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An analysis of the car-crash Windows 8 Desktop/Metro interface

Windows 8
by Joel Hruska, 01 Nov 2012
An analysis of the car-crash Windows 8 Desktop/Metro interface

Windows 8 straddles two worlds: The new-style (Metro) designed with touch in mind, and the old environment of the Desktop. Microsoft promised that users would be able to move across the two environments with relative ease – but that just isn’t the case.

In this article, I’m going to lay out some of the reasons why Metro so utterly fails to meet the needs of any desktop user. Rather than step through the situation app by app, I’ll highlight specific apps that demonstrate the problems.

Metro and Desktop apps don’t communicate

Ever since Microsoft began talking up Metro, professional Windows users have asked questions about how desktop applications and Metro versions of those apps would interact. Short answer: They don’t. But Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, makes you use the Metro versions by default, anyway.

Consider the Windows 7 Photo Viewer. It allows you to navigate the photos in a directory via the arrow keys, offers built-in rotate and slideshow functions, and can print, burn, or email the photo – all from top-level options. Users can right click the image and choose “Open With…” to move the image to an advanced editor of their choice. This is particularly useful if you want to use the quick previewer to choose a selection of photos to edit in another program.

If you open an image outside of your Pictures directory, Windows 8 can’t do any of that. There’s no option to shift an image from one program to another, even if you want to use a different Metro application. And notice how, in the Windows 8 image below, our furry friend is bigger and blurrier? That’s another Metro feature. If you’re in the Pictures folder, you can at least crop the image, move through the folder via arrow keys, and view a slideshow. If you’re editing photos outside of that directory, sorry – no dice.

This is a security measure; apps don’t have permission to use outside folders other than those designated, but the app never tells you that. There’s a “Permissions” button, but it contains no useful information on the subject.

The Metro Start screen’s new global search function is blissfully unaware that I have two other hard drives in my system. If I want to search them, I have to use the Desktop. In Windows 7, you could modify the Search Index to cache additional results from other locations.

Hierarchy woes

You can have any hierarchy you want with Windows 8, as long as it’s flat. And stupid.

Metro isn’t just optimised for tablets and small displays, it’s optimised for tablets and small displays even when it makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s a directory of photos (extra large icons) in Explorer:

And the same folder in Metro:

Just for fun, I decided to compare how long it took me to scroll through the two directories. A “scroll” is a full rotation of the scroll wheel and subsequent repositioning of the finger, not a single click.

In Desktop, the solution to this problem is simple: Adjust your mouse sensitivity. But desktop mouse changes don’t apply to Metro, and there’s no option to adjust the sensitivity of the scroll function within the app itself.

I don’t want to seem as though I’m picking on Metro Photos, so here’s a screenshot of the Metro Video Player displaying the Season 7 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

And again, the same data in Explorer:

There are two things to notice here. First, the total lack of file names in Metro. True, they appear on mouse-over, but there’s no way to display them by default. Second, note the order in which the results are ranked. In Explorer, files are grouped left-to-right, top-to-bottom. In Metro, files are top-to-bottom, left-to-right. Why? No idea. Can you change it? No.

Zoom is one of Metro’s all-time favourite activities, even when it isn’t necessary. For example, an 800px image, when displayed in Metro Photos, will suddenly be blown up to a blurrier 1600px wide. Why? I’ve no idea. And I can’t turn it off, either.

Finally, and on a different note, there is no “Page 2” in Metro News Land. At Reuters or any other news site, you can browse archives to your heart’s content. Not in Metro. You get as much content as Microsoft feels like showing, with nary a “View More” in sight. Typically this means scrolling left and right, looking for a subheading you can click on.

Sharing? Hah!

Metro was supposed to be the UI that was all about sharing. Share with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, and all points digital! In reality, it’s hard to imagine a product making it more difficult to share data.

Take the News app. Visually, this is one of Microsoft’s strongest achievements. Content is beautifully laid out, sources can be customised (though there’s no option to load an RSS feed). But what if you want to share a story? In Desktop, I’d right click, copy the URL, and send it over. Metro News doesn’t have URLs. So I go to the right side of the screen and choose Share. I have two real options – I can send an email, share via Facebook, or share via Twitter. If I send an email, it generates a link that only people with Windows 8 can read.

No kidding.

If you use Twitter (and I don’t), the Share charm generates a URL with a bingnews:// header. Nothing but other Windows 8 systems know what that is or how to deal with it, which means that 99 per cent of people, as of today, literally can’t read the content other people want to share with them.

It gets better.

In the image above, I’m having a conversation with my colleague Sebastian in the Metro app, IM+. I’ve got a Reuters story open in News. I’d like to send Sebastian the link, but I can’t. Metro apps don’t use URLs. I can send Sebastian an email, which he can read if he’s using Windows 8. But wait – what about Facebook?

It turns out I can share the Colorado story on Facebook. Well and good. But not this one about Windows 8.

Why not? No idea.

The astounding arrogance of Microsoft

It’s no surprise that Metro has a lot of rough edges and rocky spots. That’s par for the course and completely expected. What I find genuinely astonishing is that the company believed it could push this farce of a product out to businesses without a few basic nods to the reality of the situation. It’s enraging precisely because it was so completely preventable. A quick switch to set default programs to Windows 7 settings, some tutorials or basic Help pages on how Metro works (the OS truly throws you in the deep end on this one), and a few logical recommendations as to how professional users should approach Metro (avoid it, for now), and there’d be no conflicts.

After covering the Vista Capable lawsuits four years ago, I feel safe guaranteeing that this decision was hotly debated at Microsoft. Whoever overruled it threw users under a bus. It’s true that these issues will eventually be fixed, the same way most of Vista’s issues were eventually fixed. After a couple of service packs and some major driver fixes from Nvidia, Vista wasn’t half bad. That wasn’t much comfort to the people who were stuck using it in the interim.

There are glimmers of sanity; Wikipedia’s app contains an “open in browser” button. Clearly, this wretched state of affairs isn’t set in stone. But by the same token, Microsoft could have avoided all these problems by either porting a few more basic functions to Metro on an app-by-app basis, or simply building an alternative setting for content producer. Right now, the only apps with any degree of polish are the ones designed to drive in-store purchases. That says something about where Microsoft’s priorities were, and it’s nothing good.

Don’t buy Windows 8 on a PC if you do serious work in traditional applications and were hoping developers would come up with new concepts for workflow and design. You’ll be sorely disappointed.

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