktop (which moves all the meeting details, rooms, attendees, notes) into a new page in my Meetings tab, then grabbing my Toshiba and going to the meeting, I have a ready made system for collecting that info easily that syncs back to the desktop.

Mail and Calendar

I use the built in apps for Mail and Calendar and use these pretty heavily for both work and personal accounts. Even with Outlook available (which I live in at work), these on the tablet are preferable since they’re quick and easy. Full Outlook is always available as a fallback, but I’m not sure I’ve ever even set it up on my various tablets except for the Surface Pro.

Social Media

Okay, let me get this out of the way. I HATE Facebook. There I said it–even though there’s a pretty good Facebook app, I don’t like the service. Not to say it isn’t a great service, it’s just not something I like doing, going over and through people’s pictures and posts is like a never ending collection of every person you knows family newsletters. The signal to noise ratio is just too high for me to deal with–and it requires my participation, which frankly I don’t care to do. I think I’ve touched my Facebook account maybe twice in the last year. But in this, I am the anomaly–legions of family, friends and coworkers love Facebook, so more power to them. I just have never been able to do it.

Twitter however is one I like–it’s a steady stream of comments, news, information, snark, events and up to the microsecond chatter I really like. Separating things into lists to view the world like channels it really works for me, and I even find myself posting sometimes. For Twitter, nothing beats Tweetium, it’s a powerful client light years ahead of Twitter’s own client, and let’s me tailor the experience to fit my needs. It’s an amazing piece of software–one again, I can’t live without.

Internet

I use the modern version of IE for browsing, it is quick, works well and is touch friendly. The controls are all close to the fingers and swiping back and forth on pages is how it should work on a tablet. It does suffer from IE weirdness on some sites, but for most everything it’s just fine. At this point in the web a browser is a browser is a browser. That’s the way it should be, this one’s just better at touch. IE, Chrome, Firefox, Opera, all just fine on the desktop.

Entertainment

I use a bunch of apps for entertainment, all of which work well like their counterparts on other platforms. Netflix, Hulu Plus, Comedy Central, Xbox Music, Roku, Songza, all perform their job with minimal fuss. Here is where my world does fall out a bit–missing are Time Warner Cable’s app and HBO Go, both of which I really wish had their apps. I used to use and love the NBC news app, which was one of the first, best modern apps around, but has since fallen by the wayside (see Hall of Shame below). For news I now use the CBS news app, which even has a live channel devoted to 24/7 internet delivered news. Nice! For more esoteric fare, the NPR One app is great–and is more long form content listening. And then some games…none of which I really play much, but nice to have: Words with Friends, Bejeweled, NYT Crosswords, Solitaire, Microsoft Mahjongg, and some Poker app. There are also a couple of weird programs that are just fun, Text-O-Matic (put text on graphics) and Memely (create meme pics). I wish Microsoft would port the Windows Phone Podcast app to the Windows platform, it’s good enough and would suit my needs just fine.

Food and Dining

I do love to cook, so I use a bunch of these apps now on an older tablet that’s been repurposed as the ‘kitchen computer’. It displays a slideshow most of the time, and the first screen is a shared OneNote list connected to every device which allows me to add to the notes. It’s kind of a ‘refrigerator list’ I can update from anywhere. For apps I use the Microsoft Food and Drinks app, Great British Chefs, Epicurus, All Recipes, Everyday Foods, Cocktail Flow, Urban Spoon, Foursquare and Open Table.

Miscellaneous Tools

I use the very nice Remote Desktop app to connect in and manage servers, and I do this a lot. Where it falls down is that it accurately displays the server’s desktop, which I hate on tablets. I never go to the desktop on the tablet, so having to use it for the server is tedious. I recently started getting into the home automation craze, so Insteon has been a big piece of that. I use Lync and Skype in their full modern form, and they’ve gone through a lot of iterations to make them really quite nice now on the tablet. I use an app called Autodesk Pixlr for quick photo edits, Grapholite, which is like Visio for Tablets, Qool, an incredibly neat brainstormer, and Microsoft Reader, which lets me actually annotate PDF’s with a pen. And of course, LastPass for password management. All good, all recommended.

The Hall of Shame

These are programs that once had great promise on the platform, but have either been abandoned or neglected because the vendor is failing to keep it up. This is the weakness on the Windows platform, and my hope is that someday (maybe Windows 10) they will return to updating.

NBC News: Once my favorite app, you could stream just about every news show a little after it was run on TV in nice segments. The content has since dried up as they’re tried to move everyone to their website, which is definitely not very touch friendly.

Audible: This is a craplet in every sense of the word. Almost non-functional in every way. Except hope is alive since their revised Windows Phone applications is actually fantastic. Maybe move it over as a universal app! I love Audible but this program is just unacceptable.

Kindle: Craplet. It’s unusable. And inexcusable. Amazon should have a first class reader on Windows. It would make me buy more content from them, and that’s their real game. In fact, I don’t understand why Amazon doesn’t have a full Windows suite of apps on Windows (including Music and Video)–they’re driving content consumption, it’s silly not to be on the platform. Dumb. I find myself buying video from the Windows store now and using Xbox music. I downloaded all my Amazon content and moved it into the OneDrive Music folder. Won’t be buying music from Amazon anymore.

Bank of America: I used this heavily, even on the desktop rather than their byzantine web application. They’ve pulled it due to lack of use. I would think a company the size of BofA could handle having a Windows app.

Time Warner App: Completely selfish of me, but I want the same thing as the other platforms here, they even have an Xbox app, why no Windows app? Maybe they’re waiting for the deal with Comcast (or what I consider the most evil deal of the century). Just gives me another reason to loathe the cable industry. Keep me loyal guys, cord cutting is looking better and better!

Apple products: Well, they don’t really make anything for anyone, so I can’t really fault them. I think if they could, they would even pull the desktop iTunes from Windows to keep their whole world Apple only. I never really bought into their ecosystem, so it’s not a big deal (Xbox music pass is way better for how I discover, listen to, then inevitably tire of, music). Apple is Apple, and they make more money than, well, anyone. So something’s working for them.

And then there’s Google. The loudest complaints about Windows 8.x usually come from heavy Google users that they can’t get to any services (how’s that Google+ working out for ya?). I’m no longer very much of a Google user–I don’t generally trust them anymore and have moved off of most of their services. If I do use them, I don’t log in and don’t stay long. There’s just something about their business practices, tracking and advertising models that make me uncomfortable. And it’s actually quite easy to get along without them since they keep discontinuing services and making what I do use harder and harder. I do have a couple of old gmail addresses, but accessing them with the Mail app or forwarding them is trivial. The one big hole for me is YouTube–and the reason we don’t have a nice app is Google. Microsoft even made one for them and they made them pull it. Google acts like a petulant teenager when it comes to Windows, it would help their own users to work on the platform. But solutions like MyTube, and others fill the gap just fine. Sometimes third party apps are quite nice. And it’s not like all of their services don’t work in the browser anyway. But for me, I just don’t use them anymore. The one thing I’m always a little jealous of is how good Google Now seems to be, hopefully Cortana is taking notes on that.

So there it is, my tablet computing world of apps. It’s by no means complete, but when I pick up any number of tablets, all synced across devices with the same layout and apps, I can be immediately productive. I choose the form factor for the task rather than remember which tablet has what. They all have my working environment and pick up where I left off. The one thing hopefully Microsoft will be working towards is to make this all better, more seamless and more inviting. I am nervously hoping they don’t fall backwards.

You can get along fine without the desktop. You just have to try.

Found any good ones I’ve missed?

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