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Windows 8.1, The old new stuff

I remember a time where…

It has been a while since I have had the occasion to post something on this blog so, I will start with a little info about me that most of you probably don’t know. I am a developer. While I have written a lot about Apple, I mainly write Windows applications. Why? Because I love C# and the tools that Microsoft give us to do our job.Prior to last year, it was nearly impossible to write an application completely in C# for other platforms which also made it harder for my experience to be useful there too.

This means that I mainly work on Windows and Windows Phone. This also mean that I know a lot about Windows 8 and 8.1. Thus, I have an opinion about what is going on right now in the news and this is what this post is about.

There is a lot of bad press for Windows 8 and 8.1 and I just don’t get it. This is not much of a rant as it is more of an exploration of various popular opinions that seems to direct the web right now.

Lets start with a comparison that appeared back at the release of Windows 8. It goes something like this: “If the car industry where doing what Microsoft is doing, they would swap the brake and gas pedal every 3 years just to follow the trend.” There is a lot of wrong way to respond to this argument. One could say that it took 8 years for Microsoft to release Windows Vista. That is hardly “every three years”. While this is true, it is not a very useful argument. In reality, what Microsoft did with Windows 8 has nothing to do with how you “drive” your computer. If anything, they just added a new radio to your car which support Sirius and have on-steering controls. I am serious here! Let me show it to you.

Seven versus Hate

First, lets look at how many ways there are to open the start menu or start screen in each relevant version of Windows.

For Windows 7, we have:

  1. Click the start button
  2. Press the Windows key

For Windows 8, we have:

  1. Click in the lower left corner of the screen
  2. Invoke the charm bar and click on the Windows logo
  3. Press the Windows key

If anything, that is just more ways to do the same thing, which is not bad in itself. The charm bar is optimized for touch so it makes sense to have an easy way for touch enabled devices that don’t have a Windows key to show the start screen. Now let’s look at one of the things we do the most with Windows.

By default, there is 3 ways to open Internet Explorer (or any web browser) in Windows 7. Here is the list:

  1. Using the start menu: Click on the start button, click on “Internet”
  2. Using the task bar: Click on the IE icon in the task bar
  3. Using the keyboard: Press the “Windows” key, press “i”, press “Enter”

Let’s compare this with Windows 8:

  1. Using the start screen: [Go to the start screen,] click on the “Internet explorer” tile.
  2. Using the task bar: [[Go to the start screen,] click on the “Desktop” tile,] click on the “Internet explorer” icon.
  3. Using the keyboard: [Go to the start screen,] press “i”, press “Enter”

Let us take a look at what changed between the two. You will see that I have added square brackets between a few actions for Windows 8. This is because they are optional. Depending on where you are, they can be skipped. This is very important because it means one thing. Those actions are now contextual. They have to be used in a specific context. If you are in a Windows Store application, don’t go to the task bar to open your applications. For this, you will have to go through the entire chain of actions from the second entry in my list. That is 3 actions. Instead, you should use either the first or second one which are a lot simpler and faster. The same goes if you are already on the desktop. Don’t use the first solution when you can just click on an icon in the task bar.

The keyboard solution is a little special though. I have highlighted the most generic way of opening an application using the keyboard on Windows, but there is an other shortcut you can take. You can simply press the “Windows” key together with the number corresponding to the position of the app in the task bar. So by default, for our example, that would be Windows+1. This works from anywhere, even from Windows Store apps. The next important thing to know about the keyboard solution is that it is so fast (it takes less than a second to open an app with this method) that the amount of keys you press is relatively irrelevant (unless you are a very slow typist). This means that this is a very good way of opening an app even if you are on the desktop because you only have to hit one more key.

There is also a third, very important thing to know about the Windows 8 list. Since it is context based, and that the default context you are put in when you start your computer is the start screen, all of the redundant “Go to the start screen” actions are unnecessary. This is a very important thing to mention because in Windows 7, there are two ways that requires you to be in the start menu and no default context where the start menu is shown. This effectively saves one action for each way in Windows 8 making it simpler to open the application you want. Depending on the context, Windows 8 will then be faster or as fast to do this basic task so long as you use the right method for the right context.

To demonstrate my point, I have chosen the task of opening an application. This is a very important thing because it matches the initial “car industry” argument about driving your computer. The first reason for the Windows operating system to exist is to help you open applications which then let you to do your work. Yes, they changed it. Radically? Not at all. To keep the metaphor running, its as if they found a magical way to make the brake pedal automatically bigger and easier to reach when you really need it. It is still in the same place, you only have less movements to do to reach for it.

The not-so-newcomer

Now that Windows 8.1 have been announced, the news reporters are all flared up at restarting the whole Start Button / Boot to the desktop argument thing. This is ridiculous and brings absolutely nothing good to the industry. Most people will simply read the news and believe that Windows 8 is a flop just because of a missing feature that takes a lot of place in the news but not in their everyday life. I have already demonstrated that there is a start button in the lower left corner of the screen. The only thing is, you know its there. It always been. So why would you need to see it all the time! You don’t need to lose precious space in your task bar for something like that. Could you imagine how painful it would be if all of those contextual menus (the one that appears when you right click on something) would always be visible? The start button is no different. It is contextual. You don’t need to see it all the time just to remind you that you are using Windows.

I would also like to note that, there is absolutely no excuse for “not knowing how to go to the start screen” or not knowing about the charm bar (the search-share-windows-device-setting-thingy on the right of your screen). There are two reasons for this. Either you never noticed the Windows key on your keyboard or you have not seen the very obvious, single-stepped tutorial that is displayed the first time you boot your computer on Windows 8. In the first case, you should definitely take a basic computer class because there will be a lot of things you might be doing wrong and which will impede on your productivity. For the second, it means you are in a very unfortunate demographic group which buys custom-assembled computers from “specialists” who wants to make it easier on you by doing the initial setup for you. These. Ar. Not. Specialists. These are wannabe computer experts and you should avoid them as much as you can. If they are not expert enough to understand that the initial setup is to be done by the end-user (you) with them walking you through each step, then they are not worth paying for. They take away so much of the user experience of the product for you, that you might not even know how to use it in the end. This is also valid for cellphones which a lot of vendors loves to configure them for you when they first insert the SIM card in them. If you upgraded your computer to Windows 8 yourself (which is a piece of cake, really, Microsoft did a great job at it) or bought a new computer from an OEM vendor such as HP, Sony, Lenovo, Asus, Acer or Dell, then you will have to go through that initial setup, and you will have to see the tutorial. There is no way to skip it, even if you leave your computer doing its stuff for a while. It will be there when you come back.

Booting to the desktop is a whole other story though. I don’t know where this trend began, but Microsoft should have never let the user place documents on the desktop itself. They did major improvements in the way files are managed on a computer in Windows Vista. They introduced something called libraries. That was 5 or 6 years ago. This is how you should manage your file. This is the Windows way. If you don’t want to keep your files in those libraries and prefer to dump them by thousands on your desktop, then you should be using something else than Windows. I am not trying to say that you should quit using computers all together, just that there is better file management systems for you than the one Windows has in place. Considering what I have already said about the start screen being more efficient for its main task, having a whole bunch of files on your desktop is the only reason why one would want to boot to the desktop instead of the start screen.

The main reason for having a whole bunch of stuff on your desktop is because it is yours and you just know where the stuff you need is. This is also true in real life, but even if moving out of your parent’s house might have reduced the amount of times where someone would move the one little thing that you need, this is where the similarity ends. When you use a computer, you always are in your parent’s house. At any time, Windows might decide to switch your screen resolution or reorder, add or remove icons from your desktop. Gamers know this well. How many times have you lunched a fullscreen game only to see it change your screen resolution and destroy your desktop arrangement? Too many is the answer. Unless you manage your files the Windows way, that is. If you keep nothing on your desktop, this can’t happen. It doesn’t take longer to get to your important files either. This is specially true with the search capabilities Microsoft introduced, again, in Windows Vista. While in the real world, it takes a lot of time to open all of those nice and tidy folders and cabinets just to find every letter with the words “jane k. bathurst”, it takes less than a second on a computer. Just type “jane k. bathurst” in the search field and pick email or file, whatever you want. The sad thing with Windows 8 is that you lose the ability to cross search between all of you applications (emails, files, calendars, music, etc.) which is not that big of a deal because you can still search for them specifically. Microsoft still added it back in 8.1 with a new search UI that looks absolutely gorgeous and gives you the results for all of your apps, and even web pages, all at once.

Planning for the future

So, is Windows 8 just change for the sake of change? Why should you upgrade when it doesn’t “change anything”? Because that is what I have been saying, right? Well, not exactly. It does change a lot of things. They are mostly minor optimizations here and there, but here is the top reasons why you should upgrade to Windows 8 even if none of those concerns you directly.

  1. Face it, the start screen is better. It displays all of your data that you care about in one place and it handles application management way better than the old start menu. It’s a new twist on a very old concept and it is fun and very practical to use both at home and at work. If you are a fan of the notification center on your mobile phone, then you should love what Microsoft pulled with live tiles.
  2. There will be a time were you will need a new computer. No matter how long you wait, it will happen. If you are still running Windows XP, upgrading to Windows 8 will be a pain because you never had the incremental feel of getting search, libraries, new start menu features, the ribbon in built-in apps, etc. that the users who kept on upgrading had. These users had 12 years to get used to those already. You won’t. The more you wait, the tougher it will get.
  3. Developers will love you. By keeping your devices up to date, you simplify our job by reducing market fragmentation. Most of the time, it is a lot easier (and fun!) to write a Windows Store application than a classic Desktop application. But since a whole lot of you are not using Windows 8 yet, we need to write both if we want a chance to have some sales. This triple and even quadruple the time it takes to write a good application and might end up in higher price points, more bugs or less efficient designs.
  4. You will love you. If you keep on doing your updates, you will gradually get more and more efficient at doing things. Even upgrading will be easy. People will envy you for your superior computer performance and capabilities when in fact, you just use what is there for everyone. In the end, you will just have more time for yourself to do more important things than wait after your computer to do its work.

That’s it folks! I hope you enjoyed this… very large comeback. Take care and see you soon.