on windows 8 and backwards compatibility
It’s been a few days since the initial video, and I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts.
In short, I cannot help but feel that Windows 8 is another step in Microsoft’s slow descent.
Back in the early days of the Windows GUI, one advantage of windows was that you could run all your DOS programs. This ability to be backwards compatible was a huge boon for the company, and no doubt kept users and businesses flocking to PCs.
The desktop ghetto in Windows 8 feels very much the same, but there’s also something very different here.
Think of your average DOS computer: monitor, keyboard, and maybe a mouse depending on the dos version and your app. Think of your average Windows computer — monitor, keyboard, mouse. Yep. Exactly the same. As kludgy as the old “DOS Window” approach to backwards compatibility felt, it worked, because the ways in which you interacted with DOS apps were fundamentally the same as how you interacted with Windows GUI apps.
Fast-forward to today. Is the “legacy panel” of Windows 8 the new DOS Box? Yes and No. It does let you run all your old programs. But no, because it doesn’t let you interact with them in the same way.
That’s the thing about tablets (and phones). They have touch screens. And touch screens have fundamentally different interaction models from the keyboard and mouse. It’s very hard to mix the two, and nobody has shown that it can be done well.
I think Microsoft is actually aware of this. Even in the video, you can tell that there are some new touch-based interactions that you can see in the legacy desktop (like where the finger scrolls an explorer window by dragging anywhere in it.. something that doesn’t work with a mouse). That’s great and all, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to work well with older apps.. which are the only reason you want to run the legacy mode in the first place.
There’s a good chance the ghetto will just not work. There’s a high chance it’s going to be clunky and distracting.
And even worse, there are secondary negative effects of implementing this kind of backwards compatibility.
Think about the time when all these win8 devices become available. You’re someone looking to create a new software experience. How will you make your app? Well, the web is more and more the obvious answer, but lets say for some odd reason you want to target the windows platform. You have a choice to make: old legacy-style app, or new eyecandy metro app? Well, lets look at the devices out there: tons of Win7 installs, and some new Win8 installs. What’s the UI type that works across both? The legacy mode, of course.
Unless MS can get everyone to move over to win8 quickly, developers are going to have incentives to develop for the old model, since the potential user base will be so much larger. And we all know how long it takes for people to migrate windows versions (because upgrading is so fun).
And that’s just from the developers’ point of view.
What about the users? All kinds of questions arise. Does this mean that we still need to run antivirus? Does it mean that Adobe updater is going to popup once in a while to steal my attention? Are there still going to be random services running in the background because one of the legacy apps I installed happens to need it? How will notifications from my legacy desktop fit in with notifications from the new apps?
In a world that is moving towards simplicity — iOS with it’s app store model, Chromebooks with their stateless clients — Microsoft is heading in the opposite (and in my mind, wrong) direction.
Maybe they’ll prove me wrong. Microsoft still has a lot of smart people. Backwards compatibility has always worked for them, but I don’t think it works when the interaction with the device is fundamentally not backwards compatible. Microsoft really needs to depart with the past when it comes to tablets. They’ve managed to do with the phone, but for some reason they’ve decided that tablets are similar enough to PCs to warrant the complexity and legacy baggage of the PC operating system.