Why Windows 8 Is Fundamentally Flawed as a Response to the iPad

The new Windows 8 touch-based UI, revealed earlier today at the D9 Conference, looks good. It’s clearly drawn from the same inspiration as Windows Phone 7, and shows some seriously innovative UI thinking. The idea of tiles rather than icons is rich, and strikes me as even better-suited to bigger screens than phones. The snapping concept is an interesting way to make use of a bigger screen to show two apps at once. Displaying side-by-side content isn’t possible on iOS,1 and no one’s yet solved that problem in the post-windows (note lowercase “w”) UI landscape.

Tweeting from the D9 Conference today, Jason Snell wrote:

Attitudes of Elop, Sinofsky, Apotheker all show huge impact Apple (once considered an oddity to be ignored) has had on tech industry.

That’s Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, HP CEO Leo Apotheker, and Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft’s president of Windows and Windows Live — all of them on-stage guests at the conference today. There’s no denying that all three of their companies are now following Apple’s lead in mobile computing. If not for the existence and success of iOS, Nokia wouldn’t be in trouble (and thus, Elop wouldn’t even be its CEO), HP wouldn’t have bought Palm (and Palm wouldn’t have come up with WebOS), and Windows 8’s innovations wouldn’t primarily revolve around how it looks and works on thin touchscreen tablets.

But I think it’s a fundamentally flawed idea for Microsoft to build their next-generation OS and interface on top of the existing Windows. The idea is that you get the new stuff right alongside Windows as we know it. Microsoft is obviously trying to learn from Apple, but they clearly don’t understand why the iPad runs iOS, and not Mac OS X.

Microsoft’s demo video shows Excel — the full version of Excel for Windows — running alongside new touch-based apps. They can make buttons more “touch friendly” all they want, but they’ll never make Excel for Windows feel right on a touchscreen UI. Consider the differences between the iWork apps for the Mac and iPad. The iPad versions aren’t “touch friendly” versions of the Mac apps — they’re entirely new beasts designed and programmed from the ground up for the touchscreen and for the different rules and tradeoffs of the iOS interface (no explicit saving, no file system, ready to quit at a moment’s notice, no processing in the background, etc.).

The ability to run Mac OS X apps on the iPad, with full access to the file system, peripherals, etc., would make the iPad worse, not better. The iPad succeeds because it has eliminated complexity, not because it has covered up the complexity of the Mac with a touch-based “shell”. iOS’s lack of backward compatibility with any existing software means that all apps for iOS are written specifically for iOS.

There’s a cost for this elimination of complexity and compatibility, of course, which is that the iPad is also less capable than a Mac. That’s why Apple is developing iOS alongside Mac OS X. From a piece by yours truly, writing for Macworld back in January:

The existence and continuing growth of the Mac allows iOS to get away with doing less. The central conceit of the iPad is that it’s a portable computer that does less — and because it does less, what it does do, it does better, more simply, and more elegantly. Apple can only begin phasing out the Mac if and when iOS expands to allow us to do everything we can do on the Mac. It’s the heaviness of the Mac that allows iOS to remain light.

When I say that iOS has no baggage, that’s not because there is no baggage. It’s because the Mac is there to carry it. Long term — say, ten years out — well, all good things must come to an end. But in the short term, Mac OS X has an essential role in an iOS world: serving as the platform for complex, resource-intensive tasks.

Apple’s radical notion is that touchscreen personal computers should make severely different tradeoffs than traditional computers — and that you can’t design one system that does it all. Windows 8 is trying to have it all, and I don’t think that can be done. You can’t make something conceptually lightweight if it’s carrying 25 years of Windows baggage.


  1. Or at least, iOS as we know it. (I know of no such plans; just saying it’s technically possible for some future iOS version.) 

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