Windows 10 and the Apps

I’ve been seeing a great deal of back and forth on the app gap, ‘Windows is dead’, and development for Windows 10. For most of the negative minded, Microsoft’s latest strategy is to admit defeat and become the back end for services. ‘That is what they’re doing’ and ‘Windows mobile is a failure, period’ is the common theme from these people.

For the Windows optimists, there is a lot of ‘this is what they needed to do all along’ and ‘Windows 10 is so fantastic it will solve everything’. I think the truth lies somewhere in between these as Microsoft refocuses to what it knows it can do in the face of the current market, hunker down and wait for the next big thing, and get all their ducks in a row for when the big thing hits. I think Windows Mobile becomes just another part of a much larger whole. Microsoft is good at platforms, and this may be finally their best strategy: Universal Apps. I tend to get more optimistic where the discussion is in the platform, especially when everyone else is gloomy.

‘Universal apps are pointless without mobile!’ they cry…’why would anyone do Universal apps for the desktop???’ Good points if you don’t actually look beyond the phone. Universal apps make a lot of sense, both on the desktop, mobile, web, console, IoT, etc. It’s more than the phone, it’s every endpoint a user might touch. For one, it’s a more modern development environment with better security, portability, and the big one everyone seems to ignore: The Store. Right now, if I want a little utility, I have to go to the web and hunt. I have to avoid the malware traps (even once safe sites like CNET’s Download.com are now adware infested hell holes). I have to trust the site, I have to scan the files to death. If it’s a paid app, I either need to trust them with my credit card or use PayPal (which has it’s own issues these days). It’s a nightmare.

Contrast this to the Windows Store. The biggest problems you face are the apps might not be there, or there’s some junk to sift through. But I’m generally never in danger–either through malware or credit card fraud. It’s safe. It’s a marketplace to peddle vetted software. For Windows desktop this could be a watershed play. Windows 10 Universal apps also get more API’s and services so they can be more sophisticated. Additionally Universal apps get things like settings portability between devices, license management, and a steady update mechanism. THAT is why Universal apps are useful on the desktop. For example, when I load up a new PC (and I seem to do this a lot these days during the Windows 10 insider program) I log in, then click my Tweetium or Nextgen Reader client and everything is there. No setup. None. I’m immediately productive. Programs like this simplify real things for me. And some Windows apps are so good they’re fine on the desktop–Nextgen Reader is always up on every device I own, either full screen or docked on Windows 8.x or in a window on Windows 10. The fact that my unread items or place marker in Twitter is synced to all devices and phones is a convenience I can no longer live without. This is the true promise of Universal apps.

And Windows 10 brings something I’ve only been able to scratch the surface on (mostly because all the pieces are not all finished yet). Cortana and syncing between devices. Reminders I set on my PC pop up on the phone when I get home or to the store, things I need to know move with me across devices. The possibilities here are tremendous. Apps integrated into this platform (say if mail alerts from just my inner circle could be announced on the device I’m on during quite hours) could possible make this a real differentiator. Continuum might make it so that I drop my phone on an NFC/wireless charging pad and it immediately lights up a monitor/keyboard to use as a computer. These kinds of futuristic scenarios are all built in to the products right now. I want them, and I suspect that if they do it right and actually communicate it to the world, a lot of other people will want them too. This makes for a really lucrative market for developers–on a platform that is potentially huge (desktop Windows users) with little penetration.

I suspect Microsoft may have had their Take Out the Trash Day last week in order to clear the decks for new strategy and the upcoming massive product cycle. Get the bad news completely out of the way for a few days before launch and prepare for the blitz. And actually, all the gloomy talk subsided pretty quickly when they pushed out a new build…then the WPC 2015 keynotes, and now RTM. Universal versions of Office day of Windows 10 release, the Mac 2016 Office release, Groove Music, new builds, GigJam (okay that one’s just weird) etc. are all hitting post bad news week to change the narrative. They are getting better at throwing us bright shiny objects right when everything looks depressing. They still are crap at communicating, but at least they’re learning.

The real test may be the first couple of month’s of Windows 10 release–do we see a lot of real Universal apps, things returning that left the environment, a surge in development? Or do we see the little bump and then nothing? If they’re smart, they have a lot of good news waiting–they’ll meter it out over the launch months, keep it building, and not drop another bombshell like last week. Oh, and a couple of cool surprises wouldn’t hurt either.

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Windows 10 is Not a Tablet OS, and I don’t think it’s going to be…

So with the new build of Windows 10 now humming along nicely on a few machines, it looks like Windows 10 is indeed heading for a late July-ish ‘RTM’ the rumors have all been pointing to (well, the rumors and the AMD CEO all but saying it outright). And I do have to say, Windows 10 is a significant achievement in the advancement of Windows as a platform. The desktop experience is getting really nice for those that couldn’t or wouldn’t make the jump to Windows 8; performance even in the beta is really good; Edge is shaping up to be a great browser; and tons of other nice features like Cortana, Hello, etc.

It’s just not a tablet OS. At all. Enable ‘Tablet Mode’ and drop into a confusing mish mash of inconsistent behavior, no standard controls and limited navigation.

And now, sadly, I feel it’s far too late to fix, change or rescue. The tablet experience is a mess, and I don’t hold much hope at this point.

  • Charms – yes, yes, everyone hated Charms. But you know what? They made getting to context sensitive settings, share and the Start Screen simple. Now we have an almost useless notification center with dumbed down controls and no in place settings. Here’s the choice–see the avalanche of useless notifications I missed (which I could see on live tiles or by *gasp* opening the program. The notifications are no where near as helpful as having actual controls on the swipe edge. Now you have to hunt around for settings, share, etc. completely at the whim of the app developer. And even Microsoft is not putting any of this in consistent places. It was always ‘swipe-share-program’ and done. Now good luck even finding it. I think the removal of the Charms started a domino effect of problems on where to stash all of this functionality. I think the design goal for Windows 10 was: “see! we killed the Charms bar! now will you love us?”, but they didn’t actually think it through.
  • Task switch and snap – You’d think with all the begging on the insider forums they’d at least make it an option to flip through programs from the left edge swipe, but no. You get a desktop focused ‘pick a window’. Dumb. Also, snap in tablet mode? After using this for days and thinking it just didn’t exist, I accidentally pulled a program down and it made room (with the ugly ‘pick a program’ interface) for the other snap item. This was completely accidental. How is this more discoverable that swiping in from left? Swiping down from top is that much better? No. Just no. Snap and task switch are so fundamentally broken and poorly implemented it will keep me from upgrading on my tablets. Windows 10 looks like a great way to ruin a Surface.
  • Color and contrast, or rather the lack thereof. Everything is this awful, washed out white that Microsoft seemed to start loving in Office 2013. The ultimate expression of this is the new Edge browser (which besides the UX is great and the right idea). There’s no visual cue for title bar or address bar, its just a big white mess with almost invisible lines and hints. The icons are the new anorexic ‘waif like’ arrows and x’s and there doesn’t appear to be any reason for this. Plus on the tablet, the controls are all at the top. Great. Unreachable. And the interface is always on display rather than tucking away like in the metro app. Between the toolbar, the address bar, the favorites and command area, there’s a tiny swath of space for content on an 8″ tablet. After playing with Edge for a while, going back to the metro version of IE on Windows 8.1 was a joy–it’s designed for the tablet. Everything within reach and pretty decent speed. The difference in performance with Edge is no where near worth the level of frustration with the interface.
  • Start Screen – Actually I’ll give on this one, for what it is, the Start Screen is finally not too bad in the current build. I still prefer the old ‘all apps’ screen to the hard to navigate vertical list under the dreaded hamburger menu, but it’s not too bad, looks much better and workable. If this was the only thing, I’d be looking forward to Windows 10 and this would be a minor ‘just get used to it’ thing.
  • General – The whole experience is distracting and ‘busy’ like a desktop (where its actually okay and welcome). On a tablet, you need the content–controls should be out of the way. What Microsoft seems to have done is rather than slide things off screen gracefully, they just made everything thin and white in the interface and hopes you don’t notice it too much. It’s kind of poor design, something that really surprises me this time.
  • Taskbar – Well if you’re going to force the taskbar onto the screen even for tablet mode, you should at least have the decency to try it on an 8″ screen and realize the buttons are all too small. A taskbar should not be on a tablet, but I guess we have to solve the problem of no charms and no way back to start.
  • Windows Phone – Just can’t even. It’s terrible, but at least they’re taking more time on it. The wrecked UI of Windows 10 tablet mode probably has a lot to do with just how bad and unusable Windows 10 Mobile is at this point.

So where does that leave everything? Windows 10 in business, on desktops and game PC’s (the traditional PC market) should go to Windows 10 and go quick. It’s great, fast, even stable-ish at this point. This is what I envision Microsoft would have done as Windows 7.5. It’s the best evolution of the desktop we could want, with a nice new programming model, store, new apps and support for modern PC’s and notebooks. I think even business customers will appreciate it and not have too much trouble with the learning curve. But it is not an OS for a tablet. Not even close. That stuff is gone.

This may be the very first version of Windows I don’t upgrade to on all my devices. I already have to stay on 8.1 for my bedroom PC as it acts as the TV/DVR for that room, and they’ve ditched even allowing Media Center to run on 10. I have a lot of tablets (6 currently) and just one is testing Windows 10. I know I’m a strange case–but I leave tablets all over the place, just picking up the nearest one and get right to work or play–everything is cloud hosted and synced, so it really doesn’t matter except for size and if I need a pen (SP2 or Toshiba). And I think for the tablets, I’m going to forgo Windows 10, at least until the apps I want make it impossible to avoid. The UX is so poor on that form factor that it really ruins the experience.

I’ll leave you with this experiment to do. Pick up an iPad. Play with it, see if you understand the UX. Now pick up an Android tablet (a modern, decent one like a Samsung). Same thing, play with it. Now pick up a tablet mode Windows 10 device. It’s just not a good experience (Windows 8.x was leaps and bounds better here). Touch targets are too small, contrast/color is washed out, interface is cluttered, desktop shows up sometimes, nothing seems ‘designed’. Now pick up a Windows 8.1 device. While you might have to learn a couple of edge gestures, the thing is smooth, clear, uses the available screen real estate well, and just ‘feels’ like a tablet OS–that’s what initially people didn’t like about it. It was too tablet-y.

Now with Windows 10 they’ve apparently righted that wrong and given everyone the Windows 7.5 they deserved and wanted.