Windows 8 – A Tale of Love and Hate

Accessori Hardware mouse tastiere e webcam inn...

Accessori Hardware mouse tastiere e webcam innovative per Microsoft Windows 8 presentazione milanese press day esclusiva – 25 (Photo credit: Michele Ficara Manganelli)

Most people will by now be aware at least of Microsoft’s latest platform for playing Angry Birds on – Windows 8 – but some may not be aware of the controversy it caused.

It was a radical change in how people operated windows and this annoyed many who were familiar with the Windows 95 to Windows 7 era as gone were the familiar start button and desktop in favour of the flat, unadorned, information-heavy tiled interface. The comments weren’t simply of dislike, many they were downright venomous – from the likes of “Microsoft are idiots” to “Microsoft have killed the PC” and worse.

It’s pleasantly colourful, not garish like the Windows XP “Fisher Price” look of ten years ago.  The thing is that many of these complaints seem more about resistance to change than anything, the Start Menu alone for example – that had been made slightly redundant in Windows 7 by the ability to dock apps to the taskbar, a lot of people ran apps by hitting the Start button on the keyboard and typing the name of the app – this is how Windows 8’s start screen works by default, the only thing that’s changed is, in effect, the size of the menu which is now a screen full of information.

I remember the last time Microsoft radically changed how Windows worked – Windows 95.  The same arguments came out, “how can this Start menu replace Program Manager, how will you find programs”, “look at how much screen space the “taskbar” takes up”, “why do you press Start to shut down the computer, that’s stupid” and so on.  Ironically the new Start Screen reminds me of the old Windows 3.1 way of working more.

The flat tiled interface reflects how computers are being more familiar and how they’re used, thanks to the modern web’s design users no longer need the reassurance of buttons that look like real objects simply an area of a different colour or a label to indicate an action.  Yes Microsoft is designing to appeal to consumers but these days it has to, more computer users than ever are home users and Apple have been doing the same simplification to target the same market for years.  The difference is that whereas Apple tries to lock down parts of its operating systems so that non-technical users can’t do anything to affect the “user experience” i.e. make the product look slow or faulty, Microsoft and Google still allow tweaking if that’s your thing.

We’re seeing similar arguments about the new Xbox which is being turned into a media hub for the home rather than just a games console, there are complaints about its appearance and so on.  Many of the complainers in both cases simply don’t like the idea that the PC and the Xbox are no longer theirs, the domain of the gamers and the techies, no longer mysterious to consumers.  There’s a side issue to this feeling of ownership over an area of technology – the sometime horrific online treatment of women who play games by male gamers who think it’s not a “girl thing”, but that’s for another article.

The reasons for this change were to embrace emerging technology and ways of using it, tablets are more convenient for casual computer users so Windows needs to encompass that, though they have been trying to accomplish this for a long time without the hardware being up to the challenge.  Secondly they wanted to present a consistent look and feel across all devices so users only have to learn once, and can use the same apps on all devices and share information across them all too, once more applications start using the new interface it will become ever more familiar and usable.  Lastly the idea of the live tiles is down to this “information age” where people want all their appointments, reminders, Facebook and Twitter updates and so on up front and ready for them.  Immediacy is the key these days and Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 priorities this information while still doing so in an attractive way.

Unfortunately for the doomsayers Windows 8 has sold well, it has recieved much acclaim, people do like it because it feels like an appliance, like their phone and not like a computer as such, it reduces the fear of “pressing something and deleting everything” in inexperienced users, it’s easier to use – though admittedly you still need to learn how to use it, like anything else to a degree.

Personally I don’t need all this information in my face as soon as I switch on my PC, tablet or phone so I don’t need Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 but if my PC came with it then I’d happily use it – and yes I have tried it and I do like it.  My PC, phone and tablet all have minimal interfaces, Windows 7, Android 4, this was why I chose the Sony phone because the default homescreen is relatively scarce with just a few icons and a clock, same with the Nexus 7.  It suits the way I work with my technology but that doesn’t suit everybody.  With Windows 8 Microsoft took a brave decision to give consumers something that would suit them but didn’t suit everyone either but at least it has listened to those complaints and is tweaking it in an update due in the next couple of months to give those who don’t need or want the live tiles more control, and a start menu of sorts.

Change is inevitable for progress, sometimes it’s difficult but one day you look back to what came before and think “how did we ever make do with that?”

Still Free After All These Years

36236699I’ve written a few books, I have only ever half-heartedly attempted to get one of them published – thinking that I’m not really a writer, more of the outsider thinking I talked about recently.  Writing these books though was enabled by free software.  I’d had an Amstrad PCW which was a word-processor but I only used it for programming at the time.  I didn’t write stories, despite being told at school by my last English teacher that I was a good fiction writer, because again I feared being laughed at.  By the time I decided to write again I’d moved onto a PC and suddenly I was confronted by word-processing software like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect and so on costing hundreds of pounds.

Thankfully, I got a free copy of Protext 4 for MS-DOS with a computer magazine.  This was a big deal in those days, free software was often written by hobbyists and tended to be utilities, text editors and drawing programs were mostly shareware which you could “try before you buy” and then there was the commercial packages with their eye-watering price tags.  Today my laptop cost less than them.  I used Protext for years, those who don’t remember early nineties computers may be amazed that you had to control the whole thing with the keyboard.  No mouse.  At all.  It was surprisingly quick to use though, no distractions of formatting and pictures, no internet, no emails, just you and your words.

I moved onto Windows word-processing when I worked for a PC shop and got a cheap copy of Lotus WordPro which we used to bundle with the computers we built.  I’m only now moving onto the next big thing – which is something we kind of hoped for but didn’t expect back in the days of ordering a 1.44Mb floppy disk of freeware programs from a paper catalogue.

Big complicated software like Office packages take big teams of programmers or a lot of time, or both, to write and in the old days collaboration was more difficult but now there are organisations like Mozilla, Apache and others who organise teams of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create fantastic free software like the Firefox browser (which I’m using at this moment) and the Microsoft Office-compatible OpenOffice (and it’s offshoot LibreOffice).  These charitable foundations and teams who code for the enjoyment and achievement of it are creating ever more sophisticated software and giving it away for free, only perhaps politely asking for a donation towards their efforts which flies in the face of the idea that people will only create something if they are financially rewarded.  A large number of the coders on these projects are professionals volunteering in their spare time too.

There will always be a market for commercial software as many people and businesses either want or need to use software that has become industry standard no matter how closely compatible the free software is, and often the commercial software just has features that free competitors either haven’t got or can’t have due to patents.  There is also the issue of future updates and technical support though with the use of online forums you can usually get an answer to any problem you have with free software pretty quickly and even updates and bug fixes are generally quick in appearing.

With the advent of smartphones and apps there has been an explosion of free software yet again.  The centralised nature of the App Store and Play Store has encouraged people to learn to code and get something they’ve made out there, just like the old days of PCs, as it’s now even easier to get your app seen and used.  Of course much that appears to be free often isn’t quite free and many apps are also supported by advertising or the dreaded in-app purchase which I’ll write about in a future post.

Sometimes though some people expect free software when it isn’t at all though as other companies have shown giving away old software can be a canny move, introducing people to the brand, giving them skills which can lead to employment using the current version etc.  Serif in the UK have always been good at this, every version of their software I’ve used has been either a free version or more recently a two-version-older copy at a bargain price, and Google’s products like Chrome, Google Earth, even the Android O/S are free because they encourage you to use Google’s search products.  Even Microsoft now gives away many very good pieces of software like Live Essentials and Security Essentials.

So long live free software, what would some of us do without you.

Future Computing – Gestures in Thin Air

A comparison between a Eee PC 900 and a 22 inc...

LCD monitor and a standard keyboard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After giving the world intuitive, natural game control with Kinect’s position sensing technology – and all the Star Wars Brrzz, Brrzz Lightsabre action that goes with it.  Then also adding voice control to your Xbox at the same time, Microsoft research continues to bring us closer to a scifi world of computer interfaces by using sound to detect gestures and control your desktop PC.

The new technology, which is still early in development, uses the doppler effect, bouncing ultrasonic waves off you and detecting their return times to detect hand movements for scrolling screens and even detecting your presence as a security measure.  Demonstrations at this stage are impressive and it is another step toward intuitive interfaces.

There’s still a place for the keyboard and mouse for the moment but soon your PC will sense your motions, see you, know who you are and hear what you’re saying to it.  Just don’t let it control your front door or you might have to be careful what you say in front of it.

[Gizmodo UK]

A Syncing Feeling

Cloud Computing Image

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some may be forgiven for thinking that The Cloud was something Apple invented due to the high-profile launch of iCloud – it’s much touted system for sharing content seamlessly between iDevices and Macs – but it was a ‘thing’ long before it was an ‘iThing’.

The ubiquity of internet connectivity has enabled cloud computing to blossom in recent years.  Now there are the online file storage and sharing services like  Box, Microsoft’s Skydrive and others; cloud disk drives like that provided by Dropbox (and the upcoming file system integration of Windows Skydrive); and automatic content syncing systems like iCloud.

The ultimate goal of cloud computing is beyond such storage and syncing of files and moves all of your apps and data onto remote servers operating in a similar way to the thin-client terminals that those of us old enough remember fondly.  Google’s ChromeOS running on ChromeBook laptops are the first foray into this new world however they assume a mostly connected situation and online OSes and apps won’t be replacing Windows, MacOS and desktop apps anytime soon though their features and functionality are improving all the time.

The most useful aspect of the cloud for me so far has been syncing of data.  To be able to add an item to my to-do list on either my laptop, netbook, tablet or, using the webapp, my work laptop and know that it’ll be there when I fire up one of the other devices is a joy.  My app of choice for this is Wunderlist but others have similar functionality.  (I also use the similarly syncable Evernote for more in-depth notes).  The same is true of having files I use on the laptop synced via Microsoft’s servers to my netbook whilst being simultaneously backed-up in the cloud as well.

The future may not be entirely based in the cloud but in huge server farms cooled by Arctic fjords our data will be shuffled between our devices and shared with our friends, seamlessly and effortlessly.

And I won’t have any excuses for forgetting to do something on my to-do list.