I’ve been struggling for a good year now with Microsoft’s decision to push users as hard as they are pushing them to use the new, modern user interface, what was once code-named Metro. Even in Windows 8.1, a.k.a. Windows Blue, it is the primary user interface. Why is Microsoft forcing us to use the new modern UI?
“Forcing” is perhaps too strong a word I suppose (although it’s a good one for a headline). You can continue to use conventional Windows programs – hell, even text-mode console programs – and keep using a conventional keyboard/mouse computer, but they’re all legacy now, at least for programs with significant user interface.
Moreover, and Microsoft’s protestations notwithstanding, Windows 8 is far less usable on a conventional computer without a touch display. You need to get used to a few gestures and then things are not as bad, but they are still markedly inferior to Windows 7, particularly in desktop mode.
Why would Microsoft make the old interface so undesirable? In order to make the new one desirable. Why? There are a lot of reasons for that, but one very big one is security.
Complain all you want about Apple’s curated app store and the fascist police state that underlies its management, but they have pretty much licked the malware problem. Malware on iOS is still theoretically a problem, and perhaps it is used for high-value, targeted attacks that get hushed up, but the sort of bread and butter attacks that plague Windows users and which exist to some degree on almost all other platforms are virtually non-existent on iOS. Why? Because, unless you’ve jailbroken the device, you can only install software that Apple has approved for sale in their app store.
Microsoft has replicated this experience for modern apps on Windows 8. In fact, because that’s all that runs on Windows RT, it’s completely replicated there. To the extent that you use only apps and stay in the modern UI you are going to be very safe from malware.
Before an app can go in the store, you have to submit it to Microsoft, who will test it against their certification requirements. The certification process supposedly involves actual testing by humans (“Our certification testers install and review your app to test it for content compliance”). It’s not clear to me whether the certification standards are quite as burdensome as Apple’s; I suspect they are not, if only because I know certain application types, like soft keyboard replacements, can be certified on Windows but not on iOS. But the important point is that there is a strong level of oversight there.
This is where we’re headed. At the Windows 8 rollout, and effectively on his way out the door, Microsoft’s Steve Sinofsky said that Microsoft believes that all computers should have touch capabilities. By this holiday season you can expect that to be the case to a large degree. All computers from the major companies, at least in the developed world, will have some sort of touch display – even the notebooks. As Microsoft sees it, within a few years, most of us will be using apps all the time.
I can see getting used to this, as long as I can *also* use a keyboard and mouse – this, by the way, is the real differentiator with iOS. I can also see why this curated experience is so appealing to Microsoft. The history of DOS and Windows has shown that there really is no other – or at least no better – way to prevent malware.
It’s always been possible to do a very good job in securing systems by giving significant authority to administrators and locking down users. The problems come from the fact that users resist these restrictions. The BYOD phenomenon is an outgrowth of user impatience with IT restrictions. But somehow users are OK with restrictions when they come from Apple.
So perhaps people will be happy with the restrictions coming from Microsoft too. The problem with this arrangement is the problem with the Apple arrangement: An app in the Microsoft store gives Microsoft a significant cut of the proceeds. Large software companies – Adobe for instance – aren’t going to be willing to pay that much commission to Microsoft, and it’s not really fair for them to. But of course, on Windows (as opposed to Windows RT) you can install whatever software you want, so while the security can only go so far, so do the restrictions.
In the longer run they’ll think of some solution. In the shorter run, it’s an old story: We’re going to be surrendering some freedom in exchange for some security. I think this is a reasonable move, especially on Windows where we do have the option to bypass it if necessary.