Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Some time with Windows 8

My fiancé recently got a new laptop, a nice small ASUS with a touch screen and Windows 8 pre-installed. This gave me a chance to actually play with it for more than a couple of minutes and really start to figure it out. I'll admit that my initial impression has not been positive about Windows 8, and although getting to spend more time with it has tempered that quite a bit, I still feel like there are some major issues overall.

First, I think the reason that my experience was more positive this time is that I got to use Windows 8 on a machine that has the intended hardware. Namely, a touchscreen and a touchpad that is set up to deal with all the different gestures that Windows 8 likes you to use when you're in non-desktop mode. Being able to switch between apps with a long flick of the finger across the touchpad or touchscreen is actually quite nice and simple, and I like the metaphor that it's trying to do. Similarly, being able to touch your selections on the screen feels rather natural after working with an iPad, or other touch screen device, for so long.

However, I'm still annoyed that Microsoft decided to implement a whole new set of interactions that don't really seem to make much sense, and I don't even understand their purpose. One of the big ones that annoys me is the need to press Windows-Z or right-click to bring up a contextual menu along the bottom of the screen. This is a completely different location from where most menus display, and needing to learn an esoteric key press is not helpful to Microsoft's users. This is just one example of some of the UI annoyances that plague the "Metro" part of the Microsoft UI. Don't get me wrong, it's not a terrible interface, and with some tweaks to better accommodate user behavior that has been ingrained in us for a few years now, it might be really quite usable.

But then, you have the whole "desktop" mode. This is the mode where frankly, most people end up doing all their work. I found myself simply clicking "Desktop" whenever I wanted to launch an app because I often didn't know if the app had a "Metro" version, or what that version would even behave like. So then the question I asked myself, "What's the point of having a glorified Start Menu that is a completely different UI experience from where most people are going to spend their time?" I've even heard rumors today that Microsoft might even let users boot directly into the Desktop mode, bypassing the Start menu on boot up altogether.

So despite feeling much more comfortable with the new UI, in spite of its quirks, I really felt like I was using an OS that needs a direction. A vision and an end goal for how we should be interacting with Windows. I feel like Windows 8 simply uses its users as a set of lab rats, tossing all kinds of things at them to see if something will stick. If someone handed me a Windows 8 machine to use would I use it? Sure, but I'd feel like I would be waiting for the "next thing" to make the experience feel more finished.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Not wearing the ruby slippers...

This past week the tech world has been a-buzz about the new Facebook Home experience. For weeks we've been getting the pre-announcement rumblings... is Facebook launching a new app? A new phone? A bio-implant chip that records every thought you have as a new status update? Well, we finally got the answer, and thankfully they've decided not to enter the cybernetic implant realm... at least not yet.

Facebook's new experience is a set of apps for Android phones that transforms your UI into a fully Facebook experience. Your lock screen and home screen get transformed into slick versions of your Facebook news page, combined with your phone's email and messaging. Your messaging gets merged together with Facebook Messenger so that you can ping people on Facebook or SMS through the same app. And, photos from your feed become background images on your home and lock screens, so you can always see the latest drunken stupor your friends are in, without having to log into an app.

Facebook said in it's announcement that it wanted to make your phone about "people, not apps". I immediately thought to myself, "Didn't Microsoft just try this with Windows 8 and Live Tiles?" I wasn't the only one to think that either (Microsoft compares Facebook Home presentation to Windows Phone launch). But beyond the problem of trying to make a paradigm shift that others are already attempting, the biggest issue I see with this is that it depends so heavily on a single company for the entire experience.

Unlike other apps that try to change your phone experience to make it less app-centric, this attempt depends solely on your desire to make your world revolve around a single social networking provider. Unlike other attempts at social/phone integration, such as Microsoft Live Tiles, the original WebOS account sync, or even the iOS attempts at service integration, this one is tied to one service, and one service alone. Maybe that's fine, but it requires that you are willing to let Facebook be your almost-complete, one-stop shop.

This is where I think the fatal flaw is. The common refrain when talking about how Facebook makes money, is that on Facebook "YOU are the product." Because Facebook is free, it becomes a service not about what you want to partake in, but about what Facebook can use, that you give it, to sell to others. I'm not criticizing this model per se, simply stating the reality of the situation. So when you consider Facebook Home, it's not necessarily about giving you a better phone experience, it's about bringing you deeper into the world of being a product that companies pay Facebook to access.

Let's look at the photo background piece of Facebook Home for example. It shows you the latest photos on your News Feed that your friends have shared. Beyond the immense potential for abuse, and the general question of trusting your friends to not post garbage (Facebook Home is beautiful but what if your friends aren't), is the potential to end up having your phone be a billboard in our pocket. When I look over my friend feed in Facebook, I get a fair number of pics of people and their kids, but a large number of photos on my feed are products, or bands, or causes, that my friends have "Liked". So not, if my friend 'likes' a pic of the latest laptop from Lenovo, that pic has the chance of showing up on my Facebook Home screen, and as Mark Zuckerberg said, you stare at your home and lock screen a LOT every day.

There has been talk lately of young people starting to drift away from the "always-sharing" mentality of a few years ago. Although kids are still using social networking sites in record numbers, the trend seems to be changing ever so slightly. I don't believe that we'll ever get to a point where people give up on social networking sites, and in fact I think they are incredibly powerful ways to connect with people. But the need to have a social networking site be totally pervasive in our life experience, is a trend I'd hope to see continue to decline. So then the question becomes, do we need something like Facebook Home? I give them kudos for developing a nice and beautiful interface, but perhaps it's a hammer looking for a nail that might not exist.

In this particular case, I don't think I'll be clicking my heels anytime soon, wishing to go back over the rainbow and find my (Facebook) Home...