Sunday, November 18, 2012

On the opportunity that Windows 8 provides

Windows 8 is a usability disaster by most accounts. Most recently, I read this article that details some of this from a study of a dozen users. Read it, it's very comprehensive.

I've been using Windows 8 since the day it released and it's obvious to me that Microsoft misstepped by trying to merge the desktop and the tablet. The problems are not just "getting used to it" type problems like the Office Ribbon.  There are deep, deep usability issues that will need to be rectified by either further innovation (hard) or by reverting to the old (easy, but embarrassing).

One of the most obvious usability nightmares occurs when I hit the Windows key and start typing the name of an app I want to run. In the past, it would open up a small entry box in the Start window, compete the app name and run it when I hit return.  In Windows 8, it brings up a full screen window and does the same thing. But let's think about this: you just replaced the entire screen with a big panel in order to find one app. When I hit return, it pops out of this experience to run the app, which is most likely back on the desktop I just came from since no productive apps are within Metro itself (nor should they be -- read the article above). "Jarring" is the nicest way I can describe this interaction.

Windows 8 has put Microsoft in a tough position. The next logical question is, how can one profit from it? Who out there can move quickly to exploit this opening?

Most people are going to contemplate the obvious choice: that the opening is for Apple, like, for example, this article by JLG. I disagree. The tablet is not a replacement for the desktop PC in the way knowledge workers need. Additionally, MacOS X is fairly unloved in the corporate environment. Apple hasn't nurtured the enterprise (compared to the consumer) and corporate IT isn't going to rush to replace PCs with Macs anytime soon. No major company I know of is thrilled at the idea of single-sourcing the hardware, which is what it would be to standardize on Apple.

Then one might consider Android. Android has the same issue as the iPad: it's not a replacement for a desktop PC. At least, not yet.. maybe someday. It at least supports a mouse, but is missing the kind of productivity apps one would need.

Chromebooks are interesting but can't support legacy PC apps.

So the question is, what plays out there could:

A) Leverage the investment IT departments have already made in PCs.
B) Allow IT departments to continue buying from their existing vendors like Dell, HP, etc.
C) Helps application deployment headaches.
D) Still slowly morphs companies away from their PC environment.

To me, almost everything that falls out of these points is going to be rallying around the web.

One play is focusing on making web applications more desktop friendly, then selling web services that can supplant Office, Exchange and so on. Gee, sounds like a good one for Google to take on. Mozilla could too, of course.

For example, Chrome's usability as a native application is pretty dreadful. Pretty much the only thing I can do is "pin" my Gmail tab, which is still easily closable when I didn't intend.

It should be built in to Chrome that I can create a regular OS-like desktop application for any webapp. It should get first-class behavior. It gets its own Dock/Taskbar icon, it gets real alerts, and so on. Make it a separate process with a distinct executable name if you have to.

Funny story: Microsoft already did this! They did it for IE 9. For some reason, the competition never caught on that this is a pretty good way to brand your web app on someone's taskbar. And yet, it could be taken so much further. Allow the application to change the native menu bar. Completely hide the fact that it's a web application. Isn't this what XAML was supposed to be? Mozilla and Google should be pushing on the same concepts.

The second play I think would be very wise would be towards tooling for the enterprise to replace all of its desktop .NET and VB applications with web-based ones. Just yesterday, I was talking to an engineer who described his company's goal being to make a JS framework that could be used for this kind of purpose in the enterprise. There are a lot of small companies rallying around the idea of HTML5 and Javascript end-to-end in order to solve these problems. But you know what big company could do great if they just played their cards right? Adobe.

Adobe should buy all of the companies, sponsor all of the open source projects doing this kind of work right now. VMWare gets what they need to do in their space. They're sponsoring several projects that can be used as PaaS. And when the day comes, they want to be the best at supporting those platforms in the cloud.

Adobe should be taking all of these projects and making the tooling around them excellent. Why do I still find it easier and faster to type JS, CSS and HTML into vim? Adobe needs another Flash success story for themselves. Right now they have these "Edge" tools that, frankly, look less powerful and less interesting than what I can get out of the Chrome developer panel.

So there you have it, a couple ideas of who and how one can benefit from Microsoft's Windows 8 screw-ups. The common thread is the web however. Nothing about iOS or Android make it clear how they could start replacing billions of desktop PCs and Office installations anytime soon. Web applications that more seamlessly integrate with the existing legacy platform... and making tools that your internal developers can use instead of .NET or VB6? Both of those seem a lot more direct.

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