Fixing Surface for its third incarnation

This week some interesting news came out about the 3 different SKUs that Windows 9/Threshold will apparently have. What we’ll get is:

1) Desktop version with an actual desktop and a modern/win32 hybrid Start menu.

2) Desktop-less Mobile version that will run on all ARM hardware (both phones and tablets) and maybe on Intel Atom CPUs.

3) Business version that might allow disabling the modern (by modern I’m referring to the WinRT framework, but I’ll keep calling it modern to avoid WinRT and Windows RT confusions) environment completely.

This is good news all around. For starters, mobile users have absolutely no need for the desktop: on a 10″ device, the desktop is awful, targets are too tiny to touch with fingers and mousing around isn’t very comfortable in such limited real state. In the same vein, desktop users can use modern but it’s not a very comfortable experience in the framework’s rough state these days. Many people shout to the winds about how horrible modern is for the future, not realizing their blindness: a UI framework is never a static structure, it adapts and changes to improve with time and experience. Modern is literally 2 years old: remember how awful win32 was in the 80s? Took them until 1995 to make it something great. We face the same scenario with modern and its WinRT language: it’s inadequate and weak now, but give it a few years and it’ll start picking up APIs, libraries, functionality. It will most assuredly replace win32 at some point, just not anytime soon. I find it ridiculous that people decry and condemn a 2 year old piece of software in this instant-gratification society spoiled by the past decade of amazingly lucky constant successes. The iPod-iPhone-iPad 1-2-3 punch is an anomaly in technology history, an incredibly fortunate one for Apple and the rest of the market. Mark my words: this is not going to happen again for a long time. These huge market impacts come about once every decade, we’ve had 3 in that time period. The slowdown has already started – noticed anything breaking released since the iPad was launched? Nope. Get used to it. Great things normally take time, and WinRT needs time to become great. And no, the smartwatch is not the next big thing.

So, what does this have to do with Surface?

Plenty, specially after the recent news of the 3 Threshold SKUs. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus only on the mobile release that will run on any ARM CPU. This version is the fusion of Windows Phone and Windows RT we’ve been hearing about for months. Some call this the death of RT (playing into the aforementioned inadequacy cry) but that’s missing the point. Microsoft now has 3 platforms to maintain: Phone, RT and x86-64, which is unnecessarily excessive. x86-64 will remain and Phone and RT will merge. This is no death for any of the platforms, I like to think of it as a rebirth: while their names might fade away, the actual code will be fused bringing the best of WP and RT together. That means both app libraries will combine and we’ll also get Cortana, notification system and a big etc. Since RT is big and heavy just like the x86-64 version, it makes more sense that the main base will be WP to which all RT goodness will be added, then both will be enhanced once fused as 1 (a 32GB tablet would now have 30GB of free space instead of the current 14 or so). Also, this would mean that even a sub-par hardware configuration like my Surface (1st gen) would work quite well, as it’s still a quad core ARM CPU with 2gb of RAM: barely minimal for RT but plenty to run a WP/RT lighter OS. But I digress. This fused SKU can breathe renewed life into Surface amplifying its app store, making the OS lighter and faster and getting rid of the unnecessary desktop in hybrids. This, however, can only happen once the modern version of Office is ready for release, meanwhile Microsoft can’t take away the one feature that makes Surface special (literally why consumers like me bought the machine, because 99% of my work consists of Word, Excel and Powerpoint).

The new hybrid OS would however imply changes to the Surface philosophy. While both the ARM and x86-64 versions would be one Windows 9, the market targets will be very different, bringing to memory the days when business and consumer Windows were a big differentiator. Many have asked for an Atom based Surface but I suspect this has not yet happened due to market tension: Microsoft has acknowledged they do not intend to compete with OEMs, so I expect for them to keep the Surface line a premium one with Core CPUs and higher price tags. This also brings into question other recent rumors of Microsoft abandoning Surface for its recently acquired Lumia brand. Now, what I consider most logical here is that the mobile SKU of 9, based on ARM CPUs, would be used in Lumia devices, both phones and tablets while the x86-64 variant would remain in the Surface Pro line. This would indeed do away with the Surface (on ARM) line, but then again it’s been quite a market flop. The Pro line, in comparison, has been quite the success, especially with the recent Surface Pro 3 that has delighted reviewers everywhere. It would make good branding sense to keep Surface just as a Pro line, for people who want to do serious work, and use the Lumia brand for ARM based hardware: phones and tablets for play and some work (hence the need for the modern version of Office).

With that said, what does a Surface 3 even look like? First of all, the name: I don’t see Microsoft doing this but it wouldn’t be too far fetched that they’d consolidate ARM phones and tablets under the Lumia branding, calling the Surface 3 something like the Microsoft Lumia 1 (as they seem pretty obsessed with One branding lately), it wouldn’t get confused with the phone model numbers in the hundreds and thousands. I’d keep the main characteristics of the non-pro Surface and Lumia aesthetic: from Surface I’d keep the kickstand (full flex inherited from SP3) with the Windows button on the right side, a 3:2 screen that fits the same chassis as S1 and S2 so the current Type covers are still usable. From Lumia I’d keep the colors: make the tablets available in a bunch of different colors, and boom, you have a successful Lumia/Surface hybrid that feels like a more fun, smaller, tablety version of Surface Pro which is designed for consumption while letting you work lightly on modern Office. For illustration:

Surface 2:

 

surface 22Lumia 1:

 

Surface 3 mockup2That’s how I see MS evolving: Lumia phones and tablets using mobile Threshold SKU fusing WP/RT, Surface Pro tablets using x86-64. The phones don’t need to change much, just keep evolving. Lumia tablets that replace ARM Surfaces would reflect Lumia and Surface Pro qualities (playful, colorful, consumption-oriented, light work capable, 3:2 screen, button on side) while Surface Pros would remain where they have succeeded, in the professional/business market. Add to this that with Threshold all apps will use mostly the same codebase and you have the write-once-use-everywhere dream of universal apps come true, both stores combine to have around 450,000 apps that you can use in your phone, tablet or desktop. Not only is this a great direction for Windows in general, but it’ll be a great push for both the phones and tablets, besides propelling the WinRT framework overall. As for how the WP/RT merge will look like? I wouldn’t mind it being a mixture of WP/RT user interfaces while at the same time distancing themselves from the Windows modern aesthetic so the regular consumer knows it’s no longer Windows 8.x but something different:

mockup

This mockup, however, seems like it won’t be the case. We’ve heard that the start screen is most likely going away for everyone, desktop and tablet users, to be replaced by a hybrid start menu kind of thing that can act as a more-or-less full screen expandable start menu of sorts. In my mind, this is what that means to combine both approaches in a bid to appease touch and desktop users:

3 avec screem

This seems like a sensible combination. The principles of the start screen, flexibility, customization, touch convenience and grouping are preserved, while desktop users are not booted to a different experience. Since many users hate occluding what’s in the desktop, well, they probably wouldn’t populate their hybrid start menu as much as I did, although parts of the desktop are still visible here. Microsoft would be wise to provide optional transparency controls though, it can never hurt them to give users more choice if occluding what’s behind the start menu bothers them so much. These kind of changes can work. Now they need proper execution, branding, marketing and software support. Get to it Microsoft.

combo

Don’t trust the sensationalist pundits, Windows 8 is really easy to use

Lately I’ve started to get quite bothered by the swirls of false press around the net. Many have fun picking on the big guy, which has traditionally been Microsoft – what they don’t realize is that Microsoft is no longer the big guy, but one of three players quite equally balanced in the market.

Windows 8 is a great departure from the old Windows: this may sounds scary, but your fear will go away when you understand that it means a move away from complexity, away from viruses, away from poor accessibility. The new design language allows you to focus on the task at hand, with no distractions, for you to get done what you  need to get done. Since the presentation change is quite noticeable, certain videos have started to pop up in the net showing how horrifically difficult using Windows 8 is. The inherent problem with these videos is that the subjects where thrown into Windows 8 with absolutely no indication of how the system has changed. Remember the first showings of initial cinema movies? People ran out of the room in horror thinking that the train they saw on the screen was about to squash them. Then they learned how the new cinematic systems worked, understood the context, and those problems were virtually gone forever, becoming general common knowledge.

Windows 8 is the equivalent to those cinematographers: new, innovative, breaking at the time. Windows 8 is new, it’s innovative, it’s breaking. As such, one cannot expect to  throw somebody into the new environment and have them magically understand and master it, which is why all these videos criticizing the difficulty of the new operating system are complete and utter hogwash.

This is how my Start Screen looks like, as of this morning:

There are 3 main pointers anybody should know and understand before transitioning to Windows 8, three facts that will allow you to understand the new environment and knowing which will save you from running in horror from that incoming “train”. Here they are:

1) Think of your PC as a very powerful, versatile, capable Smartphone. In the new PCs, everything is an app. Think of your desktop now as one more app, with the exception that instead of focusing on offering just one service, it can contain many other classic-style programs (the old, traditional ones you’re used to).

2) Since you’re PC works like a Smartphone, forget about closing programs. You don’t need to: the system takes care of that for you and closes apps when necessary. If you want to exit the app you’re in, you no longer need to find a tiny X at the top of the screen and click it: just hit the Windows button on your keyboard and voila, you’re back in the Start Screen (this is the same behavior as a Home button on a Smartphone).

3) Finally, screen edges are now important. If you use a touch device, the Windows 8 30-second tutorial explains this well: swipe inwards from the screen edges to reveal more options. When using a mouse on a traditional tesktop, screen corners allow these extra funtions: the top left corner will show you the apps that are open for you to switch to them rapidly. The bottom left corner will show you the Start screen (you can click there instead of hitting the Windows key on your keyboard):

Similarly, the top and bottom right corners reveal a bar with further options, should you need the more advanced features they offer:

There you have it, that’s your Windows 8 1-2-3, easy as pie. The desktop is just one more app; no need to close apps but just hit the Windows key to exit an app; remember/use the edge/corner menus. That’s it! Once one knows those 3 initial pointers, the problems people have with Windows 8 disappear: you just learned the basics. It’s not hard at all… actually, it’s incredibly easy and simple: arguably the most logical Windows version to date. What sense did it make in Windows 7 and prior versions to go to the Start menu in order to click turn off? Start to turn off? Illogical. In Windows 8, do what your gut tells you: simply push the on/off button. Duh.

As always though, the best thing you can do after knowing the 3 Windows 8 basics is go to a tech store and try it for yourself. I’ve been using Windows 8 for more than a year now (since the early builds Developer Preview, Consumer Preview and Release Preview were made available to testers) and I can guarantee, in my own experience, it took less than 1 week to fully get used to the new environment. Don’t trust the sensationalist tech pundits – learn the basics and see for yourself how easy to use Windows 8 really is.