It has taken me over a year, but I think I have finally been able to crystallize what it is about Windows 8 that bothers me so much. Why exactly does this interface – which others seem to have no troubles with whatsoever – get under my skin so much? By every reasonably measure, both Gnome 3 and Unity are far worse UIs; while I loathe both of those as well, there’s something extra-special about Win 8 that has been hard to define. What gives?
The real burden here is on anyone trying to do tech support. Microsoft argues that tech support should be done via remote tools: GPOs, RSAT, PowerShell, InTune and System Center. You aren’t supposed to actually log on to another individual’s computer; you are to use these tools to control another system from within your own heavily customized Windows 8 instance. In practice, I’ve found a few bugs in this approach.
The first is that home users and the majority of SMBs cannot afford Microsoft’s expensive tech support suite, nor the systems administrators required to use it. Tech support at the home level is usually a family member or friend; it is often done by accessing the person’s PC physically or through remote support tools such as VNC, LogMeIn or Teamviewer.
In this scenario the heavy customization of user profiles advocated by Microsoft is a support burden, but not nearly so much as the loss of high information density tools like the Start Menu. Let’s take a moment to think about what that tool really was.
It was access to your system’s various mounted file systems via “My Computer.” It allowed you to browse the local network via “My Network Places.” Rick clicking on “My Computer” got you access both to the “Computer Management” MMC console (via the manage option) and to the “System” control panel (via properties.) Right clicking on “My Network Places” got you to where you could change network adapter configurations (via properties). You could map network drives, search for a file, launch an application from the run box get a list of installed applications (via “All Programs”) or go into the control panel if you needed to really get into it.
All the basic administration tasks were available here within a couple of clicks of each other. All from one interface that hadn’t appreciably changed in over 15 years. Someone familiar with one version of Windows could easily administer another one. There was familiarity through consistency; a boon to the hordes of desktop administrators who were maintaining generations of different OSes for friends, family or as one more line item on their job description for their SMB employer.
The argument is frequently made that this is where the search functionality comes it. “The majority of people” can simply do what needs to be done via search. I disagree.
The names of things change over time; Microsoft seem to expect us to learn a whole new dictionary of terms with each OS iteration. Search for “Network Properties” on Windows 8. Try “Network Adapter”, “WiFi” or “NIC.” Try “Local Security Policy”. Some of these come up under “settings” if you search – which is yet another click to get at them – others don’t come up at all.
To top it off, the loss of the start menu means either using the slow charms bar or shortcut keys to get at search. This doesn’t work so well through remote support applications, especially not if the individual doing remote support doesn’t full screen their remote support session. That’s fairly typical in my experience; us techy types are typically doing research on our PCs; punching stuff in to Google to find the solution to whatever is plaguing Aunt Tilly.
We can have the same argument about the ribbon bar; it moves the buttons around on you, doesn’t quite have everything you need, can be a pig to add anything that isn’t “what the majority use every day” (such as reading headers on an email in Outlook) but it does offer customization. Therein lies the issue; customization.
The Start Screen isn’t a replacement for the start menu. It is a replacement for Quick Launch. In fact, it is a fantastic improvement over Quick Launch; Live Tiles can provide a density of information about your most frequent apps not dreamed of since the Active Desktop days. The ability to curate and pin applications of your choice to the front screen makes it very much a user-definable experience; it is what quick launch should have been. It is, however, absolute crap if you want to access apps that aren’t among those most frequently accessed items.
That’s bad for tech support. Things that make tech support harder make the new Windows seem worse than the old, even if that isn’t true for many portions of the operating system. Overlooking tech support and power user needs will ultimately reflect poorly on Microsoft. It’s a problem that ultimately affects us all.