Remember Nokia’s burning platform? Now it’s Microsoft’s.
Back in 2011, Nokia’s then CEO Stephen Elop sent his now infamous “Burning Platform” memo, highlighting the company’s need to evolve or be eaten by its new competitors, Google and Apple. After a strategic alliance with Microsoft, the firm was then acquired by its new partner in 2013 amidst a wave of optimism that the two companies, once dominant in their own industries, could work together to make great devices and services.
I hate to be negative about a a company I admire, and grew up using it’s products, but it seems to me that three years on, Nokia’s burning platform has spread to Windows. The onetime workhorse of every business around the world is looking decidedly shaky. It saddens me that a once great product and brand is now a shadow of it’s former self. I first used Windows 3.11 as a child, and have used every version since. While those older versions were never perfect, they were in line with the readability expected from a young industry. These days, in the age of instant on, affordable Chromebooks and “it just works’ MacBooks, it’s difficult to see a purpose for Windows, except to run legacy software. ChromeOS is well suited to the low-end, commodity markets, and Macs seem to be doing well at the high-end where reliability and power are required.
So what’s the problem? For me it can be summed up in two points: reliability and usability.
Windows 10 is unreliable. It takes too much work to get it to work. These days I don’t want to have to spend time making my computer work. That should be automatic. If I set a long file transfer going, I shouldn’t come back to see a message warning me that the computer is going to reboot in 10 minutes unless I cancel it. I hunt around in settings to try and find a way to configure the machine to never reboot without me telling it to, and there isn’t one. I could see why Microsoft did this, to look after users and make sure they’ve got the latest security updates, no doubt – but where’s the intelligence? Can’t it see I’m doing something? Is there an auto-save API like there is on the Mac? No: Microsoft’s API story is another mess, but it basically boils down to this: proper applications use the ancient Win32 API, and mobile apps need to use the new ‘Modern’ Universal App API. Another instance of this lack of reliability is something that’s been an issue for years, yet still happened to me on a fresh install of Windows 10. The task bar for some reason stopped unifying all of the windows into one button for Outlook, which gets confusing. So I closed Outlook, thinking that restarting the application would solve things. I go to start it again, and of course there’s an error. It turns out that in 2016, closing an application and starting it again 5 seconds later is not something Microsoft expect you to do. I remember this happening with Outlook 2003. In the end I had to reboot my machine in order to get to my email. This are just two admittedly pedantic examples – but I could share so many more – Windows 10 feels like it gets in the way more than it helps.
Usability is another disaster on Windows 10. For a start, there is no consistency between applications anymore. The long-held ideal that an operating system should provide a consistent user interface to make applications easy to use and learn has been well and truly thrown out of the window. Office uses it’s own file picker – how is this even allowed by internal UI guidelines? Dialogs are still modal – meaning if you choose “Share > By Email” in Excel, all other Excel documents are blocked until you send that email. There are two versions of Skype. Ask someone to Skype you, and they might assume you mean Skype. But no! – You meant “Skype – for business”. There are two control panels, the new one has a back button that doesn’t go back to the last screen, depending on what the last screen was. Context menus have a seemingly random style depending on at which point in the 30 year history of Windows they were implemented. Even more shockingly is Microsoft seem to have decided that the “Hamburger menu” should now be a mainstay for modern apps, despite it being almost universally derided by UX practitioners. Of course non-modern (antique?) apps still use menus, or sometimes a ribbon, or sometimes a menu that’s hidden behind a button depending on how antique they are. It’s very rare for an application to use the native window style – in fact I couldn’t tell you what the native style looked like in Windows 10. Mail, Skype, Word, Explorer – they all look different. I can’t help think these issues all accumulate and are part of the reason that cool new apps for Windows are far and few these days.
Microsoft is still a company I admire, their Azure and Machine Learning services are second to none; and surprisingly their iOS apps are of a very high quality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure someone at Microsoft is aware of the state Windows is in, and I hope that they can overcome internal politics or whatever challenges there are to put it right. I have friends who work at the company and they are some of the smartest people I know. I just hope they hurry up and fix Windows before the world moves on, for good.