Louie Mantia:

Just the other day I was wondering… what happens now? Not with me, but with the next fourteen-year-olds who are ready to be inspired. Do they look at Dribbble and decide to make things? Do they jump in and make an app?

I started by tinkering, customizing. Just as an engineer might. You start with something that exists and you change it to understand it. You do things on your own. But now… companies like Apple have locked down things like theming. It’s so hard today that no one even bothers. Changing icons is hard too. With some apps you can’t even do it without an app breaking because of code signing.

Most of the people I know listed above have a similar story. Maybe young people will be inspired by our apps, maybe they’ll be inspired by our art. But will they be able to tinker like we could?

App Disillusionment

Marco Arment:

Look around your iPad for a minute. How are its third-party apps doing?

Are they all being actively updated? Are they all built for iOS 7 yet? You never see any non-Retina graphics, iOS 6 keyboards, or old-style controls anymore, right?

Have you looked for any great new iPad apps recently? Did the market seem vibrant, with multiple good choices?

New iOS apps you care about are still launching with iPad versions, and they seem well-cared-for, right?1 Are you confident that they’ll be updated to take advantage of iOS 8 shortly after its release?

I hope you’ve said yes to everything, and I’m the anomaly. Because while I’m not the most devoted or frequent iPad user, the software landscape on mine has become alarmingly stagnant.

Marco points out one of the reasons for this: a broken App Store that relies on «top lists» and makes discovery difficult because the few good grains of wheat are buried under an enormous mound of chaff.

This is definitely part of the problem. But I think there are other aspects to this: Apple intentionally commoditized apps, and still encourages unsustainable app pricing despite publicly claiming the opposite.

What’s more, the tight control Apple wields over what is allowed to run on iPhones effectively kills off the most promising, most interesting apps before they’re even given a chance. Remember in the 80s and early 90s, when people were excited about the Mac and Windows? The complete lack of control that platform owners had over their platforms meant that a lot of innovation came from independent developers. Developers were excited about trying out new ideas, and many of these ideas were eventually adopted by platform owners. Today, with iPhones and iPads, this doesn’t happen, because Apple won’t allow it. As a result, today’s app market seems much more stagnant and backwards-looking than what happened when personal computing initially gained momentum.

Even when the Mac had just a minuscule market share, to me, its software market always felt vibrant and healthy. For a while, you could visit Versiontracker every day, and every day, there was something new and interesting up there. Companies like Ambrosia and Panic and Connectix didn’t paint inside Apple’s lines, and the things they created — products like Snapz, Audion, RAM Doubler, Virtual Game Station, Virtual PC — were the better for it.

Note that all of these apps would be forbidden under Apple’s rules. Snapz created a global hotkey that was active in all applications, Audion drew its faces1 on top of other applications by capturing a screenshot to create the kinds of alpha channel effects that have become commonplace on modern systems, RAM Doubler is an obviously terrible hack that nevertheless helped a lot of people get more out of their 4 megs of RAM than they could have otherwise, and both VGS and VPC were emulators.

The Mac software market was exciting. By rights, that — and more — should be what the iPhone software market is today. But the same kind of excitement and progress just isn’t there with iPads and iPhones. Instead, the iPhone app market is a market defined by uncertainty and fear.

I’m not saying that the Mac software market was perfect for developers. Sales channels today are much better than what they were in the 90s, and the fact that many more people own iPhones than ever owned Macs can only be a good thing for developers.

I’m also not saying that Apple’s tight control doesn’t have advantages for Apple, and for its users. It’s great that people can feel safe downloading things from the App Store. But feeling safe only goes so far when every visit to the App Store makes you feel depressed because the store is overflowing with useless, unsupported crap that crowds out all of the good apps, and when many apps that you download turn out to be manipulative Skinner boxes intent on turning you into one of the unfortunate whales who spend vast amounts of money on pointless in-app purchases.

If design is how it works, then rules that restrict what you can do with a device are part of its design. The App Store review guidelines, and the often inexplicable2 rules that reviewers actually use when deciding who’s in and who’s out, are just as much part of the design of the iPhone as its chamfered edges. If you restrict what your device can do in a way that directly or indirectly prevents your users from using the device in a way that would be desirable to them, your design has failed these users.

Apple’s rules have created a situation where fear of rejection pushes developers away from the platform, or, if they do support it, incentivizes them to release apps that are unlikely to be rejected, do not require large investments of time so that the loss is small if they are rejected, and can compete in a market that is overwhelmed by manipulative crap.

Meanwhile, Android is much more permissive, and this is reflected in a much wider variety of software that’s available for these devices.3 Unfortunately, Apple owns the high-end of the phone market (i.e. many of the people who are actually willing to pay for software), and as a result, Android’s store is burdened by other problems.

That’s the current situation for developers. You can either develop for a platform that severely limits what you are allowed to do, limits your ability to differentiate yourself from your competition, and then forces you to sell your app at unsustainable prices in a store that is overflowing with useless crap, and that rewards developers who employ psychologists in order to design apps that manipulate people into paying exorbitant amounts of money in exchange for bits. And even if you do your best, your app might be rejected anyway. Or you can develop for a platform where most people are even less willing to pay for your product than on the aforementioned tightly controlled platform.

Neither option sounds like a good business case that will attract the kinds of developers who will create the kind of killer app you could never imagine, but that completely changes how you view your phone.

And that’s bad for everybody.

Commoditizing apps and tightly controlling the market for apps on iPhones benefits Apple, and many of its users, in the short run. But in the long run, an unhealthy software ecosystem can’t be good for Apple, for its users, or for the developers who write apps for Apple’s platforms.


  1. Before complaining about that term, remember that everybody else called these «skins.» back

  2. Here’s one of the earliest, most unwarranted, and — to me — most disheartening App Store rejections. In some ways, the app approval process has improved since then, but in other ways, it’s still just as unpredictable as it was back then:
    Yoot Saito is one of my favorite videogame designers. He doesn’t have a huge portfolio of games, but the ones he’s made are invariable genius. I love Yoot Tower (a tower simulator where you specify in detail how the lifts in your tower are going to work), Seaman (a Dreamcast game where you play with a talking fish), or Odama (a real time strategy pinball game). So I was incredibly happy when Saito announced that he was working on an iPhone game back in 2008. The game was called Gabo, and it was about a little dude who was stranded on an island.
    Never heard of the game?
    That’s because Apple rejected it (translation of the relevant section).
    Why did Apple reject the game? Because Apple thought it was «unpleasant.» back

  3. I used to regularly switch between different mobile phone platforms. I can’t do that anymore. After I switched to Android the last time, I got so used to some of the things it allows that Apple does not that I have effectively locked myself out of using an iPhone as my main device. back

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Dr. Drang’s plea for developers to create documentation for their apps:

There seems to be belief among software developers nowadays that providing instructions indicates a failure of design. It isn’t. Providing instructions is a recognition that your users have different backgrounds and different ways of thinking. A feature that’s immediately obvious to User A may be puzzling to User B, and not because User B is an idiot.

You should aim to design your app such that users won’t have to refer to documentation. That should be your goal. But unless you’re creating a single-button fart app, it’s important to recognize that this is not an achievable goal, it’s an aspirational goal.

Design your app such that users won’t have to visit the documentation, but create documentation anyway for when some of them inevitably will have to.

Great article on icon usability by Aurora Bedford:

Other icons frequently misunderstood by users include the heart and the star. These icons are often used to represent favorites, bookmarks, featured items, and ratings from other users. Not only does the precise functionality associated to these icons vary from site to site, but these two icons compete with each other. As a result, these icons and their exact meanings are hard to memorize and interpret precisely. For example, the heart icon on the vacations listing site Combadi allows users to mark that they “love” a trip, but does not save that trip to a short list to ease future referencing. (…) In contrast, the interior-design shopping site Fab uses the heart icon as a way for a user to save that item in order to find it easily later.

Related: Realism in UI Design.

On the current episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, Marco Arment talks about some of the considerations that went into the design decisions he made when working on the first version of Overcast, this new iOS Podcast client. Worth listening to.

Update: John Gruber’s The Talk Show also has a two-part discussion on Overcast’s design with Marco Arment: Part 1, Part 2.

The Worst Dialog Box in Mac OS X

I’m copying a bunch of files into a folder. I want to copy the files that are not already in the folder, but not copy (and not replace) the ones that are.

Copy and replace existing file dialog box in Mac OS X

I don’t understand what I have to do to get the desired effect. I don’t understand what the buttons do — does «Stop» stop the whole copy operation, or does it just not copy the specific file it is talking about? In fact, I’m not sure what the dialog box is telling me, and I don’t even understand how to cancel the whole operation so that I can copy the files individually and avoid that dialog box.

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Surface Pro 3

Last week, I was in Seattle. While there, I went to the Microsoft store and picked up a Surface Pro 3. I’ve been using it for two weeks now.

Previously, I’ve been using a Surface Pro 2, and I liked it. It made for a really good tablet, and a perfectly acceptable laptop. I like the Pro 3 a lot more. It’s not just a good tablet, it’s the best large-screen tablet I’ve used, by a huge margin. And it’s not just a perfectly acceptable laptop, it’s a really good laptop.1

The Good Parts

Screen

I love the larger screen. The Pro 2 had a 10.6 inch screen at 1920 x 1080 pixels; that’s a 16:9 ratio. The Pro 3 increases that to 12.0 inches at 2160x1440 pixels; a 3:2 ratio. The different ratio means that the Pro 3 is now usable in portrait mode,2 and the higher resolution means that the device makes for a suitable laptop replacement. Using the new type cover with the improved touchpad, the Pro 3 no longer feels like a tablet that also works as a laptop. It feels like a laptop.

Pen

I love the new pen, and the new digitizer. I was never a huge fan of Wacom’s digitizers. Years ago, I bought a Cintiq 12WX. After plugging it into my computer for the first time, I thought I had received a defective unit. Even after repeatedly calibrating the thing, calibration was completely off around the screen edges. It only properly recognized the pen’s position when the pen was about a centimeter away from any screen edges. Turns out that’s just how Wacom’s digitizers work, and since the Pro 2 used a Wacom digitizer, it had the same issue. The Pro 3 uses an N-Trig digitizer that does not have that problem.

The new pen is much improved from the previous version, which was flimsy and felt cheap. I replaced it with a Bamboo feel carbon, which felt more substantive, but had a waggly tip, and didn’t work as an eraser. Neither does the Pro 3’s pen, but overall, it’s better than either the normal Pro 2 pen, or the Bamboo.

On the minus side, there’s some lag while the pen doesn’t yet touch the screen, the new digitiser supports fewer levels of pressure sensitivity, there’s no tilt recognition, and the pen now requires a battery. To me, these are minor issues, compared to the vastly improved recognition around the screen edges.

The Pro 3’s keyboard3 comes with a little fabric leash that can be attached anywhere on the Pro 3, and allows you to attach the pen to the device. The Pro 2 allowed you to attach the pen to the charging port using a built-in magnet, which was clever, but meant that you’d have to remove the pen to charge the device. The new system is less clever and less pretty, but works better.

Kickstand

Rather than only supporting one position, the kickstand now allows you to tilt the Pro 3 at any degree between «almost completely upright» and «quite flat». For drawing, I wish it would go even a bit lower, but that’s really a small quibble. I love the kickstand. I wish my phone and my iPad had built-in kickstands. I don’t know how people use iPads without a case that can hold the device upright (and I think most don’t).

Size and Weight

The weight of the Pro 2 didn’t really bother me, but now that I have the Pro 3, the Pro 2 feels positively heavy. While the Pro 3 is only 100 grams4 lighter than the Pro 2, it feels a lot lighter, probably because it’s also larger.

The Pro 2 is also a bit thinner than the Pro 3.

Charger

The charger still attaches to the device using a magnetic connector, but now slides into the device much further than before. This means that it still falls out if you accidentally stumble over the power cord, but is much less likely to fall out by accident than either the Pro 2’s charger, or the MagSafe 2. The fact that Microsoft achieved this while making the connector even thinner than the MagSafe 2 — the actual connector is probably less than 1 mm thick — is pretty cool. Maybe Apple could take a look at how Microsoft has solved this problem.

The Mediocre Parts

Battery

The battery in my Pro 2 only lasted about five hours in typical usage. The Pro 3 seems to last a lot longer, although it depends on what you do with it. While flying back to Switzerland, I spent three or four hours in ArtRage, and the Pro 3 still showed around 70% battery. Then, I gave it to a bored friend for a few rounds of Mahjong, and she managed to completely empty the remaining battery in about two hours. You’d think that Mahjong would require far less battery power than ArtRage. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s Mahjong pointlessly fills the background with 3D-rendered fishes, which not only kills the battery, but also heats up the device to the point where it is almost painful to touch.

The Ad

This is completely unrelated to the actual product itself, but while in the US, I saw this ad a lot. Admittedly, it’s really well made. However, while Apple’s ads show people making movies, Microsoft shows people sitting in meetings. Just something to think about.

The Bad Parts

The Capacitive Button

I just don’t get capacitive buttons. Every single time I hand my phone to somebody else to show a YouTube movie or a picture, I tell them to not touch the bottom of the screen. Almost every single time, they’ve accidentally backed out of the movie or picture two seconds later, because they touched the bottom of the screen. Because the bottom of the screen is where you hold your phone! Why would you put capacitive buttons there, and not even label them? If you’d tell a UX developer to come up with the worst design they can possible imagine, I think invisible buttons that perform destructive actions when you merely touch them would be pretty high on the list. And yet, huge multinational corporations that presumably should know better sell hundreds of millions of devices with exactly that «feature».

The Pro 3 has pretty much the same problem. It was bad enough with the Pro 2, which had a capacitive button at the bottom of the screen. Now, Microsoft has moved it to the right of the screen, so that the new keyboard won’t hide it when it is in forward-tilted mode.5

This means that you’re now much more likely to accidentally touch the button, because you’ll probably hold the device where the button is if you’re holding it in landscape mode, and when you’re drawing, you’re probably resting your hand on the button.

Windows

I still love Metro a lot, and I kind of got used to switching between Metro mode and desktop mode. I still think it’s bad to have two completely different, not properly integrated UI paradigms on the same system. I still wish I could just run my desktop Windows apps as Metro apps. I got used to the way it works in Windows 8, though. I can manage.

But I still dislike pretty much everything else about Windows, including the fact that it breaks. A lot. A week after I got the Pro 3, Windows Update stopped working. Fortunately, doing a complete refresh of the machine did work, so now, after reinstalling all of my stuff, everything is back in working order — for now.

Meanwhile, I wanted to give my Pro 2 to a friend of mine, and tried to do a complete refresh on that machine, too. Which did not work, merely spewing out one unhelpful error message after another. I was able to boot into a Windows installer from a USB stick, but then, Windows’ DRM prevented me from actually installing the version of Windows I had just bought in a store for 200 bucks. I probably could have fixed the problem after a few days of tinkering around with the device. Instead, I just sent it back to Microsoft.

The Surface Pro 3’s hardware feels like a luxury device. It feels solid, well built, and trustworthy. It’s the Mercedes-Benz of tablets. Meanwhile, Windows feels like a house of cards that can — and probably will — topple down at any moment. It’s the DeLorean DMC-12 of operating systems. It kind of looks cool, and people no doubt had the best of intentions when they made it, but when you’re actually using it, the electricity system breaks, and the gullwing doors trap you inside your own car.

And then it starts raining, and you quickly figure out that gullwing doors really need way better waterproofing than the manufacturer deigned to install.


  1. «If I want to use touch, mouse, keyboard, or pen; I can. Nothing stops me from using the right tool for the right task.» back

  2. In portrait mode, the Pro 3 can display a single page from a comic book at almost the same size as the printed version. back

  3. People complain about the fact that Microsoft sells the keyboard separately, but it seems to me that if they want to offer a selection of colors for the keyboard (and the pen leash), it would simply not be feasible to sell it in the box, because that would quintuple the number of different Surfaces available. back

  4. That’s the weight of a standard-sized bar of Swiss chocolate (or a 12-peak Toblerone), for those unfamiliar with the metric system :-) back

  5. Which, by the way, is a terrible, unhealthy, bad feature, because it’s tilting the keyboard in exactly the wrong direction, and thus potentially injuring your wrists. Please do not use the keyboard in that mode. back

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Windows 8 and the Microsoft Surface

Right now, people are burying Windows 8. Even people you’d normally expect to be on Microsoft’s side are unhappy with it. Me, though? I kind of like it.

When Apple originally brought out the first iPad, I bought one as soon as I could. I always liked touchscreen devices. Long before1 Steve Jobs held the first iPhone prototype in his hands, I carried a button-less, touchscreen-only SonyEricsson P800.

Picture of SonyEricsson P800, a mobile phone with a capacitive touchscreen and no buttons

Heck, I owned various Newtons,2 and used them to take notes in school. So the iPad really made sense to me.

The Problem that Surface Solves (For Me)

When Jobs introduced the iPad, he wanted it to be seen as a productivity device. He had Phil Schiller demo Keynote, Numbers, and Pages.

I used the Newton as a productivity device. I used the P800 as a productivity device. But at least for me, the iPad never turned out to be a good productivity device. It turned out to be great for browsing the web, watching movies, and playing games. Great for reading books and comics. Great for consumption. But not great for production.

To be sure, it’s absolutely possible to use iPads productively.3 In fact, Apple blogs love to point to examples of people who do use iPads to produce things. And yes, these people exist. There are artists who draw on iPads, and musicians who make music on iPads, and writers who write novels on iPads, and movie makers who cut their movies on iPads. But the fact that you have to point to these people, the fact that there are articles about these people, shows that they’re unusual. An artist drawing a painting on an iPad is a novelty.

If it was normal for people to use their iPads for creative tasks, there would not be newspaper articles about people using their iPads for creative tasks. The iPad will have arrived as a productivity device when news sites stop reporting about people who use iPads for productivity. So in the end, all of these links to articles about people who use their iPads to create things only seem to support the notion that this is not how most people use their iPads.

Responding to people who note that the iPad seems to be mostly used for content consumption, John Gruber writes: «for these people, the iPad is unsuitable for content creation for anyone unless it’s suitable for them,» implying that there’s something special about people who don’t use iPads productively. But I don’t think that’s fair. On the contrary, I think it’s somewhat unusual to find iPad owners who do use their iPads for content creation on a regular basis. Even when you just look at very basic creative tasks — say, responding to email, rather than just reading email — most people seem to prefer PCs overs iPads.

It’s not an accident that the best selling, highest grossing iPad apps are almost exclusively games.4

Some people point out that most PC users don’t use their PCs to make music, and paint pictures, either. That’s true. But they do use their PCs to write letters, presentations, invitations, create birthday cards, or send emails. And while you can use your iPad for these things — and I know that there are people who do — it’s often easier to do it on a PC. The same things that make iPads easy to use for some things can make them harder to use for others.

Consider a creative task that almost everybody has to do: writing a job application.

When you write your cover letter, you might want to also look at the job ad on the Internet, so you can tailor your letter to the job. On an iPad, you can’t see your letter and the job ad at the same time.

You might want to send your letter to a friend to read. Maybe that friend will send back some suggestions. On an iPad, you can’t see the email with the suggestions and your letter at the same time.

Your CV probably includes a picture. Maybe you went to a photographer who gave you a CD with copies of the pictures she took. You can’t easily copy them to your iPad. Once there, you probably want to touch them up a bit, and crop them. It might be inconvenient to move the image file between all of the apps you’ll use to work on it.

Finally, you might want to export your letter and CV as PDFs, maybe combine them into a single PDF, or maybe ZIP them. You want to attach the resulting file to an email. It’s reasonably simple on a Mac or PC, but I’m not sure if some of these things are even possible on an iPad.

Apple has decided to make the iPad as simple as possible, but sometimes, this simplicity comes at the expense of power. Not having any kind of window management or split-screen view makes the iPad much easier to use, but it also means you can’t look at an email and at a Pages document at the same time. Preventing apps from interacting with each other cuts down on complexity, but it also means that it is difficult or sometimes even impossible to use multiple apps in conjunction on the same task. Not having any kind of system-level concept of a file or a document means that people are less likely to lose track of their files or documents,5 but it also means that you are often very limited in what you can do with the things you create in an iPad app.

As Joanna Stern puts it, «if I’m writing long emails or working on office documents, I want a larger screen, a roomy keyboard and the ability to easily juggle programs.»

Fraser Speirs, whom nobody will suspect of being against using iPads in productive settings, points out that Apple seems to be stagnating in this area:

I still think it’s a fair question to ask after the relative functional (if not visual) stasis of iOS 6 and iOS 7: where does iOS go from here?

At the launch of iOS 5, Scott Forstall said that Apple had undertaken an exercise to identify and remove all the missing functionality in iOS that caused people to go back to a computer. The examples he gave were creating new calendars and mailboxes. Perhaps it’s time to do that exercise again.

And that’s the problem I’m trying to solve. I acknowledge that there are people for whom the iPad works well as a productivity device. For me personally, though, that was never the case (and I don’t think I’m alone in this). But I do want to use a tablet as a productivity device. Fraser Speirs is asking Apple to make iOS a better platform for these kinds of tasks, but I’m not waiting anymore. I want to use a tablet that has an elegant user interface, but also works well for productivity.

A few months ago, I gave away my iPad,6 and replaced it with, of all things, a Microsoft Surface Pro 2.

What I Like

Almost everything that happens inside the Metro7 environment is fantastic. It’s clean, fast, and powerful. The apps are easy to use, but still offer a lot. The gesture-based user interface requires you to learn8 a few new things, but takes very little time to get used to.

The spatial way that apps are arranged on the home screen is great. It’s very easy to group apps, name groups, rearrange apps or groups, zoom out to see an overview of all of your apps, change the size of individual apps to emphasize ones you use often, or deemphasize ones you use less often. Apps can provide a live preview (which is very useful for, say, an email client). And finally, changing the device’s orientation doesn’t move your tiles around. They stay where they are, or, when they do move, do so in more predictable ways.

Example showing a messaging app using Windows 8's live tiles
(Image from Microsoft’s guidelines for tiles and badges)

Metro looks very clean, and most of the screen can be used for content, because UI elements that aren’t constantly needed are hidden behind the screen edges.

Swipe in from the right to see a global menu that contains five entries.

Right side menu

«Search» searches your computer, the Internet, and the current app.

«Share» allows you to share whatever you’re currently looking at. It keeps track of people you’ve shared things with, so sending, say, a web page to an email address often requires as few gestures as a single swipe and three taps: open the menu, tap «Share», tap the address, tap «Send».

«Start» brings you back to the home screen. This is so convenient that I only ever use the actual home button on my Surface by accident. Unfortunately, it’s a capacitive button, so accidental activation does happen from time to time.

«Devices» allows you to send whatever you’re currently looking at to devices like printers or projectors.

«Settings» allows you to change settings (both global and for the current application), and turn the Surface off.

Since you’re typically holding the Surface on the side, this menu is easily accessible, and very convenient. I was initially confused by the fact that the menu combines global and local features (e.g. «Search» is always available and looks as if it was always a global search of your entire Surface, but when you’re in an app, you can sometimes change the Search scope to the current app), but I figured out how it worked quite quickly.

If you swipe in from the left side of the screen, you’ll get the task switcher. The default behavior of the task switcher is problematic, since you basically drag in an application. Which application? That’s not always immediately predictable. Fortunately, it’s easy to fix this problem by simply going to the «Corner and edges» setting, and turning off the somewhat oddly and verbosely named setting «When I swipe in from the left edge, switch between my recent apps instead of showing a list of them». Once this is changed, swiping in simply shows a list of running apps. Tap one to jump to it, or drag it into the screen to turn on split screen mode.9

Again, extremely convenient.

Finally, swiping in from the bottom brings up the current application’s menu. For example, in Internet Explorer,10 this brings up open tabs, your address bar, and some buttons.

Internet Explorer's menu

Again, the buttons are typically arranged around the edges, making them easy accessible when holding the device in landscape mode.

Hiding these UI elements by default allows the applications to use the screen for actual content. Since this gesture works the same in every application, it’s an easily learnable way of accessing features. This allows the app’s designer to clean up its user interface.

I’ve kind of glossed over it, but a few of the things I’ve just mentioned make the Surface quite different from an iPad.

One of them is the Share menu, which is one way in which Windows 8 apps can interact with each other. Via Contracts, apps can register themselves as sharing sources, sharing recipients, or both.11

Metro apps have access to any cloud storage app that you install (and to any other app that wants to make its «data silo» available). Fresh Paint,12 a painting app that comes with the Surface, automatically shows Dropbox and Box as file sources, once you’ve installed these apps.

Screenshot of a Surface app's open image mode, showing the dropdown that lists different file sources

But since this is regular old Windows, that’s not the only way to access files. You can access the full file system, if you want to (but you don’t have to). This allows you to easily exchange files between different apps, even if they don’t support the appropriate Contracts, or don’t run in Metro.

Another difference between the Surface and an iPad is the Surface’s split screen mode. iPad owners often note that the iPad’s «one app owns the screen» system is a good idea, since people can’t multitask anyway. But that ignores that people often need multiple apps to work on a single task. I can’t count the instances where I’ve used split screen mode just in the last few days. I’m in a meeting, taking notes in OneNote while looking at last week’s meeting notes. I’m responding to an email while looking at a spec. I’m making a drawing while looking at a reference. I’m changing a mockup based on feedback in an email. I’m taking notes during a Skype call.

Screenshot of Surface's split-screen mode, showing a Skype call on the left, and a notes-taking app on the right
This is just an illustration of the concept. I do realize that it doesn’t really make sense to take notes while looking at the test call icon. Typically, I’m looking at a presentation or a shared screen during these kinds of calls, so switching away to another app entirely is not a good solution.

When the Surface is in split-screen mode and you launch another app, it «asks» you which side of the screen to show the app.

Opening in new app in split-screen mode allows you to pick on which side of the split the app should open

This seems slightly strange to me. I’m looking at two apps side-by-side because I want to see these specific two apps side by side, not because I want to see any two apps side-by-side. In most situations, when opening a new app, I would have preferred if the new app simply opened in full-screen mode,13 and the Surface then allowed me to jump back to the split-screen view with the previous two apps using the task switcher. That would have allowed me to easily switch between a full-screen app and two other apps in split-screen mode.

Metro’s split-screen mode isn’t perfect. It doesn’t cover every use case. But at least for me, it covered surprisingly many of them, and it made the Surface a much better option for creative work than an iPad.

A final difference I want to mention: the Surface Pro comes with a pen. I’ve used the pen for annotating drafts, for sketching out user interfaces, for drawing logic diagrams, for taking notes, and for many other things.14

I’ve tried using the iPad for this, I really have. I’ve tried using my fingers. It’s cumbersome. I also have a drawer full of iPad pens. I have every pen imaginable. I have pens that look like brushes, pens that look like markers, pens that have little discs on the tip, pens that create a change in capacitance using electricity, Bluetooth pens, infrared pens that require little cameras you attach to the iPad… I have all of them. I’ve supported ever iPad pen Kickstarter project I could find. Some of these pens are terrible, and some are acceptable, depending on what I want to use them for.

None of them are even in the same ballpark as the Surface’s pen.

The Surface’s pen is almost as good as my Cintiq’s.15 Tracking is fast, it’s pressure-sensitive, it works everywhere, and it feels like a real pen. It’s great, unlike every iPad pen I’ve ever tried.

In general, I really love the Surface, and I use it much more, and for many more things, than I ever used any iPad I ever owned.16 But it’s not perfect.

What I Find Disappointing

Windows’ handwriting recognition is interesting. Technically, it performs flawlessly.17 I thought that the later Newton models had acceptable handwriting recognition, but Windows completely blows that out of the water. To give you an idea of how good it is: my handwriting is terrible,18 and I’m writing a lot of German text using the English-language handwriting recognition. Yet it works.

The handwriting recognition keyboard

Unfortunately, this fantastic technology is package in an absolutely terrible user interface. First of all, handwriting recognition only works inside a handwriting recognition keyboard. Yep, you have to activate an on-screen keyboard that covers half the screen, then write inside that keyboard. Like on a Palm. Back in the 90s.

As of right now, I’ve not discovered how to write continuously. You have to write text until the keyboard is «full», then hit the «Insert» button. That clears the keyboard, and you can continue writing text.

The way I want handwriting recognition to work is to take notes by jotting them down inside an app like OneNote, and have Windows recognize that automatically, behind the scenes, optionally without replacing my handwritten notes with printed text. Then, I want to be able to search my handwritten notes using full-text search.19

The Newton offered a similar feature called Ink Text (PDF). It allowed you to write text directly onto the screen. Then, at a later date, you could have the Newton convert the handwritten text to printed text, either word by word, or for the whole text. Here’s an example showing handwritten text, some of which has been converted.

Ink Text on the Newton
(This screenshot was taken using Einstein, which inexplicably even allows you to emulate the Newton’s garish backlight.)

If the Newton could do this (and a lot more) back in the 90s, there’s no reason why Windows 8 should be any worse.

One final thing I want back from the Newton is modeless error correction. When the Newton got a letter in a word wrong, you could simply overwrite it with the correct letter. On Windows, you have to enter a special correction mode, which completely does not work the way I expect it to, and always causes me to gradually make the text worse and worse when I try to fix mistakes, until I just give up, erase the whole word, and start fresh.

Presenting such beautiful technology in such a frustrating user interface is sad. But to be fair, it’s not a real problem; It’s just a huge missed opportunity. The actual problems only show up once tap one particular button: the «Desktop» button. Basically, you’re dumped back into the old Windows user interface, and all bets are off.

What I Dislike

The regular old Windows desktop user interface was never particularly inspiring, but on a Surface, it’s even worse. It barely works with touch interactions. Many of the touch targets are minuscule. Just closing a window becomes a chore.

Apps are not integrated into Metro at all. For example, I use ArtRage a lot. ArtRage is a full screen app. It would fit into Metro perfectly well. But ArtRage is not visible from within Metro. If I launch ArtRage and switch to a Metro app, ArtRage does not appear in Metro’s app switcher. There’s a generic «Desktop» entry in the app switcher, and this entry «contains» all running desktop apps. This isn’t just cumbersome, it has an effect on utility. For example, it’s not possible to use Metro’s split-screen mode to see two regular Windows apps side-by-side.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that I can use ArtRage on my Surface. The device would be a lot less useful to me if it did not have support for «legacy» apps. But it seems to me that the integration of legacy apps into Metro should have been handled much better.

The problems with Windows 8 don’t end with the integration between desktop and Metro. There’s also the problem that good old Windows seems to be a pretty terrible operating system.

It’s technically terrible.20 There’s the problem where installing 1Password causes handwriting recognition to stop working. There’s the problem where, after a few days of using the Surface, I suddenly started getting an error message about some DLL every time I restarted the Surface (which you sometimes have to do when you get updates, which you get often).21 There’s the problem where games randomly don’t start correctly and complain about some .net dependency. And all of this this after just a few weeks of using a factory-sealed, completely new Surface.

DLL Error
(The non-native resolution is the Surface’s default desktop setting. Unlike a retina MacBook, the Surface screen’s resolution is not high enough to get away with it.)

This is probably a good point to acknowledge that Microsoft’s job is much harder than Apple’s. Apple only has to support a very limited range of hardware. Microsoft has to support a potentially limitless range of hardware. Problems are bound to occur. As a user, though, I don’t really care how hard Microsoft’s job is. I only care whether stuff works. When my computer doesn’t work right, the difficulty of Microsoft’s job doesn’t magically fix my problem.

The visual design is inconsistent. Windows’ user interface is a mess built on top of three decades of other messes that were built on top of even earlier messes. It’s turtles all the way down, except these aren’t turtles. There are countless options and settings and apps scattered all over the place, and there are still situations where you only recourse is to open a command prompt and start a DOS executable.

For example, there seem to be three different ways of formatting disks (that I could find). There’s diskpart, which you start from the command prompt. There’s an ancient-looking application called Disk Management (which, by the way, you’ll find under «System and Security», not under «Hardware and Sound», which is where I would expect it — but perhaps I’m just weird). And I think there’s a popup window you get when you insert an empty, unformatted disk.

Disk Management running under Windows 8

Yep, despite looking like it’s coming straight out of Windows 95, this app ships with Windows 8.

It’s fine to have a GUI app and a command line app, of course. As long as users are not forced to fall back to the command line tool. I’m guessing that each of these apps were added to Windows to add more convenience, but the problem is that none of them really replaced their predecessors. So they’re still around, cluttering up Windows with stuff that should have been obsoleted a long time ago, forcing users to open 1981-style DOS shells on their Windows devices bought in 2014.

Why isn’t there one single Metro-style disk management app that does 100% of the jobs any user will reasonably be expected to do when using a Windows PC?

The UX is erratic. Some of the apps in Windows are just bad. Go back to the Disk Management app above. I’d expect to see something like that in Linux, except that even today’s better Linux distros have progressed beyond user interfaces like this.

Basic things that should really not be complicated are borderline impossible on Windows. For example, how do you create a bootable clone of your hard disk, so that you can boot from an identical external USB hard disk in case the internal disk goes belly-up? On a Mac, you just download Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper22 and run it.23 In case of emergency, connect the external disk, start the Mac, hit Option, select the external disk, you’re done.

On Windows? I’m still not sure. People recommended Acronis True Image for backing up Windows disks.24 Sure enough, it has a «Make this media bootable» option. Except it’s greyed out. Why? Acronis says that you can only make CDs or FAT32 USB flash drives bootable. Why? I don’t know.

Windows’ technical limitations seem to be bubbling up into the UI, making things really hard that should be really simple. It’s just a bad user experience.

The culture is terrible. At one point during the last few weeks, while working on my gaming PC, I had to copy my Windows 8 installation DVD onto a bootable USB flash drive. I googled for solutions, and lots of people recommended a specific app. So I downloaded it, and ran the installer.

«Do you want to also install some spyware?»
«No, just the app, please.»
«Are you sure? It’s really great!»
«No, thank you, no need.»
«Click No if you want to install this browser plugin!»
Wait, uhm… «YES! Yes, I don’t want it!»
«Damn, I really thought that would work. Are you sure you don’t want it? It will improve your Internet search results!»
«No, please! NO! DO NOT WANT!»
«Okay! Installing Spyware now!»25

That’s not an isolated example. Finding software for Windows is a nightmare. Windows users sometimes complain that Mac software is expensive. Maybe it is, but on the plus side, it generally tends to work, and typically doesn’t fill your computer with adware and browser toolbars and background processes that install weird buttons in the toolbars of all of your freaking windows.

But it’s not just that a lot of software comes with crummy installers. It’s also that a lot of software is, itself, quite crummy. The average quality of Mac software has probably deteriorated somewhat during the last decade, as the Mac has become more popular, but it’s nothing compared to what Windows users have to put up with. You could respond to that by noting that, perhaps, the average Windows app is worse than the average Mac app, but surely, the best Windows apps still beat the best Mac apps? At least in my experience, this is often not the case. The selection of Windows apps is huge, but it’s not uncommon to find that all of the apps in a specific category are various levels of terrible.26

To be fair, some of these issues also exist on the Mac. Perhaps I just notice them less, because I’m more used to them. But I’m quite sure that this does not account for all of the difference I’m noticing.

Metro on a Desktop

So using the «legacy» desktop on a tablet is not a good user experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it’s there. I’d rather have access to it than not. I’m not complaining about the fact that I can go to the desktop, I’m complaining about the fact that Microsoft didn’t do more to improve the desktop, and to integrate desktop apps into Metro.

But that’s about using the desktop on a tablet. What about the reverse? What about using Metro on a desktop PC?

Large Everything

People note that designing for touch screens requires you to have much larger tap targets, because tapping is less precise than clicking — your finger is way bigger than a mouse pointer. They conclude that this creates user interfaces that are inherently bad for desktop PCs, because desktop PCs use mice.

But if you’ve ever seen normal people use computers, squinting at the screen to position the mouse cursor just exactly over the icon, and then carefully clicking it to make sure that they don’t accidentally move the mouse while clicking and initiate a drag, you’ll probably agree that desktops can really benefit from larger click targets, too. And it’s not just people who are not proficient with mice. It’s also people using trackballs, people working with drawing tablets, and so on.

In other words, I think the exact same design patterns that make touch screen apps work well on touch screens — large buttons, large text, uncluttered user interfaces — also make them good desktop apps.

Split Screen

A bigger issue is Metro’s split screen mode. This works great on a widescreen tablet, where it seems to cover most use cases (at least in my subjective experience). On a desktop PC with a larger screen, more proficient users might want to have more power than that.27 There’s also no concept of multiple desktops, which would make a lot of sense in combination with split screen windows.

I think this is a solvable problem, though. Split-screen mode is a first step in the right direction, and there’s nothing preventing Microsoft from expanding on that concept for devices with larger screens.

In this context, it’s interesting to note that most IDEs don’t use the host operating system’s window manager. Instead, they implement their own tiling window managers, which might be something Microsoft could do on the OS level.

One OS To Rule Them All

In the end, I don’t think Microsoft’s idea of having a single system that works on desktops and tablets is inherently flawed. I think it’s a good idea. I think Metro can work well on a desktop,28 and I think it makes sense to give people on tablets the power of the Windows desktop. The Surface shows that this can work; some small tweaks to how Windows 8 handles desktop apps could already go a long way towards making this a better experience. But it’s definitely true that Microsoft’s execution of this idea is far from perfect.

The solution, though, should be to fix the execution, not to kill the whole idea.

The Problem with Windows 8

I have no doubt that there are people who will read what I’ve just written about Windows’ flaws, and will write me emails, saying things like «you’re so wrong! All of the things you hate are great! You just don’t understand the genius that is Windows!»

I think that’s the problem with Windows. There are people who enjoy tinkering with their BIOS, playing around in DOS, and installing bootloaders. And that’s fine. I think it’s even great. I think everybody should have the freedom to install whichever bootloader they want. The problem comes up when these people see something like Metro, do not like what they see, and then tell everybody else how terrible it is. When it’s really not terrible; it’s just not for them.

The things I love about Windows 8 are exactly the things that the most vocal Windows users hate, and the things I hate about Windows 8 are the things they love. So maybe the problem with Windows 8 is that Windows 8 appeals much more to me, a Mac user of 20 years, than to your typical Slashdot-commenting Ars-Technica-reading29 Windows user who frequents online forums to talk about Windows. And because these people are the most vocal Windows users, and because they tell their friends which versions of Windows to like and which to avoid, that has real effects on Microsoft’s success with Windows 8.

Despite of what the most vocal Windows users say, I don’t think Windows 8 is bad for your average Windows user. I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Windows and Me

In the end, I really, really like Metro, but don’t love Windows as a whole. It’s flawed.30 But even so, I like my Surface a lot more than I ever liked any of my iPads.

When Apple introduced the iPad, they made a point of showing productivity apps. I feel like the Surface finally makes good on Apple’s promise: Metro is a UI that actually works well for productivity. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than acceptable.

The problem with Metro might not be that it’s performing badly at its intended function. The problem might simply be that, unlike me, most people don’t want to use their tablets for productivity. They’d rather keep using their old Windows PC for that, and also have an iPad for watching movies and playing games.

Further Reading

Good follow-up from Shawn Blanc, who notes that it is important to discuss these topics, because we’re currently in the midst of shaping what our children’s computers will look like.

Anand Babu writes about different usage scenarios for Windows 8 and the Surface.

About Windows’ future, Tim Anderson notes that «a revitalised desktop in Windows 9 will do little to arrest its decline.»

Robert McGinley Myers points out that the iPad is better at some kinds of productivity tasks than a desktop PCs. He mentions grading papers as an example. He could not be more right; marking up PDFs is definitely much more enjoyable on a tablet with a pen than on a desktop PC with a mouse. This is exactly why I want to use a tablet for work, and why I think that Microsoft’s basic idea — combining the advantages of a tablet with the advantages of a desktop PC — is fundamentally sound, and worth pursuing.


  1. Probably. back

  2. It’s insane how futuristic Einstein running on a Galaxy Note still feels to me. Also, Columbo’s Mystery Capers is still great. back

  3. If this whole section of this article reads like I’m trying to apologize for the fact that the iPad doesn’t work for me as a productivity device, that’s because I am. The linked article, written by Matt Gemmell, concludes that «anyone trotting out that old chestnut [that the iPad isn’t a tool for productivity and creation] is either labouring under some astonishingly wrong-headed preconceptions, or is making excuses for their own failings.»
    Gemmell has written some great, empathetic, thoughtful pieces on usability and design (and other things). That he attributes people’s inability to figure out how to use iPads for productivity to their own failings illustrates, I think, just how charged this whole topic is, and perhaps helps explain why I’m feeling the need to apologize for the fact that I haven’t figured out how to use my iPad for actual work. back

  4. While games also sell well on Windows, there does seem to be a visible difference. The top 100 selling and grossing iPad apps are almost exclusively games, while the Windows 8 app store shows plenty of other apps. It’s difficult to compare the two platforms directly, because a lot of gamers buy Windows games from platforms like Steam. back

  5. Rather than finding them in a file system, you just have to find them inside the app you used to create them. back

  6. Although I kept my other, older iPad 2 that powers my iCade :-) back

  7. I know it’s not called that anymore, but Microsoft’s replacement name is not usable as a word, and everybody knows what Metro is, so I’ll continue to use Metro. back

  8. There are videos out there of people using Metro for the first time, and not immediately figuring out how everything works. I still remember that the first Mac I owned came with a tutorial application that taught people how to use the mouse. Does this mean that the mouse is a bad idea? Once we get used to it, it’s easy to forget how unintuitive a lot of the stuff we use really is. Sometimes it’s okay to ask users to learn a few things. Indeed, Metro doesn’t even require you to learn that much — much less than any Mac ever did. back

  9. It’s actually called «snap», but I think «split screen» is more descriptive. back

  10. By the way, unlike on iOS, it’s possible to change the default browser, and other default appsback

  11. Lest I anger any more Android users, I should mention that Android offers a similar feature. back

  12. Please add layers to this app, Microsoft! back

  13. Instead of picking one of the two sides, you can drag the app up, and it will open in full-screen mode. back

  14. Yep, the fact that I love pens so much is partially related to my job, and doesn’t apply to everybody. On the other hand, it’s no coincidence that we use pens so much in everyday life. For any kind of task that requires even slightly precise input, from painting a still life to writing a shopping list, pens work much better than fingers. back

  15. Although I’m missing some advanced stuff like tilt recognition. back

  16. And I don’t need to carry it in a case, because it has a built-in stand, which is pure genius. back

  17. A few days after I wrote this, I installed 1Password, and handwriting recognition stopped working. Fix: kill the 1Password processes when the problem occurs. back

  18. Twenty years of typing on a keyboards hasn’t been kind to my handwriting. back

  19. The desktop version of OneNote has a feature similar to this. Somewhat weirdly, the Metro version, the one that people actually use on tablets with pens, does not. Anyway, this should be a consistent, always available system-level feature, and not left up to individual applications. back

  20. I literally spent three days installing Windows 8 on a new SSD I had put into my gaming PC. I eventually got it working by randomly changing BIOS options until I found a permutation that worked. back

  21. The DLL seems to be from a Logitech driver. However, while I did at one point plug a Logitech keyboard into the Surface, I definitely did not intentionally install any Logitech drivers. It’s something Windows put there by itself, only for it to become a problem later. back

  22. I apologize for the oversight, Dave :-) back

  23. Or use Disk Utility as a slightly less convenient, but built-in alternative. back

  24. Here’s another recommendationback

  25. At least Windows has a pretty good uninstaller that works for almost any installed application, something the Mac still lacks. back

  26. On a related note, there’s still this idea that it is a good idea to have an app store with as many apps inside as possible, even if most of the apps are complete crap. On this metric, Metro is losing. However, when actually using Metro’s app store, I think that, just like iOS and Android, it has stepped over that threshold where there are so many apps that it becomes impossible to use the store for discovering new apps. So… bully for Microsoft? I’m still waiting for an app store that prides itself on selecting for quality, rather than quantity (which isn’t possible on the iPhone, because apps can’t be sold outside of the App Store, so Apple has to be as inclusive as possible — but it would be possible for Microsoft, were it not for this inane idea that more always means better when it comes to app stores). back

  27. I initially wrote that you can only see two windows side-by-side when running Metro on larger screens. This is false. Depending on your screen size, you can see three or more windows side-by-side. back

  28. Just replacing the messy, crowded Start menu with Metro’s home screen is already a huge improvement. If you want to launch an application, why not use the whole screen to provide a good UI, rather than a tiny part of the screen to provide a terrible UI? All of the arguments I’ve seen in favor of bringing back the old Start menu seem to boil down to change aversionback

  29. See the comments on this article for an example. back

  30. Before I forget it, here’s another flaw: Windows 8’s calendar app doesn’t support Google Calendarback

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Marco Arment:

I’m glad Apple’s improving iOS 7’s visual usability by adding yet another toggle, but the need for Button Shapes, Bold Text, Increase Contrast, On/Off Labels, and Reduce Motion shows significant flaws in iOS 7’s design.

If you find yourself forced to introduce settings for purely visual UI changes, it’s time to ask yourself if there might be something going wrong.

Craig Grannell:

My concern is more that Apple has created an operating system that clearly has a ton of UX and UI issues, and yet is now burying ‘fixes’ within accessibility, away from where the typical user will see it.

If your default UI is so bad that there are large segments of your user base that can’t even use it properly, you’re probably also hurting people who aren’t part of these segments. Not having visual differentiation between buttons and labels makes your UI almost impossible to use for some people, but it also makes your UI a little bit harder to use for everybody else. Most people won’t think to look for solutions to these issues under their accessibility settings.

To be clear, making your UI a bit harder to use in order to make it prettier might sometimes be a worthwhile tradeoff. But it’s a tradeoff you should never make lightly.

Learning Avoidance

Jakob Nielsen:

However, while users might have a mathematically true ROI from learning more about user interfaces, the ROI might not be so clear from a behavioral standpoint. The problem is that the investment occurs immediately: users must suffer the interaction cost of navigating through obscure parts of the user interface. In contrast, the benefit is deferred: users realize it only in small increments in some undefined future moments when they might use newly discovered features.

This is a type of behavior I see constantly.1 Rather than doing extra upfront work that will provide benefits in the long run, people will continually pick the choice that is easier in the short run.

For example, when encountering a bug in an application, users typically tend to find a workaround, and then tend to just keep doing that workaround, rather than submitting a bug report which might result in a better long-term outcome.

Another example: whenever possible, people will use applications or app features they’re familiar with, rather than learning new applications or features — even if what they already know is only barely suitable for the task they’re performing. A particularly extreme example I’ve experienced recently was a user who would do spreadsheet-like calculations in Word. The user would enter the numbers into Word, columns delimited by tabs, and then use a calculator app on an iPhone to do calculations.

Rather than learning how to use an application like Excel, it was easier to combine two familiar applications: Word and an iPhone calculator app.

As a result of this behavior, many users are perennial beginners. They reach a basic skill level that allows them to get the job done, but then stop learning.

Nielsen continues:

People don’t read manuals. People don’t go exploring all over the user interface in search of neat features. People don’t investigate whether there’s a better way of doing something once they’ve learned an approach that works. (Maybe you do these things, but you’re not an average user.)

Learning is hard work, and users don’t want to do it.

To remedy this, Nielsen suggests a number of things UI designers can do. I particularly like these three:

Just-in-time learning

Since users don’t read manuals, you should design the UI so that it is self-documenting. Sometimes, this means using clear, plain, self-explanatory language in your user interface. Other times, it can go as far as including documentation right in the application itself, where and when people actually need it, rather than in an external, separate manual.

I particularly like how Acorn automatically shows contextual help popups while you use it.2

Acorn's inline help tooltips

Exploit teachable moments

When things go wrong, don’t just point out that things whent wrong. Explain why they go wrong, and what the user can do to fix the problem.

Appway, a process management software I work on, constantly validates processes while the user is working on them. An unintrusive widget tells the user how well she is currently doing, a bit like playing a game. The more potential problems there are in a process, the more dire the widget’s icon becomes. When asked, Appway then suggests actions to fix these problems.

Forgiveness

If users trust that mistakes won’t be punished, they’re more likely to explore your application, and thus more likely to learn how to use it better. This doesn’t just mean allowing undo. BBEdit, for example, can keep a history of the text files it edits, so that you can go back to earlier versions even after the app was restarted.

You can find more strategies in Nielsen’s article.


  1. Both in other people, as well as in myself. back

  2. Cleverly, Acorn uses the same popups to prevent mode errors. Since the popups communicate what tool you’re currently using, you’re never confused about the mode the application is in. I’ve written about this in my bookback

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