SiliconFilter

Sorry Microsoft, But My Desktop Isn’t a Tablet

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Last week, Microsoft launched the consumer preview version of Windows 8 to the public. As I was at the Mobile World Congress, I didn't get to install it until the weekend, but I've now been able to put it through its paces for the last few days and been using it as my main operating system for most of that time. Its split personality is driving me absolutely bonkers, however, and I'm not sure I'll extend this experiment much longer.

Windows 8 is a beautiful tablet operating system, but on a desktop – and especially with a multi-screen setup – it just constantly gets in your way. Thankfully, this is just a preview version and Microsoft still has a few months to iron out the kinks, but unless it makes some radical changes, I'm not sure I'll be able to recommend Windows 8 anytime soon. Microsoft says Windows 8 will offer the best of both worlds and in a way it does. It's just that these two worlds aren't meant to be squished into one single operating system.

The Split Personality of Windows 8

At least in this preview, Microsoft makes no attempt to hide the split personality of its new operating system. There's the metro interface, which you can't avoid, as it also now doubles as the new start menu, and then there is the traditional desktop, which can be best described as Windows 7.5. The two user interfaces have nothing in common with each other and try as you want, you can't just use Windows 8 like a Windows 7.5 because the tablet interface constantly intervenes. To launch applications from the traditional desktop, for example, you always have to go back to the Metro-style start menu, which features a great design for tablets, but makes utterly no sense when you use a mouse and keyboard.

Oh, and what about those two different versions of Internet Explorer? There's the Metro version, which doesn't support Flash and has a very stripped-down interface – and then there's the regular browser that runs in the desktop. How do you explain that to a mainstream user?

Got Two Screens? Windows 8 Wasn't Made for You

Worst of all, when you use a dual-screen setup right now, the second screen always shows the Windows 7.5 desktop and you can't even run two metro apps side-by-side on the two screens. To make matter worse, Windows 8 right now assumes that your primary screen is always the one with the task bar on it, so you can't even start any apps on the other screen while you are in Metro mode (unless you opt to show the same task bar on both screens, which also makes no sense whatsoever).

Great Tablet UI – Pointless on the Desktop

Microsoft has decided to privilege the tablet use case over the traditional desktop and productivity one. At times, this leads to non-sensical decisions like a login screen you have to drag up to get to the password prompt (okay – you can just hit enter twice, too, I think – but it's not like you will accidentally start your desktop or laptop in your pocket).

And what about trying to put your PC to sleep or turn it off? In Windows 8 right now, you have to first log out as a user, then pretend you want to log in again and the hunt for the shutdown button, which is hidden under your user icon (or you can try to bring up the "charm" that appears when you hit the right side of the screen with your mouse – but that's a bit hard  when your main screen is on the left side and your mouse just moves over to the right screen).

Maybe there is an alternative universe out there where this makes sense.

Then, of course, there is also the question of why you would want to run these full-screen apps on your desktop in the first place. Apple pushed the same concept with its full-screen mode and just like Microsoft, it totally forgot about dual-screen users. I don't think I've ever run an OS X app in full-screen mode, as it just makes switching between apps too much of a hassle.

There's Still Some Time to Fix This…

Hopefully, Microsoft will continue to polish the edges of Windows 8 to the point where this disjointed experience becomes somewhat less disorienting and maybe even feel natural. I admit, I doubt it. And that's a shame. Microsoft made some really smart decisions with the Metro interface (including, for example, the ability to run two applications side-by-side). My desktop, however, isn't a tablet and instead of making things easier for me, Windows 8 just constantly gets in the way. Windows 7 does its best to get out of my way – Windows 8 instead throws some giant tiles onto my screen.



2:59 pm


Coming to Firefox in 2012: New Look, New Home Tab, Focus Mode and a Windows Metro Version

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If the popularity of Google's Chrome browser has shown anything, it's that competition in the browser market is a very good thing for consumers. To counter Chrome's seemingly unstoppable march towards dominance in the browser market, Mozilla has set itself an ambitious roadmap for Firefox in 2012. As part of this roadmap, Firefox will introduce a new look, a Chrome-like new tab page and a dedicated Windows 8 Metro version.

A "Web-Wide People-Centric Identity System" and "A Complete Web Apps Ecosystem"

In a statement attached to the roadmap, the Firefox team lays out some of its overall strategies for approaching the future of Firefox. Most importantly, Mozilla acknowledges that "the Web is more than just the desktop browser." Because of this, the group plans to introduce a "web-wide people-centric identity system, a complete web apps ecosystem, and a no-compromises mobile browser" in 2012. Mozilla, of course, has long been working on prototypes for its identity system and announced plans for an app store-like experience for web apps (again, something Chrome already offers) more than a year ago now. Until now, though, none of these have actually arrived as full-grown products and we've only seen prototypes so far.

New Features for Firefox in 2012

Overall, 2012 promises to be an interesting year for Firefox and one that promises to introduce a number of highly anticipated and useful features.

Among these are an updated look, an updated and speedier JavaScript engine called IonMonkey, and support for a distraction-free reading mode similar to the "Reader" feature in Safari.

Here are some of the highlights from the roadmap:[list]

  • Add-ons Sync: Firefox Sync makes it easy to move between computers and devices. In addition to syncing passwords, bookmarks, and history between Firefox installs, users are going to be able to sync add-ons.
  • Firefox Hotfix: There are small issues that can occasionally affect Firefox users after a release. Correcting those small issues should not require a full Firefox update. With a new hotfix system, Mozilla can patch minor issues in Firefox without requiring a browser restart.
  • Proof of concept for Firefox in Windows 8 Metro: In order to deliver a compelling Firefox for Windows 8 Metro experience, we need to understand what's possible. A technology proof of concept is the first step. This is not a Alpha or a Beta, but should demonstrate the feasibility of Firefox in Windows 8 Metro. (Timing here is dependent on when Microsoft releases their Windows 8 consumer preview and developer documentation.)
  • Firefox Home Tab additions: Firefox's start page, AKA Firefox Home Tab, is where users start their browsing session and where they land when they've closed their last tab. In addition to easy search, Firefox Home will become a launch point for managing all of your Firefox data
  • Silent Update: The Firefox update process will be moved to the background and Windows admin passwords and/or UAC prompts will be removed. Also, users with the rare incompatible extension will have a gentler upgrade process.
  • Web Apps Marketplace integration: Firefox Home will offer a launcher for the Web Apps Marketplace and promotion for personalized app recommendations.
  • Firefox Focus/Reader Mode: Despite the rise of multi-media on the Web, reading is still the most common web activity. We will make reading long-form content a wonderful experience with a user-activated re-formatting and re-styling of the page that puts focus on the content rather than ads and navigation.
  • IonMonkey: The next generation of the Firefox JavaScript engine, code-named IonMonkey, will bring dramatic improvements to JavaScript performance making Web applications even faster.[/list]

 



9:47 am


Ubuntu Wants to Replace Menus with a HUD

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Ubuntu, the popular Linux distribution, has been experimenting with a number of interface designs lately. Today, the project's founder Mark Shuttleworth announced that the next major version of Ubuntu, 12.04 LTS, will feature a replacement for the menu bar. This "Head-Up Display" (HUD) is more akin to well-known Mac utilities like QuickSilver and Alfred. The idea here is to eventually replace the global menu in Ubuntu's Unity interface – which is similar to the menu bar at the top of the screen in OS X – with a more keyboard driven "vocabulary UI" approach that can understand the user's intent without having to search through an application's menu system.

Ubuntu 12.04 will still feature traditional menus, but introduce the HUD as an alternative to the current design.

Shuttleworth notes that Ubuntu's user testing found that most users spend a lot of time navigating menus, either to learn about a program's functionality or to take an action. Menus, says Shuttleworth, serve two functions: "They act as a standard way to invoke commands which are too infrequently used to warrant a dedicated piece of UI real-estate, like a toolbar button, and they serve as a map of the app’s functionality, almost like a table of contents that one can scan to get a feel for ‘what the app does.’"

Just Type

In order to improve on this concept, Ubuntu wants to create a system that allows users to express their intent. Current menu-driven systems, says Ubuntu, require users to read too much, even though they already know what they want to do. They are hard to use from the keyboard (unless you already know an application's shortcuts) and "force developers to make often arbitrary choices about the menu tree."

The HUD concept allows users to simply say what they want to do and then do it. Thanks to fuzzy matching and its ability to learn and then prioritize commands you regularly use, this approach should give advanced users an advantage over the menu system.

One problem this approach doesn't solve, though, is giving users an idea of a program's capabilities. At least with regular menus, you can figure out what an app can actually do by just browsing through the menu tree.

Ubuntu has been widely criticized for its move to the relatively non-standard Unity interface. This announcement today will surely have its critics as well, though I have to give Ubuntu some props for trying relatively radical new things – something more established mainstream companies like Apple and Microsoft can't really do at this point.



8:51 am


Hands-On With Windows 8 on the Desktop: A Confusing Jumble of UIs

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Today, Microsoft made the first developer previews of Windows 8 available to all who would like to try them out. I couldn’t help myself, of course, and immediately grabbed a copy once it was available to install it on my test PC. During its public keynote demos, Microsoft mostly focused on showing the Windows Phone-like Metro UI and tablet devices. How does this first public build of Windows 8 work on a traditional desktop (or laptop), though?

Two UIs and No Way to Isolate Them From Each Other

I have to admit that I’m about as torn about it as the two user interfaces Microsoft decided to bake into Windows 8. The Metro interface is slick, fast and surely works well on a tablet, but its full-screen apps feel like they are mostly a waste of space on a large desktop machine (I basically never use full-screen apps in OS X Lion for the same reason). The traditional Windows 7-like interface got some polish and is still as useful as always. Overall, though, as I feared, the two feel disconnected and there is currently no way to just use one or the other .

As Microsoft took away the traditional Start menu from the legacy desktop, a click on the new Start button now inevitably invokes the Metro-styled Start screen. Run an app there, though, and you won’t find it running on the legacy desktop – and vice versa. Thanks to this, for example, you may start Internet Explorer on the desktop and then find that the instance of IE running under the Metro UI doesn’t talk to the other one, so that none of your tabs are transferred between the two. Try to explain that to your grandparents when they get a PC with Windows 8 preloaded.

Obviously, this is still a developer preview and many things can still change . Chances are that, we will see plenty of Metro-enabled apps soon, so that switching between the two experiences won’t be necessary most of the time. I can see how Microsoft would restrict tablets to running tablet-style apps and give desktop users the option to switch between the two. This weird hybrid that forces you to use both systems on the desktop, though, just doesn’t really work in its current iteration.

More First Impressions

Here are a few more of my other first impressions:
[list]

  • the chromeless version of Internet Explorer 10 in the Metro interface is fast and capable (and doesn’t come with Flash pre-installed). Like so many other apps in the Metro interface, though, it feels like Microsoft put looks over usability – at least for desktop users – as you now have to at least click the right button once to do anything more advanced than clicking on a link. Oh – and you have to make sure you click it on the right spot on the screen, as you invoke the context menu otherwise. Hopefully, a next version will invoke other functions by just allowing you to move the mouse to the edges of the screen (maybe similar to Apple’s Mission Control/Expose).
  • the Metro interface looks slick – no doubt about it. Everything is fluid, well animated and just looks good. Nobody is going to accuse Microsoft of copying this interface from somebody else. On a traditional, non-touch enabled desktop, though, it feels more like a gimmick that gets in your way than a useful feature.
  • why did Microsoft kill the regular Start menu in the legacy interface? Starting an app now feels like work, as you have to dig through multiple layers of Metro UI – or use the keyboard – to find what you are looking for. Even if you really just want to use the desktop, the Start menu will inevitably bring you back to the Metro experience.
  • it feels like you really need to use the keyboard a lot more than ever before to get things done. Hopefully, Microsoft will, for example, make it easier to switch between apps that you started in the Metro UI. For now, using the good old ALT-TAB combination seems to be the only way to do so. The only way to quickly start an app from the legacy UI, too, is to just start typing after you bring up the Metro Start screen.
  • the much-maligned new Windows Explorer with the Ribbon UI isn’t actually that bad.
  • boot times are fast – less than 30 seconds on this machine after the BIOS had booted up (with an older Intel Core 2 Quad processor and an IDE hard drive).
  • installation was easy (same procedure as Windows 7), fast (under 30 minutes) and everything worked out of the box (graphics, sound, etc.)
  • how do you turn this PC off? Given that there is no Start menu anymore, there is also no way to turn the PC off from there. You currently have to CTRL-ALT-DELETE to find the power off switch…
  • as promised, legacy apps generally ran fine, though we found some issues here and there: Firefox had some problems displaying its user interface, for example. Other apps like Paint.net and the Windows Live Essentials installed and ran without problems, though. Shortcuts to newly installed apps now appear at the right end of the start menu now, by the way.
  • the system was very stable. No crashes yet, but I didn’t try to install any games or other apps yet that would really tax the system. Your mileage may vary depending on the components and the drivers available for them.

[/list]

Verdict: Mixed Emotions

Overall, then, I come away with very mixed feelings after a first evening with Windows 8: it looks like Microsoft is really trying to shake things up, but I’m not convinced that the Metro UI is a good interface for desktop users and the Windows 8 team should find a way to just hide it from desktop users. I’m all for innovation, but in its current form, forcing users to go into the tablet interface just puts unnecessary roadblocks into the users path. I just want to start an app – not see a pretty little block with the current weather.

Microsoft still has plenty of time to fix these issues, so I’m not too worried yet, but for now I don’t see any good reasons why users will a regular desktop or laptop should update to Windows 8 (and it pains me to say that, as I ran Windows 7 exclusively once the first builds were publically available).

Image credit: Arnold Kim



6:15 am


Microsoft: The Schizophrenic Windows 8 Interface Will Offer the “Best of Both Worlds”

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One thing that has vexed industry watchers for quite a while now is how Microsoft plans to integrate its flashy Metro interface for tablets and phones with its upcoming Windows 8 interface. Today, Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky cleared up some of the confusion about this in one of his regular updates about the state of Windows 8. While the tablet-focused Metro interface, after all, looks quite nice and is a major departure from the default Windows style, the screenshots of the new Windows Explorer Microsoft showed just a few days ago were the exact opposite: cluttered and unnecessarily complicated. According to Sinofsky, Microsoft can’t just start with a clean slate but still wants to offer users “a design that truly affords you best of both worlds.”

Windows 8 metro interface

Two Separate Interfaces = The Best of Both Worlds

The question, of course, is if Microsoft’s somewhat odd approach to the Windows 8 user interface will really offer the best of both worlds or if it will just offer two completely disconnected experiences. Microsoft argues that “Windows 8 brings together all the power and flexibility you have in your PC today with the ability to immerse yourself in a Metro style experience.” Both Microsoft and Apple, though, have tried this same approach with their media-focused Media Center and Front Row experiences in the past and both didn’t succeed in convincing users to switch between these two interfaces.

According to Sinofsky, Windows 8 will let you “seamlessly switch between Metro style apps and the improved Windows desktop.” But will users really want to switch between two completely different user interfaces? While Sinofsky says that the design goal for Microsoft is “no compromises,” it’s hard to see how it’s not a compromise to add two completely different user interfaces to an operating system.

You can find more of Sinofsky’s reasoning here.

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3:57 pm


The New Windows 8 UI: Trying to be Too Many Things to Too Many Devices?

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Microsoft showed off the first demos of Windows 8 at the D9 conference and on its blog today. In its current form, it’s basically a blown-up version of the Metro user interface that also graces Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system. That’s not a bad thing at all, actually. With its live tiles, the Metro UI provides users with one of the most information-dense “desktops” around without giving up aesthetics for clutter.
(more…)



4:31 am


Google Introduces a Priority Inbox for Your Documents

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Google Docs just announced a user interface overhaul of its documents list. This new interface makes it easier to organize and find the documents you upload to Google Docs. Google introduced a set of filters that now allow you to organize your files by type, visibility state (whether you shared it online, with friends, etc.), last modified date and, of course, by name.

In addition, Google Docs can now organize files by priority – similar to Gmail’s Priority Inbox. Just like in Gmail, this new feature looks at a number of signals to evaluate how important a file is to you and moves the most relevant documents to the top of your list.

Google Docs priority-1.jpg

Google Docs now also features a preview pane that shows thumbnails of your documents and some basic information about them. Next to this, Google also renamed “Folders” to “Collections.” Files, according to the company, can “live in multiple collections.” All of this culminates in the new “Home” screen that allows you to quickly access the documents you access the most often.

Another welcome new feature that makes the web app even more like a desktop app is that you can now use your Shift or Control keys to select multiple files.

The refresh will be rolling out over the next few days. For Google Apps for Business users, the roll-out will take a bit longer if your administrator hasn’t enabled pre-release features for your company.

Google Docs_new_list-1.jpg



12:47 pm