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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Investment Creates Pride

It’s no secret that people are proud of the things they make on their own. The more you’ve invested in something, the prouder you are. I love the feeling of holding something I’ve built in my own hands; the more work I put into it, the better. I love my own sketches and drawings, even if, objectively, most aren’t that great. I think the food I cook on my own tastes much better than food from a restaurant.

This doesn’t just apply to physical things. It also applies to computer work. I love writing code and letting it run, the feeling of having created something that works. I love drawing in ArtRage, creating things in OmniGraffle or Sketch, even writing text in BBEdit.

I’m much less fond of Pages, though. When I start Pages and create a new document, it asks me to pick from a template. Usually, I just pick one, and change the text to whatever I need. I’m not proud of that. I don’t own the result, I’m just riding somebody else’s coattails. True, I’m making something, but I’m not making it mine. It’ll never be mine.

I love tweaking a photo I’ve shot in iPhoto, messing with the sliders until it looks good. Conversely, I don’t like the photo apps that allow you to pick a predefined filter. I didn’t make that filter. It’s not because of me that the photo looks good. Somebody else put in the work, I just clicked on a button.

There’s an oft-repeated anecdote about cake mixes. Supposedly, they didn’t sell well until one manufacturer decided to allow people to add their own eggs, thus giving them the feeling of «owning» the resulting cake, rather than just making somebody else’s cake. The anecdote is false, but the underlying sentiment is real. It’s not your cake if you’re just putting it into the oven.

GM offers buyers of certain Corvettes the option of hand-building the engine that powers their new car. Buying a car is already an emotional experience, but imagine how much more invested in your car you become when you yourself have hand-built its engine!

When designing creative apps, the line between giving people so much rope that they can’t help but hang themselves, and giving them so little that they can’t even tie a knot in it, is often very fine. Most Corvette owners probably couldn’t build their cars from scratch, but they are perfectly capable of putting together an engine with some help from a Corvette employee.

When working on an application, think about this. Are you letting your users own the things they create, or are they just following in somebody else’s footsteps? What’s your application’s hand-built Corvette engine?


This is one of the 61 essays published in The Thing About Jetpacks. If you want to read more, you can buy the book here.

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The Thing About Jetpacks

Jon Bell and I have written a book. It’s a collection of essays. It contains the entirety of fuckjetpacks.com, and all of the essays we’ve written for the For 100 Of Our Closest Friends project. Altogether, it’s 61 essays about design, spanning 150 pages.

You can order a copy of the book at blurb.com.

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The Videogame System Sales Cycle

There’s an article over at Asymco.com looking at videogame hardware sales during the last decade.1 It comes to the conclusion that the videogame market is being eaten up by smartphones and tablets. Here’s a quote:

It’s one thing to suggest that Nintendo consoles have “failed”, it’s another to show that Nintendo consoles and portables have failed, and yet another to show that two competitors in the games business seem to be failing in unison across all their product lines. The cyclicality is also over a long period of time: The peak for the combined Sony/Nintendo was in 2008, five years ago.

Gruber weights in, noting:

No coincidence about the timing of that peak. It coincides with the beginning of the post-PC era.

Let’s look at one of the consoles in question. Here’s the Wii’s yearly sales data:

Indeed, there’s a peak around 2008, and a steady decline afterwards. Looks terribly suspicious! But before we jump to conclusions, there are two questions that need to be answered.

First, before we argue about what might have caused the Wii’s declining sales, we should evaluate whether anything unusual actually happened here.2 In other words, is the Wii’s sales cycle atypical for a videogame console, and likely caused by an external factor?

Second, assuming that something unusual did happen to the Wii, what caused it? Is it really «no coincidence» that the Wii’s sales peak coincides with the iPhone’s release, and the beginning of the «post-PC era», or are there other, more likely factors influencing the Wii’s sales?

Humans are pattern seekers. We see patterns everywhere. That’s why people see the golden ratio everywhere, even when nobody put it there. If you look at the world through the lense of Apple, you see Apple’s influence everywhere. Sometimes, you’re right. But sometimes, you’re not.

When scientists do studies, they get around this problem by having a control. To see if a new medication really works, you give the medication to a group of test subjects, and a placebo to a control group. If there’s a statistically significant difference between the two groups, that’s evidence that the medication works.

With historical data, you can’t do this type of experiment. But you can get close. If the Wii’s sales pattern truly is unusual, and mainly caused by the «post-PC era», then the following things should be true:

  1. The Wii’s sales pattern should be distinctly different from previous console sales patterns.
  2. The «post-PC era» decline, coinciding with the iPhone’s release in 2007, should also be reflected in the sales pattern of other consoles sold at the same time.
  3. There should be no other, better explanations for the Wii’s sales pattern.

Let’s look at these three points in turn.

Is the data you’re seeing unique, and distinct from the sales pattern of older consoles?

Again, this is what the Wii’s sales look like:

Here’s how the PS2 sold over its lifespan:

A pretty steep increase in sales after release, followed by a steady decline over the rest of its lifespan.3 Apple didn’t have to release an iPhone in 2002 to cause the PS2 to peak; that’s just how consoles sell.

Here’s the Gamecube:

Same pattern. The graph looks basically identical to the Wii’s.

This kind of console sales graph is nothing unusual. It’s a typical console sales pattern. Many consoles peak in their second or third year, and then decline steadily after that. Why? During the first years, manufacturers are often still ramping up production. Then, after about two or three years on the market, two things usually happen:

  1. Console manufacturers lower the price substantially. Depending on how well a console sells, the exact time when this happens can change.
  2. The second generation of games come out; the ones that actually make good use of the hardware, and are compelling system sellers.

So that’s when console sales are highest. After that, sales decline steadily, as a console’s hardware becomes increasingly outdated, and more and more potential buyers already own the device.

The Wii’s sales pattern is not unusual. It’s not an indicator that anything special happened around 2008. It’s a typical console sales pattern.

Do other consoles show the same peak around 2008?

If something special happened around 2008, you’d see that reflected in the sales patterns of the Wii’s contemporaries. They should also peak in or around 2008.

Well, here’s the PS3’s sales pattern:4

Asymco notes that the «combined Sony/Nintendo peak» was in 2008, making it sound as if the PS3’s sales followed a similar trajectory. If you look at the actual data, the PS3 didn’t peak in 2008 at all.

The PSP did peak around that time (which is unsurprising, because it launched three years earlier, and follows a typical console sales pattern). But the «combined Sony/Nintendo peak» is almost exclusively due to the Wii’s peak in 2008. Sony’s combined console sales do peak in 2008, but only barely. They continue selling steadily until 2011, and only start to decline at the end of the two consoles’ lifespans.

The Xbox 360’s sales pattern looks very similar to the PS3’s, and also peaks much later than 2008:

If you combine sales of all TV consoles, the 2008 peak simply disappears:

If the «post-PC era» truly had such a devastating effect on the console market that the Wii’s sales just deflated after 2008, it’s unlikely that the same effect would not also be seen in the PS3’s and Xbox 360’s sales. But Asymco’s huge 2008 peak mainly exists because the Wii peaked in 2008, and because back then, it outsold its competitors by large margin.

In other words, many consoles show Wii-like sales curves - but not the Wii’s direct competitors, the PS3 and the Xbox 360. If the Wii’s sales peak in 2008 was indeed mainly caused by the «post-PC era», you’d expect the Wii’s direct competitors to be similarly affected. They’re not.

Is there a better explanation for the Wii’s sales pattern?

If you go back up and compare the Wii to the PS2, you’ll notice that the Wii declined much faster. If the «post-PC era» didn’t cause the Wii’s quicker decline, what did?

Look at the PS3 and Xbox 360’s sales patterns: they start to really climb once the Wii starts to go down. I don’t think it’s hard to figure out what happened.

In 2007, a console that didn’t support HD graphics was still acceptable — but only barely. Market share of HD TVs increased dramatically after 2008. Around the same time, both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 received substantial hardware revisions and price cuts, while third-party support for the Wii failed to materialize in any meaningful way. As a result, attention simply moved from the Wii to HD-capable consoles, which caused Wii sales to decline each year, and caused PS3 and Xbox 360 sales to peak much later than you’d expect in a typical console sales cycle.

Meanwhile, Nintendo’s attempts to launch another Wii Sports-like success and get some more wind under the Wii’s wings failed. They weren’t nearly as compelling as Wii Sports, or even Wii Fit.

Look at the chart for combined TV console sales again:

It’s pretty clear that TV console sales remained steady until 2011. Attention simply shifted from the Wii to the other two consoles.5

And what happened in 2011 to make console sales decline so suddenly? Well, that’s when it became clear that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft would soon bring out new consoles. The Wii U was announced at E3 2011, and it was only a matter of time until the other two companies would follow suit. At the same time, developers received dev kits for the Xbox One and PS4, which caused leaks about the new consoles, and helped establish that they were not too far off.

Here’s the same chart of total TV console sales, annotated with a few6 notable events that influenced console sales:

(Larger version of this chart)

Did the «post-PC era» have an influence on the Wii’s sales? Maybe. But I don’t see how they could be substantially different even without the iPhone and iPad. The «post-PC era» isn’t required to explain the Wii’s sales pattern.

So, what’s the console market’s future?

Who knows. Personally, I don’t think much will change. There will always be a market for consoles, and there will always be more generic, multi-purpose devices competing with them.

People have always noticed when sales started to decline rapidly at the end of a console generation, and have always been very quick to proclaim the end of videogame consoles. At the end of the PS1’s cycle, Asymco’s exact same argument that could have been made. «Console sales are declining, and the Dreamcast, the first console of the new generation, is selling terribly! PCs have finally destroyed the market for videogame consoles!»

Historically, people attributed the console’s demise to the power of PCs. Nowadays, it’s smartphones and tablets that will supposedly kill consoles. And maybe that’s true. Maybe this time really is different. But I doubt it.

There’s really nothing unusual happening this time around. We’ve all seen this exact thing happening before. What Asymco’s charts show is very likely not Apple crushing the console market. It’s simply the end of a generation of consoles, and the beginning of another. Sales of the previous generation are petering off, and the new consoles haven’t yet taken over. No need to panic. At least not just yet.

If nobody buys the PS4, then you should start panicking.

And with that, I promise that the next article I publish here will be about design, and have nothing to do with videogames.7


  1. Sigh. I wish I could stop writing about videogames. I feel like I’m spamming my RSS feed with articles most of its subscribers really don’t care about. So I hope this is the last article on this topic. Fingers crossed. back

  2. Before you can start to figure out which genus Bigfoot belongs to, you should establish that he actually exists. back

  3. The PS2 peaked a little later and declined much less rapidly than the Wii, but that’s mainly because it didn’t have any real competition. The Gamecube and the Xbox never sold well, so the PS2 had the market to itself. It’s no coincidence that the PS2 ended up being the best-selling console of all time.
    This cycle, on the other hand, the Wii was completely outdated the day it came out, and the Xbox 360 and particularly the PS3 peaked later during the Wii’s life. Both of these factors helped the Wii’s decline. back

  4. Note that these charts make the decline in 2013 look steeper than it really is, because we’re only in September, and haven’t yet had the 2013 holiday sales. back

  5. If anything, combined console sales during this generation of consoles was much steadier than during the previous. back

  6. Yes, I realize that I’m leaving off dozens and dozens of relevant things. If there’s something specific you have in mind that really should be on the list, please do tell me, but keep in mind that I can’t put dozens of things on such a tiny chart :-) back

  7. Here you goback

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