(Updated). Microsoft's Rebirth: Windows 8 on Phone, Tablet, & PC

Update 2: December 1, 2012.

Summary: Windows Phone 8 is great. Tablet? Probably. Desktop? Disaster.

I said (below) that Windows Phone 8 was brilliant and I had really high hopes for Windows 8 on tablet and desktop.  Well, I was right about the first, maybe correct on the second, but absolutely wrong about the last.

The old Microsoft made the error of trying to make their desktop OS work on phones and tablets. The new Microsoft reverses the error, taking a great phone OS and trying to make it work on the desktop. They don't even allow multiple windows! Don't they ever watch themselves work?

See my partner's review: Jakob Nielsen reviews Windows 8

(Update 1: The interview below was released in February, 2012. Now, a month later, on March 23, Needle Dave Needle released yet another interview column based on his talk with me, expanding upon the ideas:  Don Norman: Microsoft has a real opportunity with Windows 8. )


Dave Needle of TabTimes just interviewed me about the Microsoft Windows 8 Operating system: Consumer Preview of Windows 8 Showcases Microsoft's Big Gamble.

But before you turn to either interview, let me provide some background.

Microsoft, the long-sleeping giant, has finally woken up. Although populated by some of the world's best engineers and designers, Microsoft has long been hampered by infighting amongst its many bureaucracies. But the shock of competition forced it to revitalize. First came the Nintendo Wei, which caused Microsoft to develop XBox's Kinect, the new standard in interaction technologies, not just for games, but for everything. Tour the computer science and design labs around the world and you will find Kinect everywhere, serving as powerful inputs for creativity.

Then came the Apple iPhone, with its multi-touch gestural controls. It didn't matter that Microsoft was there first with Surface; the Microsoft product was big and expensive whereas the Apple one was small and affordable. Apple and Google's Android soon dominated mobile phones and Microsoft's offerings suffered accordingly. Similarly, Apple revitalized its computer Operating System and started enhancing its market share.

Well, Microsoft is back. Windows 8 is brilliant, and its principles have been extended to phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop machines (and larger -- for example, Surface), whether operated by gesture, mouse and keyboard, or stylus, but with appropriately changed interaction styles for the different sizes of devices and different input devices.

More importantly, Microsoft obviously used its extensive research on people's activity patterns, to build in enhanced support for the intermixing of tasks. Today's phones and tablets from Apple and Android focus upon single applications, one at a time. Oh sure, they still are operating in the background and it is relatively easy to switch among them, but we frequently need to use Apps simultaneously, transferring information from one to another.  Microsoft understands this: it lets Apps co-exist on the screen, although obviously this is easier to do on large screens than on small. With Apple computer OS, you have to manipulate windows by hand, and each time the focus moves to one window, windows from other Apps get hidden. Not so with Windows 8.

Android is pretty much a copy of Apple iOS. Not Windows 8: this is a powerful rethinking of interaction in the age of gestures, touch screens, and Kinect.

Jakob Nielsen and I have criticized existing Apple iOS and Android designs as confusing and unforgiving, ignoring fundamental principles such as discoverability. Microsoft does not suffer from these same design flaws. It created an innovative set of design elements that couple the power, fun, and ease of gestures with straightforward ways of discovering the possible range of actions.

I urge you all to try it. You might even want to switch to the Windows 8 platform (when all the elements are out, probably by the end of 2012), but even if you don't, you will learn a lot about design by studying what they have done.


Now go read both interviews with me, the first one and then the one released a month later. Then go to the Microsoft websites and learn more.   For your convenience, I give the four relevant URLs here:

  1. Interview 1: Consumer Preview of Windows 8 Showcases Microsoft's Big Gamble.
  2. Interview 2:Don Norman: Microsoft has a real opportunity with Windows 8.
  3. Microsoft website for Windows 8: Windows 8 Consumer Preview
  4. Microsoft website for Windows Mobile 8: Windows 8 Mobile Phone

Update on the update:   More reviews are pouring in, now that Microsoft has released the beat version.

Here is a critical review by Troy Wolverton of Silicon Valley.com who used Windows 8 for awhile.  Nice dress, he says, but crappy fit. Multitasking is difficult or not even possible beyond two metro apps. Most work still requires the old (Windows 7) desktop, and switching between Metro and desktop is difficult. And he gives a simple example of quitting a Metro application that should send shivers down all of our backs.  See http://www.siliconvalley.com/troy-wolverton/ci_20235176/wolverton-review-microsoft-windows8-misstep

Another reviewer, Russell Holly at Geek.com concluded thusly:

Microsoft, in some ways, took a step backwards with the Consumer Preview. With the Developer Preview, it felt like there was a lot of consideration that there would also be mouse and keyboard users. This is an important consideration, gives that they are still the majority in this situation. The Consumer Preview has made for many situations where the mouse and keyboard combo is downright difficult to use. Windows 8 is still obviously in beta, however the continued steps away from workstation-style users concerns me greatly.I feel almost like there's a piece missing from my desktop. Something like Kinect, where I would gain all of the functionality I have lost by not being able to reach out and tap on my screens, as I would be able to on a tablet. If I had the ability to just lift my hands from my keyboard and navigate Windows 8 the same way I navigate my Xbox, this whole experience would make a lot more sense.


Note added December 2, 2012

Here is how I answered another journalist's request for comment:

Microsoft (and all computer companies) face a difficult design problem.

On the one hand, the incompatibilities between the way that phone, tablet of varying sizes, and desktop (and laptop) computers operate is confusing for the user population. How many times have users of traditional computers (Apple and mac) tried to swipe on the display screens, only to remember that they are not touch sensitive. And how many times do users of smart phones and tablets search in vain for a menu.

Microsoft decided to standardize across all devices. My suspicion is that Apple is moving in the same direction, although it isn't there yet.

If you have different operating systems for desktop/laptop computers and tablets and phones, there will be huge confusion, especially as smaller laptops and larger tablets converge in size.

If you use the same operating system for everything, it fails to support the very different workstyles that are required.

But on small-screen devices, whether 10 inch tablet or 4 inch phone, especially when used while moving around the home -- or in trains and airplanes -- are really devices for reading, watching, and listening. Real work does not get done with these devices.  Journalists, for example, do not write their articles on tablets or phones: they use laptops of desktop computers, with large screens (often multiple screens) and real keyboards.

On the computer desktop, many of us use large screens and have a large number of windows open at the same time (twenty is not uncommon). Mobile devices don't require that and can't support that.

And for anyone who thought that having to move the hands from the keyboard to a mouse or touchpad slows down the use of their computer, having to move it around a vertical screen or two is far worse.

So, Windows 8 has a problem. When used as if it were a smaller device, it limits the things open simultaneously. Moreover, the real business workhorses of Microsoft Office, are not well supported by the mobile apps. So Microsoft had to provide a backwards-compatibility mode, which provides the necessary power, but makes things even more confusing.

Here is my prediction. The requirements of small screen, mobile devices are incompatible with those of large screen, fixed devices. All the computer companies are learning how to deal with this. It is not unusual for first attempts to have flaws. Microsoft, however, is famous for building flawed systems, but focusing upon them and improving them. By version 3, they get it right.

(Apple, on the other hand, is famed for emphasis upon new innovation, and if it fails the first time, moving on to a new innovation and not improving upon the first.)