The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions
The intent behind Microsoft's new 'one experience, everywhere' mantra is noble. They see the increasingly common situations in which the iPod, iPhone, and iPad serve as gateway drugs, err products, to the Apple ecosystem. Microsoft isn't trying to become Apple by any measure, but they are trying to shift the perception of their products toward the more intuitive and user friendly end of the spectrum, and these are qualities Apple is famous for.
The thought is that with a friendlier user interface they can lower the user-perceived barrier of entry. Subsequently, by embracing the new customer familiarity, they'll be able to transition customers to other products on the platform (PC, tablet, or phone). If there is a "single experience" to offer, the transition should be easier, in theory.
I am proposing that this approach is not working now, nor will it work for the foreseeable future. Period.
Although the topic is highly debated, with a lot people defending both sides of the argument, there is no product successful enough to declare that a touch-based input operating system and a mouse-based input operating system can coexist as a single operating system.
The approach chosen by Microsoft is to offer a 2-in-1 solution. That is to have a touch-friendly "side" and a mouse-friendly "side". These sides coexist in a single operating system and the user can switch between them either manually or the system could make some assumptions based on screen orientation or which app is in use to automate it. The solution is thought to be perfect for the new "convertible" laptop/tablet combo products.
This solution may seem sufficient, and for some it is, but for the masses there are some major concerns.
- Implementing the touch "side" and mouse "side" ultimately results in a tremendous amount of duplication. Duplication of settings, duplication of apps, duplication of ways to accomplish tasks. This duplication comes at a cost.
- The size of the operating system is really critical when you consider most new devices are shipping with flash storage. Flash storage is fairly expensive, although prices are dropping quickly. Laptops, convertibles, and tablets are shipping with relatively limited storage, usually in the 16 to 64GB range for tablets and 64 to 512GB range for laptops/convertibles. An operating system is huge, and supporting heavy duplication makes matters worse. The Microsoft Surface tablet couldn't offer a 16GB model even if they wanted to because the operating system and pre-installed software occupies a staggering 14GB. By comparison a 16GB iPad has 13GB of usable space - the operating system and pre-installed apps only occupy 3GB. (Note: I realize there is formatting overhead to account for a percentage of the "used" space, but it is nearly negligible in this context.)
- For the general public there is a fear of computers and computing devices. They are complex and there is a lot to learn if you want to use one, in most cases. Adding to that, if you take a system that a user finally became familiar with and change it, that is a very scary thing. I know people that put off upgrading from iOS 5 to iOS 6 with changes so negligible (to them) that they hardly even realized it changed, but the idea of change on a device they finally understood was scary. That occurred on the most user friendly computing platform in history. Windows 8 not only changes the UI, but it duplicates a lot of functionality. So while this maintains some of the comfort of knowing how to get something done for Windows 7 users, those gains are all but lost if they're stuck in the touch side of the OS.
The fundamental approach to design is very different between systems with a touch-based input and a mouse-based input. Touch targets need to be large, awkwardly large in the context of a mouse-based system. The design of an app hinges on screen real estate and user interaction mechanisms; so considering traditional PC, a tablet with software keyboard, and a tablet with an external hardware keyboard, would require three vastly different designs. This is a major reason we're seeing such new and unique apps for phones and tablets after only a few years of these devices existing yet many decades of mouse-based systems existing. While the underlying data structures and algorithms are similar, the user interface, layouts of menus and features, and anything the user sees or interacts with is completely different between the types of interaction models.
It is also important to note how successful some of the recent Microsoft designs have been. Though not widely adopted, Microsoft was an industry leader in the flat, simple, square design features that are so rampant today. In fact, the official Windows Phone Twitter account tweeted this on the day of the iOS 7 introduction:
Many sites have gone on to highlight the design cues that iOS 7, the most famously simple and clean operating system of all time, clearly stole from the Windows Phone OS (link 1) (link 2). This goes to show that Microsoft has had a lot of good ideas, but these forward-looking designs aren't enough to change the user opinion (and thus adoption) resulting from the aforementioned fundamental flaws.
Simplicity is Cultural
Microsoft's greatest accomplishment is also its greatest liability. The Windows platform runs on a seemingly infinite number of system configurations from a multitude of hardware vendors. The Windows operating system has been the operating system of just about every major company for the last 20 years. Microsoft undoubtedly fulfilled Bill Gates' goal of "a computer on every desktop in every home." Windows has been the undisputed market leader for a long time, and when you're in this position, it is vastly more complicated to make fundamental changes without upsetting customers.
When Microsoft established this leadership position, it was largely due to the enterprise adoption of their products. Workers had to work on PCs all day so they became familiar because they had no choice. Once familiar, the natural decision was to purchase a PC for the home. Now the basic computing needs are met by far simpler devices, many people rarely use anything besides a smartphone. The entry point of computing familiarity has shifted out of the enterprise domain, where Microsoft is overwhelmingly dominant, into the smartphone domain where iOS and Android are dominant and Microsoft struggles to exist.
This is Microsoft's dilemma in a nut shell, yet their solution attempt misses the point almost entirely. With the newly appointed CEO Satya Nadella they have an opportunity to revitalize their efforts and demonstrate that they're a serious competitor in the post-PC world. On one hand, it appears the chance passed them by years ago with iOS and Android, but with the notoriously slow-to-adapt enterprise market (which still has a large Microsoft presence), there is a window of hope. I fear that with Satya's 22 years at Microsoft he will continue the current trajectory due to the noteworthy financials of the company over the last several years rather than taking a gamble and doing something profound that stands out from the crowd.