Ice Water Enthusiast

I’ve seen much feedback, both in agreement and not, regarding my “Why Windows 8 Is Fundamentally Flawed as a Response to the iPad” piece Wednesday. Jared Newman’s piece for Time Techland — “Why Apple Enthusiasts Are Wrong About Windows 8” — is, I think, fairly described as representative of those who disagree, and worth point-by-point examination:

On Wednesday evening, Microsoft showed the first public glimpses of Windows 8, including a touch screen interface that’s unlike any version of Windows we’ve ever seen. And already, Apple enthusiasts are chiming in with disdain.

Newman’s two “Apple enthusiasts”, as cited by the links in his article, are Jason Snell and yours truly, and where by “Apple enthusiast” I believe Newman means to imply “those who will find fault with anything from an Apple competitor, regardless of actual merit, on the basis of what is more or less the technical equivalent of dogmatic religious zealotry.”

And disdain — defined in the New Oxford American as “the feeling that someone or something is unworthy of one’s consideration or respect; contempt” — is utterly the wrong word. Snell and I both made clear that the actual new Windows 8 UI work Microsoft showed is both innovative and appealing. Disappointment is not disdain.

Microsoft just doesn’t get it, they say. Windows 8 drops the ball by supporting both tablet and legacy Windows applications, instead of throwing everything out and starting a new tablet OS from scratch. The iPad is so perfect because it doesn’t try to be a Mac, they argue.

He says we argue that Microsoft doesn’t get it. That’s true, but when Newman attempts to describe what “it” actually is that Microsoft doesn’t get, he resorts to hyperbolic exaggerations that bear no resemblance to anything Snell or I actually wrote regarding Windows 8.

Nobody is arguing that Microsoft should “throw everything out”. Neither of us described the iPad as “perfect”, nor would we. Today’s iPad is lacking and limited, like the Mac of 1985. But also like the Mac of 1985, I believe it foreshadows the future of personal computing. And the iPad, unlike the Mac of 1985, has already achieved enormous mass-market popularity. It’s my opinion that its popularity stems primarily from its conceptual simplicity, and from design constraints which place inordinate emphasis on UI responsiveness and battery life. Those things — not “perfection” — are what the iPad achieves by not “trying to be a Mac”.

Letting people run Excel on a tablet just isn’t “elegant.”

Neither Snell nor I wrote anything resembling that. Newman puts quotes around the word elegant, but that word doesn’t appear in any form in Snell’s article, and in mine, only in a sentence I quoted from myself written back in January: “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.

No, it’s a fundamentally flawed understanding of what makes Apple’s tablet so magical and revolutionary, they protest.

No quotes this time, but needless to say, neither Snell nor I described the iPad as magical and revolutionary.

Baloney. Microsoft doesn’t have to copy Apple’s strategy for Windows 8 to succeed.

Neither Snell nor I argued about Windows 8’s overall prospects or design merits. Both of us argued very specifically about what we see as Windows 8’s shortcomings as a response to the iPad. This specificity begins in the headlines we chose for our articles. Windows 8 may well be an excellent follow-up to the popular and successful Windows 7. Neither Snell nor I broached that, however. What it’s not, we’re arguing, is a worthy rival to the iPad.

In supporting the old, familiar Windows interface and the new tablet experience on a single device, Microsoft has laid the groundwork for modular computing — that is, a single device that transforms to suit the user’s needs. Want to lounge around with some e-books or videos? The tablet interface makes it possible. Want to get some work done? Plug in a mouse and keyboard and go crazy with the desktop version of Excel. It’s the best of both worlds in one piece of hardware.

And so what happens to the version of Excel that’s running in the background when you unplug the mouse and keyboard and go back reading an e-book on the device as a tablet? Does it somehow stop consuming resources? The difference between iOS and Mac OS X is far more than touchscreen vs. mouse-and-keyboard. It’s an entirely different set of rules and expectations for what an app can do, when it can expect to be running, and how much resources it can consume.

And what happens if in addition to a mouse and keyboard, you plug in an external hard disk? And it’s on that volume where the Excel spreadsheet you’re working on resides? What then when you unplug to go back to tablet use? Will the volume still be named “D:” or “E:”, for that matter, just like the floppy disks from a 1981 PC? That doesn’t sound like the iPad.

The iPad is not merely about touch. Touch is the tip of the iceberg.

I have a brand-new 11-inch MacBook Air, on which I’ve installed a relatively minimal amount of third-party software. It gets excellent battery life compared to any previous Mac laptop I’ve ever owned. And it gets terrible battery life compared to my iPad.

The best sentence I ever wrote about the iPad was this one, a year ago: “The iPad is a far slower machine than a modern MacBook in terms of raw hardware performance, but it feels faster in many ways, because you never have to wait for it.” You do have to wait for things on Windows — and Mac OS X — because that’s how those systems were designed.

Newman is saying it’d be nice to have it both ways. I’m saying you can’t have it both ways. He’s definitely right — it would be nice. But I’m pretty sure I’m right, too — that it can’t be done.

At Macworld, Jason Snell argues that this is a risky approach. If the iPad ran Mac apps, he says, developers probably wouldn’t have bothered creating all-new apps for the touch screen. I’m not convinced that the same will be true for Windows 8, with its huge potential customer base. There will be demand for touch-based apps simply because of how many people are already using Windows. And besides, Microsoft has proven willing to grow its app ecosystem by paying developers.

And how has that willingness to pay developers worked out for Windows Phone 7 thus far? This does not seem to be a very strong argument.

I also don’t buy the idea that Microsoft needed to show a version of Office built from the ground-up for tablets, as John Gruber argues.

What I wrote is, “They can make buttons more ‘touch friendly’ all they want, but they’ll never make Excel for Windows feel right on a touchscreen UI.”

While it’d be nice if Microsoft created touch-based versions of its productivity software — and don’t rule it out just yet — there’s only so much work you can do with a touch screen. Trust me, I’ve tried to blog on my iPad countless times, but I can never get farther than tapping out a rough draft and switching to a laptop to finish the job. It’s not just the mouse and keyboard that makes the difference. It’s the little things, like keyboard shortcuts, right clicks and easy access to a file manager.

I’m tempted to ask how keyboard shortcuts and right-clicking are evidence that “it’s not just the mouse and keyboard that makes the difference”, insofar as it’s hard to invoke keyboard shortcuts without a keyboard or right-clicks without a mouse, but instead, I’ll simply state that yes, I agree. No one is arguing that we should throw our Macs and PCs in the garbage and go all-iPad all the time. For things that are better on a Mac or PC, use a Mac or PC. Microsoft should make Windows 8 a better Windows, just like how Apple is making Lion a better Mac OS X. But Lion would in no way make for a better iPad.

What Microsoft demonstrated on Wednesday is exactly what I want in a computer — a lightweight tablet UI that’s meant for casual computing and a powerful, classic Windows that allows me to work. I’m tired of carrying around my iPad and laptop together. I want one device that does everything.

And people in hell want ice water.

That’s not to say Microsoft will pull it off. The company has set some ambitious goals for Windows 8, and a lot can go wrong. But I’m not about to dismiss what Microsoft is doing because it doesn’t follow in Apple’s footsteps. For Microsoft, playing copycat would only solidify Apple’s lead in the post-PC era.

What Microsoft revealed this week is that they do not believe there is a post-PC era. They’re banking that the PC era will never end.