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.

Advertisements

The Strategy of Retreat?

I’m confused. Honestly. I have been using Microsoft products for almost 30 years, since the earliest days of Windows/286 and the DOS version of Word and Microsoft Mail, and I’m confused. I’ve grown up with MS products most of my professional life, and have gotten quite good at navigating the intricacies and nuances of their software from server products right down into my phone and I don’t quite know what to think.

Microsoft appears, desperately not to want to become the modern era’s IBM, and thank the maker for that. But after this week I’m confused. The signals that Microsoft seems to send out is they are retreating from consumer and end user and it’s all about ‘the cloud’ and ‘mobile first’. Yeah, okay, great. But here’s the thing, the cloud is boring and mobile first is consumer driven. The cloud is IBM…it’s really just another way to say Internet or Hosted or Mainframe. It’s deadly dull. Sure it provides the services and backend for all the cool gizmos and apps people use everyday, but it is the interface to services that drives our modern world. Instagram? Facebook? Snapchat? Really, just big databases and comm services with clever indices and slick consumer front ends. The UX or user experience is what the consumer interacts with, and what becomes the product for people. Microsoft seems intent to get out of that business. Either that or they’re comically bad at communicating their intent. I really don’t know.

Wednesday’s proclamation that they’re massively downsizing and writing off Windows Phone is one huge lurch in the strategy that comes exactly at the wrong time for this. All during the Windows 8 timeframe they’ve been shaping the message of Universal Apps and running everything all the way down to a phone. Now, on the eve of the launch of this platform they scale back. On the eve of the launch. What. The. F$%#.

I love Windows phone, but I am a realist–it has a tiny marketshare. But it did provide a showcase for their vision and Windows 10 promised to perhaps move the needle a bit with things like Continuum. It might even make a cool business platform. Or for some of us that just don’t like grids of icons, an alternative to the dominant players. Why on earth would they pick NOW to announce a drastic reduction in the platform? Before they even get to test the strategy? Are we seeing Satya Nadella’s revolution purge every idea from the last regime just to get it out?

Some of the new strategy makes great sense, reduce the number of products, get a damn flagship in the market, focus on business users, stop catering to the lowest of the low smartphone market, but again, we see them throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Change for change sake. Maybe they could have put the write off of Nokia out into 2016 to let the fledgling Windows 10 OS at least try to succeed. Instead all the headlines were ‘Windows Phone is Dead’. Microsoft seems genetically incapable of controlling their message and communicating a vision.

Witness today’s announcements of Microsoft abandoning Travel, Food & Drink and Health, all their MSN extras. Not necessarily heavily used apps, but really nicely done, showing developers that Windows is a decent platform to develop on. Microsoft has dumbed down the tablet UX on Windows 10 (see, well, just about all my other posts). They’ve been waffling on services. But a new release of SQL Server? They’re all over that. Microsoft seems to pay lip service to the front end, do a little work, then bail. So, as both a back end consumer of their ‘cloud’ products, and (at least for now) a user of their consumer products, I offer a few things I think they could do to shore up the ‘mobile first’ part of that company line they love saying.

  • Make some big moves in acquisition. If you really want to be in the consumer space, you need an ecosystem. Not the weak tea we have now. Xbox Groove Music is great. Buy Spotify or Rdio and integrate in. Buy a video service. Fill out the media offerings. In every conversation lately about streaming music services, Microsoft is not even mentioned when people list out the services. Groove is really good, make it better. Push it everywhere. Same for video, go big or go home. And don’t go home, you need this to build the ecosystem. You need music, video, books, magazines, games to be in the game. If you can’t build it, buy it. Then for the love of all that’s holy don’t quit after a year. Without the ecosystem you are not a player in mobile and you’ll never be anything meaningful to a consumer. Oh, and I think you can make money there too.
  • Build or buy a small set top box and do what you were going to do in the living room. It looks like Microsoft was going to have Xbox deep into media services, then of course, chickened out and now it’s all about games! Fine. You need a living room play that’s not $400.
  • Build your own Amazon Echo but for Cortana. Set Cortana free in her own device, tie it into services. I love my Echo, but it doesn’t connect to all my services, accounts, email, reminders. I want a Cortana device detecting when I get home, reminding me of things, playing music, controlling all those Internet of Things you guys keep talking about. You have mic array and sensors from Kinect, speakers from Nokia, wireless tech and services–build it!
  • Speaking of Cortana, ramp that up big time. Integrate it everywhere. I sometimes feel Microsoft is too sensitive on the privacy front. Yes, it’s critically important, but talk to Google people on why they love Google Now. It’s creepy but they love it. We’ll love it too.
  • Keep buying up those cool apps. One great way to get on to every platform and win is to just buy the cool stuff. If Microsoft can’t do it anymore, acquire it. They’ve been on a roll lately and should definitely keep going.
  • Build more apps, not less. Those Food, Health, Travel, etc. type apps are almost best in class in the Windows store. You need to build more, not less of these. Unless and until there are stellar selections of apps in the Windows store, Microsoft must play lead developer.
  • Band is cool, it’s almost a smartwatch. Make one of those too. This market’s still nascent, and amazingly, Apple’s entry is kind of landing with a thud. Pounce on it. Do that Internet of Things thing.
  • HoloLens. yes please, more of this everywhere. Don’t listen to the whiners of field of vision, improve and iterate!
  • Promote the hell out of Continuum for Windows Phone. There is an insane amount of desire built up to simply carry a pocket device, drop it down on a pad and have your whole environment unfold around you on large screens. It seems like the pieces are finally there, now tell everyone about it.

And finally, everyone at Microsoft needs to go to YouTube and watch those Microsoft Visions of the Future videos again. Look at those displays, interfaces, services, seamless integration and devices. Notice there’s not a desktop or Start Menu to be had in any of them. Get back a sense of wonder and vision and make things cool. You’ll win consumers every time.

In Star Trek, no one ever goes and visits the Enterprise’s server room and wonders at the amazing future of the cloud. It’s all about how you connect to the user, and the Android app for Word isn’t going to wow ’em in the modern mobile world.

So here we are…

While not having published anything in a little while, I have been seriously testing Windows 10 in all it’s various forms over the past six weeks or so. As anyone reading this blog knows, I’m on the fence about Windows 10 because of the various compromises in what I think were useful features in Windows 8.x, but pretty enthusiastic about it on the desktop.

It’s pretty much the eve of RTM, any day now Microsoft will sign off on the first shipping version of Windows 10, if that actually means anything in the ‘Windows as a Service’ world. The current build is 10166 for insiders. Has anything improved for the tablet user? A little, but not really enough.

The good news is that as the builds get closer to RTM, the stability has gone way up, so much so that I moved my work desktop to it a few builds back. I also have it on a home ‘guest pc’ desktop that’s an older unit, a touch based notebook, and on a Dell Venue Pro 8 which I use for tablet testing of the UI. The two desktop machines are now running perfectly. Seriously, no lie. Issues from the past seem to be gone, it’s fast (even on the old PC). Driver issues are gone, all our weird line of business apps work, even login to a domain is working faster now. I even slapped on a cheap fingerprint reader on my work PC to test Windows Hello! (that still seems like a Seinfeld joke to me). Smooth as silk. I love it on the desktop.

Let me say that again, I love it on the desktop. Got a desktop? Do the upgrade. Unless you have Media Center, then well, I feel you. I have one PC that won’t make the leap because it’s just too valuable as a TV. But everyone else? Do it!

The not so good news is that on a tablet, Microsoft seems to have conceded the market. It’s a tablet in form only. There is a taskbar that takes up space, clutters the interface, and has icons to small for anyone but my four year old niece can use. There’s the ‘what I consider broken’ task switcher, that makes it impossible to flip through applications like Windows 8.x. There is the Action/Notification thing that replaces Charms but provides no Windows button or has icons you can access with thumbs, and just accumulates status of new mail (I have yet to see a notification that wouldn’t have been better receiving another way). There are the new ‘universal’ apps that basically look like Android. And that’s the thing, Windows tablet mode is basically Android. I can’t hold the device on the sides and use it like before. Everything requires two hands, icons are small (too thin to see in some cases), washed out with too much white titlebar, and no attention to detail.

Is it a disaster?

No, it’s meh. Like Android. It’s dishwater dull. It’s not designed anymore, it’s whatever your app slaps on the interface and run. There’s no edge UI of any consequence (that used to be useful, now it’s just clunky). Everything tablet has been deprecated in favor of the desktop. That’s Microsoft basically throwing in the towel and giving up to the iPad (which, low and behold now has flip switching and snap multitasking like Windows used to).

Desktop great. Tablet meh.

Desktop great. Tablet meh.

Apple and Android are picking over the dead carcass of good ideas Microsoft had and incorporating them into their platform while Microsoft is busy adding a freaking taskbar to a tablet.

But is it good enough? Yeah, it’s okay. A solid 5 out of ten. Woot. And since all the new apps that will now flood onto the platform because it has a taskbar and start menu (yes I’m being facetious) well, I have to have something that will run them. So my strategy is to give it a go on one Surface Pro and see if I can stand it. The Dell might be too small and tainting my opinion. I’ll see if I can adjust, or at least not trash it all and buy an iPad. If that works I might use it on my brand new Surface 3 or even my beloved Toshiba Encore 2 Write. But only maybe. Now it depends on apps more than anything.

On Windows 8.x it was the experience of the OS, the fluidity, the ease of use, and cool factor that made me love the devices (and put up with the distinct lack of applications). It made me willing to embrace third party apps, pin websites, and do without some basic things other platforms had. It made me get my XBOX Music pass (which I love and never would have had before). It made me buy an Xbox One. It reaffirmed my love for Windows Phone. I was ‘all in’. Now all bets are off–they’ve taken away all the things I liked and made Windows a me-too tablet/desktop thing that’s middling at best (but again, simply GREAT on a desktop). Now it IS the apps that will make a difference, those will have to carry the value of Windows devices where Windows used to. Now I have a critical eye. Now there are no excuses.

Microsoft has turned this total fan into a much more on the fence guy. But that’s another post coming soon :-).

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.

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?

Microsoft Giving Up on Tablets? Why Do Edge UI Gestures Fire Off Desktop Actions?

Okay, maybe that title is a little hyperbolic. I mean, Microsoft has been promoting the living daylights out of tablets. Creating zero dollar licenses for OEM’s, pouring tons of money into apps and developers, rewriting their app model, even building their own computers. Microsoft seems to see Windows 10 as a viable platform for Microsoft services on tablets. But I don’t believe them.

Windows 8.x was not well received because apparently the interface was not ‘discoverable’. You know, like how 3 and 4 finger gestures on trackpads and iPads as so discoverable. Like single vs. double clicking is discoverable. Like how right clicking is discoverable (yes I’m being sarcastic). Interfaces are learned, not discovered. Some features are more obvious than others, some you actually need to learn. Even to this day, with the almighty taskbar, I see users double click the icons to launch programs there and wonder why they get two copies.

“Why do we single click on the taskbar, but double click to launch on the desktop and file manager?”

Because we learned to do it. Or in some cases never did. Why is it different? Is that ‘discoverable’?

The price we’re paying to the desktop in Windows 10 is too high

Windows 8.x really through a wrench into people’s daily use of Windows because of the sheer volume of changes. Slowly but surely, once we were up to Windows 8.1 Update, things were a lot better. Don’t like the Start screen or metro applications? Turn it off. Work in the desktop. You basically encounter the new environment only occasionally. And I’m sorry about the Start Menu, but if you were still using that instead of pinning programs to your taskbar, well, maybe it was time to join the modern era, but whatever.

Windows 10, aiming to right the wrongs of its predecessor, puts back all the desktop goodness and really does a great job of appeasing the critics–it will never get them all, since Microsoft is not Apple. But in their zeal, they’ve completely destroyed the Windows tablet experience. An 8″ tablet should not be a little desktop. And that’s what it is now. Things that were all designed around where your hands are and fingers reach (that were studied in great detail by Microsoft for Windows 8) are thrown out.

There is no touch-UI to speak of anymore.

Sure you can touch it, but it’s not designed around it in any way. Touch targets are either nonexistent, hard to reach, or impossibly tiny (seriously, the taskbar on an 8″ tablet and you want me to hit the show more icons button?). Even the Start Menu, the entire left hand side of icons is really hard to hit in addition to just being ugly.

The edge-UI is ruined. What used to enable quickly flipping through applications now is a virtual desktop manager. No one handed use for switching, no quick access to the Windows button or settings or networks or sharing. This was all right at your thumbs and simple. Now you hunt around the app for this. And the Start button is now firmly placed in the ugly, ever present, ‘too tiny to work with’ taskbar–and to reach it requires a weird painful thumb bend.

And that sums up what’s wrong here–Windows 10 doesn’t need to do this. Every touch action turns out to be a weird painful bend. There’s even a special mode for touch that basically just makes things full screen, but everything is still desktop focused. Why not really have a touch friendly mode. In current builds, touch gestures like edge swipes that are only ever activated via touch launch desktop features. Swipe in from the side, things should be on the side and reachable. But they’re not. They pop up full apps in the middle of the screen. The notification center could have a button or two maybe for Windows and Share. The Start Menu could have just the tiles rather than the impossible small list of icons. The taskbar could be hidden–that god-awful, ugly, taskbar does not belong in a touch UI.

Is this really supposed to compete with Android and iPad?

If you look at Android tablets or iPads their touch UI is a touch UI. If Microsoft intends to compete here, it can’t have this patchwork desktop crammed into a tablet. It was really onto something with it’s touch interface in Win 8 if you took any time at all to learn it. Just like every other OS. Microsoft could very well have ‘evolved’ both. Continuum should really switch modes and support the tablet with a real touch UI. Holding a Windows 10 tablet and trying to use it is an exercise in frustration.

Don’t get me wrong, Windows 10 is fantastic on desktops and traditional notebooks, in almost every way. But when Windows continuums its way into tablet mode, it needs to really act like it. My experience with it on both an 8″ and 10″ device in tablet mode has been awful, they are now useless as tablets. What were once elegant devices are now kludgy desktops with no keyboards. On my main PC however it’s been great–solving a lot of outstanding wants (plus is fast as hell and has shown to be compatible even with our very vertical company software). But in it’s present form Windows 10 will never grace the screen of my (perfect) Encore Write 2. It would be a painful step backwards in productivity and elegance.

There is room enough for both here. And maybe there will be improvement–but now that it’s slated for a summer release, time is ticking down to fix these things. And to a lot of the people that say this is just how it is, I’m wondering when was the last time you really used a Windows 8.x tablet to it’s full potential. You’re getting your way with desktop in Windows 10, let us have the good experience with tablet mode. If Windows 10 in tablet mode is Microsoft idea of a competitive product with the likes of the iPad they’ve already given up. And just wait until Apple ‘invents’ the edge UI on something like an iPad Pro–and we can all remember when ours used to be cool too.

But did I still order the Windows Ninja Cat riding a fire breathing unicorn? You bet the hell I did. High hopes remain!

Windows 10. One Step Forward, Six Steps Back.

This certainly wasn’t what I was going to do for my first post, but over the weekend, I spent a good chunk of time trying to get Windows 10 working on my Dell Venue Pro 8 for testing. I have a ton of hardware in all shapes and sizes, but I wanted to try Windows 10 on a ‘real’ tablet, and try to use it like I would any tablet. My current favorite, the Toshiba Encore Write 2 is still safely on Windows 8.1.x, but since my Dell was no longer being used heavily, I figured it was the perfect test. I’ve installed Windows 10 (all builds, but currently at 9926) on several machines, a generic Dell laptop, a home PC tower that serves as the guest/office PC, several VM’s, all work pretty well–as desktops. It’s been fast and pretty simple, with the normal glitches one expects from a build this early in Windows. In fact, Windows 10 on the desktop is clean, fast and pleasant to use.

For some background (that someday will show up in a What Do I Use article) I am technically ‘all in’ on Windows and Microsoft services. I’ve been so for pretty much all of my computing life both at home and work. I have dabbled with Apple and Android, and even own a few devices on those ecosystems, but I ‘live’ in Windows. I absolutely embraced the Metro environment and have a number of tablets I use–as actual tablets–routinely. I use Mail, Tweetium, NexGen Reader, Reading List, Xbox Music, Smartglass, etc. A number of news apps, a few games, and some others like Grapholite for network diagrams, Qool for brainstorming and Insteon home automation software.

For me, the ‘app gap’ is something I haven’t experienced. I use a ton of Metro applications every single day, on tablets and desktop. I like them. They function well. There are a lot to choose from. They’re cool. Except of course Office, which recently has shipped in testing, so that’s not too far away. Starting apps, flipping through open ones, tucking things away on my reading list, reading and reviewing tons of internet articles, pushpinning links to my Lumia 1520, tweeting a bit, listening to music, all can be handled with ease and quicker than I could on any competing platform. Life was good.

As someone as all in on Windows I, like many, always look forward to what’s to come. I couldn’t wait to have Cortana on the desktop, streamline functionality, use Universal apps. And Windows 10 has been pretty damn good so far. On the desktop.

It’s a mess on tablets. A horrible, steaming pile of confusion on tablets. Really. It’s awful.

This has to be fixed before release or Microsoft needs to give up on the whole tablet concept. Just quit if this is by design. I mean it, I really like Microsoft products, but if this is their idea of a touch friendly OS, Android and iOS have already won.

The Installation

Over the past few days, I had committed to moving my now underutilized Dell Venue Pro 8 (32GB) to Windows 10. Bugs and all I wanted a good tablet test machine. After trying for hours to clean enough off the tablet to get the 5GB space required (this tablet was before the ‘Windows with Bing” compressed OS option) I was there. Ran the web setup, then Windows update, then failed. And failed again, and again. What I kept running into was a space problem–no matter how much I tried, no luck. So I decided to run setup from a USB drive set up from the ISO. After quite a bit of fiddling, I found that it required even more free space! 8GB to run. Ugh.

I reset the VP8. If you’ve ever done a Windows 8.x reset, you know it’s a wonderful tool that completely wipes and resets you back to the factory fresh image of Windows. I figured clean out of the box Windows would be my best chance for enough free space. After the reset, 12GB free! Then came the daunting realization that you can’t do an upgrade with out all the updates. All of them. Tons. A mountain of updates. This took the better part of a day, carefully babysitting the restart and touchy stalls/time outs that sometimes happen with GB’s of updates. But I was determined.

After finishing the Procession of the Updates I ran the disk cleanup/updates cleanup to purge the disk once more, winding up with about 9.5GB free. Re-running the Windows 10 setup from the web fails again. No reason, just fails with a little pop up saying it failed. So my last ditch hope, I plug in my ISO into the USB adapter and run. SUCCESS! For the first time in days I feel like something worked. It even was going to keep my settings, apps, favorites, etc.

None of those headaches were due to Windows 10–in fact just about any upgrade or install of the OS would have had similar issues due to the size constraints of these tiny storage devices (but these are more and more common, the update routines need to be aware of that). Once there was enough space and the correct media, it sailed through like a champ.

Giddy with anticipation and clicking on my login, I am unceremoniously dumped onto the desktop. Something I had not seen or used on this tiny tablet except in the most dire of circumstances (okay, to copy files to the SD card, but whatever, I never used the thing). I automatically swipe in from right to get to start, oops, no, no start there. But then I touch ‘TABLET MODE” in the action center…because maybe they just activate the desktop by default in these builds.

My sad, sad, unchanging start screen

My sad, sad, unchanging start screen

I touch the start menu in the lower left, a slightly awkward touch point actually. I am presented with a blank green ‘start’ screen, empty save for the Cortana Search box and an ugly list of apps with tiny icons on the left. Tiny. Hard to touch. On the Start Screen. No live tiles, no default apps.

So I begin to pin the tiles for things I’d like from the All Apps micro-list. Tiny touch targets. Tiny icons. Tiny. Little. Impossible. Icons. This is a huge step backward from Windows 8. The start screen, or basically the inflated, ugly start menu, shows no signs of life, no updates, live tiles are decidedly dead. Maybe this comes later, after it settles a bit and they light up again with data.

And the taskbar is ever present. Reminding you this is really a desktop machine. Everywhere screams desktop. From the extra clutter on Start, to the task bars, to the too-tiny-to-touch-icons littering the interface. Everything is desktop centric. Gone is the easy to flip through open programs of the left swipe, replaced with the desktop focused Task Switch that cannot be used one handed. Gone are charms, which apparently everyone hated except me, to easily share to my reading list or email or twitter. Settings might as well now be called Control Panel II rather than the elegantly reachable right hand settings panes. And how in the world to snap applications when in tablet mode? Still haven’t figured that one out.

So far as I see, every single, solitary useful touch function has been expunged from Windows 10 and replaced with a desktop focused one. It’s as if Microsoft is saying “We’re so sorry! We don’t know what we were thinking! Please forgive us and we’ll never do anything like touch again”. They threw the baby out with the bathwater. And then just to be sure, went and got another baby, filled up another tub and threw those away too.

In a race to capitulate to the desktop, they killed or maimed every touch feature that made Windows 8 something useful–if you actually learned how to use it, and didn’t just whine about it. It worked as a touch based UX quite well. I never quite understood the common complaint of it being ‘jarring’. You know what isn’t jarring? Click the desktop and staying there. Pinning your apps to the taskbar.

On touch with the right apps (yes, you have to hunt them down, and of course, there needed to be more in every category) Windows 8.x could be elegant it it’s own way. Universal Apps could help ease this. Actually what we need is a hybrid of the improvements to desktop when in ‘desktop’ mode and smooth easy to use touch features in tablet mode. Just like before, Microsoft is over compensating with too much mouse and keyboard and dropping too much from touch. People were finally starting to at least tolerate Windows 8.1x, and Windows 10 could have crafted features to enhance the experience rather than changing it all yet again. It’s heavy handed and simplistic in undoing anything good about the touch functions in the OS.

Maybe I’m being too critical–it still has a way to go before launch, and maybe there are some good revisions out there coming for touch. I’ll be patient. It could happen. I will test each build like it’s Christmas morning hoping they have something up their sleeve. Right now, there are so many interface compromises that it’s actually difficult to use the tablet mode at all. It’s not muscle memory or complaining just because of change, it’s actually bad design. I can’t reach things, I can’t get to Start, I can’t hit the severely tiny touch points, and everything leads you back to the desktop. Maybe this is how people felt about Windows 8…I never did, because I thought for once Microsoft made something look cool.

So there the Dell will sit until next build, I can’t use it like I thought I would be able to, it just doesn’t work anymore. It runs the Windows 10 code beautifully. And that’s the problem.

Hello world!

Welcome to Yet Another Windows Blog! I will begin posting soon, hopefully with a voice that’s not often heard in these heady days–an actually unapologetic look from the point of view of people who actually like and use Windows (and to a greater extent) Microsoft products. While not exclusively Windows, I hope to have a site where we explore the latest trends and technologies that impact the Windows community. I know you’re out there somewhere! Anyone?

So why this blog? Well, for one thing I do enjoy writing and getting my thoughts down. And I’ve found more and more, while reading other blogs and ‘news’ sites (or what currently passes for the tech press), I find myself yelling at the screen in frustration. So many sites have such an obvious lack of experience in the products they cover or how they’re used in business, or have journalists (let’s be honest, many are just techno-hipsters in love with their iPhone) that simply like the next bright shiny object.

So I thought, why not do it yourself? You’ve written disaster recovery plans, budgets, proposals, a million emails on password security–once with pictures of kittens to bring home the point. Sure, what the hell! No one might read it, but at least I spoke my peace!

I started with computers in high school, then in college with Windows and beta testing, then server, networks, phones, smart devices, tablets, pretty much anything with a plug. I used a wide variety of technologies, but mostly inside the Microsoft ecosystem (even before we called it that). I currently am the Director of IT for a small financial services company, and we are the typical medium-sized business with a several offices of about 100 people. I’ll cover both business related technologies and consumer, since I use both. Some fun stuff like XBox, which I love even though I am a terrible gamer, and some, well let’s just say dry material, like the trials and tribulations of Azure AD Connect.

What I hope is that if anyone decides it’s worth reading, it’s at least marginally helpful. And for the Windows people out there who lately have to feel like the technology they actually love is some kind of guilty pleasure. No more I say!

With that, let’s begin…