Will the Start Screen be Windows Gadgets all over again?

Remember when Windows Gadgets were introduced in Windows Vista? It was supposed to be the cool little widget engine for Windows that was meant to compete with the likes of the OS X Dashboard or Yahoo!’s Konfabulator. However, it rarely got any good major third party apps. In fact, the only good ones were primarily the ones that were built-in or developed by Microsoft. It was a major disappointment, but it also tended to chug on resources when not in view and it just never provided the functionality the most people cared for.

So will the new Start Screen suffer the same fate? After all, the Live Tiles are very similar to gadgets, and the Metro applications are much like widgets in fullscreen. Though given how you can’t ignore it, it might be something that Windows 8 users will grow used to or some ammunition for others to finally make the switch to a Mac.

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The big thing is the Metro design language. I love it the way it looks and works in some places (Zunes, Xbox dashboard, WP7) but sometimes it can be pretty bad (Microsoft.com website and perhaps Windows 8). Even on many pro-Microsoft sites, a lot of people are commenting their strong dislike with the way Microsoft did it.

I can somewhat agree that Microsoft didn’t do such a hot job with Metro in Windows 8. Here are some reasons I believe the Metro Start Screen might become a fail:

1. Inconsistency with WP7 tiles – The tiles are similar to Windows Phone 7, but they’re not exactly consistent in both colors and icon style. In WP7, you get to choose a default color theme, like red or blue or whatever. In Wind0ws 8, the color theme only appears for the background and may charm bar icons. All the built-in apps have completely different colors. Then the Music and Video tiles have icons that don’t appear to exist in WP7 tiles. Whole point of tiles on Win8 was unified consistency with other products, right? Microsoft, please be more consistent with the way icons and color theme options work for the tiles.

 2. Too many tiles – On Windows Phone 7, the Live Tiles or static tiles are nice and handy on a smaller screen. But on a desktop or laptop screen, so many tiles can be a bit more overwhelming. Sure, they can be somewhat grouped and such, but it can seem like a lot somehow. The ability to organize into folders or virtual folders would be useful. Also, why not make use of vertical scrolling? Maybe for hubs of tiles or something?

3. No hubs? – WP7 had ‘hubs’, you know, the area where related apps/shortcuts/content are all in one place? Yet Windows 8 appears to lack a Games hub, Office hub, Music + Videos, and a People hub. Everything is a separate tile with a separate interface. There’s no synergy for the most part. The photo app only allows some Facebook, SkyDrive and Flickr stuff. There really needs to be an emphasis on similar ‘hubs’ and more integration if Microsoft wants to connect the experiences across all products. Also, I would suggest that hubs are stacked in a vertical list, and tiles/content associated with a hub appear in a horizontal list. Use of scroll wheel could be used as a ‘semantic zoom’ and arrow keys or . What I’m described would look a lot like Windows Media Center without the gloss. Or maybe a horizontal list that splits up the hubs into tiers at the top similar to the Zune desktop software (like the top row will have the major hubs: Home, Games, Media, etc. and a row below that shows sections of the hub, like for Media, there’d be Music, Videos, Podcasts, etc.)

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4. “Start” at the very top – The word appears at the very top and seems to be rather useless. It’s pretty obvious that’s the new Start menu/screen, and if it’s meant to be an official way for novice users to identify this part of the interface, I’m quite sure there are other more practical ways of doing so. Please get rid of the “Start” word at the top and if must be replaced with something, make it feel like it fits better.

5. Design is too flat and staleAdding some drop shadows would really help give some depth to the tiles so it doesn’t feel like they’re stuck to the background and it looks nicer. Even a really small gradient could make the tiles more easier on the eyes, so you don’t have to shift from one solid color right into another one. The latest Xbox dashboard can have such shadows and some gradients why not Windows 8?

6. Lack of major apps – There’s a very small amount of ‘official’ apps from big-name companies that are available at the moment. Most of those apps are hardly noteworthy and barely do much. If Microsoft can’t get major companies on board, there will likely be few independent apps that will of high quality. People want to be able to access their favorite services, games, and such from the brands they trust most.

7. Needs more ‘contracts’  – There’s a limited amount of Contracts currently. If Microsoft could get more picker, search, and sharing contracts, it’d really help give some credence that the Start Screen can be very useful.

8. Apps might be too dumbed-down – On a smartphone, it might be somewhat acceptable, but we’re talking about a desktop environment. The Metro apps need to do a good job of balancing the needs of users with the simplicity that Metro aims for. I’m quite sure if developers try hard enough, they can give achieve both form and functionality.

I still have mixed feelings about the Start Screen. I hope that more customization, real use of hubs, making Metro more lovable, and getting major third-party developers involved will be key to whether the new Start Screen will be a hit or miss for Windows. Unlike the Windows Gadgets, the Start Screen isn’t something most people will be able to ignore unless they find some third-party solution, and it might make users love Windows more or push them to get a Mac. Hopefully, Microsoft will have it down by the time it’s finally released.

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Windows 8 CP: To touch or not to touch?

Disclaimer: I have not touched any build of Windows 8. Judgment is based on screenshots, videos, many articles on Windows 8 CP.

With the news of Windows 8 Consumer Preview finally passing, there’s been a lot of negative concerns about the upcoming version of Windows. Commenters and bloggers appear from what I’ve seen to have a mostly negative reaction towards Windows 8, in particular, the new Start screen and Metro design.

I am open to changes, I like the Metro design principles (implementation is another story), but there are some chief concerns I have with Windows 8 that I think everyone is hung up upon. Let’s address them:

1. Can the Start Screen’s design work well with all available input?

It wouldn’t be straying too far to consider that the Start Screen is heavily influenced by Microsoft’s belief in ensuring their OS is wanted for those tablets, laptops and and all-in-ones that come with touchscreens. From the consensus, it does indeed work very great with touch. However, does it work well with mouse and keyboards?

Mouse input has far greater reach in pinpointing small buttons. Touch isn’t. Touch needs enough room to avoid errors of bigger fingers. This generally requires bigger icons. Mouse users don’t care for having bigger icons, because it can generally mean having to move the cursor a greater distance, than it were if the icons were smaller. It also means less information is available at one glance, and you have to scroll around for more. Keyboards have it harder. Metro in the past (think Windows Media Center, 1st and 2nd gen Zune players) would work great with directional input (up, down, left, right), an enter key, and a back button on a keyboard. But being touch-friendly doesn’t confine it to that. Now elements can be placed in many areas, and keyboards may have to resort to using Tab to go around elements. Also, multi-touch gestures won’t work on keyboards period, and some mice or touchpads may not support it if an app requires it.

Voice input is still a mystery and not reported on anywhere I’ve seen. Only decent input on this piece is just a muse by this guy. Microsoft’s implementation for Metro in the Start Screen seems to favor touch, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The Zune software clients on Windows works very well with a mouse, and though I’ve never tried, I think it could also work well with touch as well.

2. Does Metro design mean a ‘dumbing down’ of applications?

The idea behind Metro is for simplicity, but simplicity can also mean getting rid of functions that could be handy. Comparing Windows 8’s Mail, People, and Calendar apps to those of Windows Live Mail, Contacts, and Calendar app, you can see a lot of features have been dropped down to only ones that are deemed essential. (It should be noted that these apps in Windows 8 have a big “App Preview” mark at the top of the apps, so maybe my mention isn’t something to consider too harshly). It appears the same with Music and Video too however. Hopefully Microsoft and developers can achieve a great balance in simplicity and functionality where functionality is still key, but simplicity is something that is attempted to be improved upon.

3. Should the Start Screen be a ‘screen’?

Proponents of Microsoft’s choice to make it a screen point out that it gives them far more viewing room to see more results and content, rather than confine it to a small space like Windows 7 and Vista’s Start Menu. They claim it doesn’t take any longer to search for something on the Start screen than you would on the Start menu, it’s just bigger. Metro apps should be full screen to utilize the most touch space.

On the other hand, detractors point out that searches may involve keywords from windows they currently are viewing but can no longer see thanks to Start being full-screen, full-screen is distracts away from what you’re working on. Plus a lot of results aren’t as good as having the best results show up in the first handful of items shown. Metro apps should be windows like desktop apps, and placed for easy access in the taskbar like how touch already works in Windows 7.

Search-wise, I’d have to agree with the detractors and prefer that searching does not require so much space, and the indexing will place the best results (maybe based on past history and such) towards the top in each category (maybe a left/right key toggle for different search categories?) and being able to type in keywords based on open documents by just a glance, without having to go in and out of full-screen Start. Metro apps though, I think could either way as far I cared. I can see the appeal of putting them full-screen to avoid having to see the cluttered taskbar, or I can see the appeal of just making it windowed and just easy to manage via the taskbar.

4. Does the use of both Metro and Aero in Windows 8 seem too unappealing?

On this issue, there seems to be a general consensus yes. Going past the obvious respect that not everyone likes Metro to begin with, a lot of people do not like how very clumsy and jarring it seems to transition from Aero on the desktop to Metro in the Start Screen. There are Metro elements in Windows 8’s more refined Aero, like simple sharp corners (rather than rounded ones), and title being centered (rather than left-aligned) to name some. But the glass look doesn’t seem to fit with Metro back-to-basics, and the chrome side and bottom edges continue to take up unnecessary pixel space. Scrollbars are still too ugly looking, the Ribbon UI doesn’t take any Metro hints, and desktop Control Panel and Explorer don’t have the Metro touch either. If anything, Microsoft should get some hints from this Sputnik8 on The Verge forums. I have minor qualms in some aspects of the shots, but overall, I feel it’s in tune with what a proper Windows 8 with a real Metro design should be like. 

5. Will game developers leverage the store to appeal to hard-core gamers?

Games demoed so far appear to be on the rather simple size, and touch friendly. Unfortunately, most hard-core PC games tend to rely heavily on the mouse and keyboard combo. Will developers even consider putting such games in the Windows Store? Even with the Xbox Live integration, there’s no indication whether the Start Screen will be attracting any hard-core games to it.

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Overall, I believe these are major issues regarding the GUI of Windows 8. Looks are important to users. Windows 7 had the Aero touch that everyone seems to have had no complaints about, but Windows 8 with the Metro touch is throwing a lot of haters out there. Microsoft should definitely take into consideration of whether they should make the Start Screen optional for end users, because the polls and comments don’t seem too happy. These are Microsoft’s most vocal users and these people may discourage their friends and family from Windows 8 on non-touch desktops and laptops.

What do you guys think?