As the public beta release of Windows 8 nears, the complaints are steadily mounting about its user interface. Just yesterday, ZDnet columnist Stephen Vaughn-Nichols, an admitted Linux fan, has called Windows 8 the next Vista-scale disaster, citing the "mess" of the new Metro UI. InfoWorld's Neil McAllister raised concerns over Windows 8's dueling UIs back when the developer preview was released in September. In recent days, many bloggers, including one of my favorite tech writers, InfoWorld's Woody Leonhard, decried Microsoft's apparent plans to drop the Start orb and menu in Windows 8.
I've worked extensively with the Windows 8 developer preview and have noted design changes I'd make before a final release. However, I didn't feel it was worth commenting on because we all know things change before the final version of any Microsoft product. Still, I completely agree with Leonhard's desire for Microsoft to reinstate the Start menu. It's a staple in my daily work, and I'd hate to see it go. I'm also not a big fan of the hover alternative to the Start button in Windows 8, and I don't like the nasty green Microsoft has chosen for the tiled background in the Metro UI. The whole design is hideous, and as Windows 8's release gets closer, the complaints are getting louder.
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Could Windows 8 really be a repeat of the Vista disaster or of the less-calamitous Windows Millennium Edition? Could this be the final nail in the Windows coffin, the Redmondageddon that Apple lovers have been predicting? Or is Microsoft breaking new ground as part of a reinvention of the Windows OS to carry it forward for years to come -- as Apple did when it completely revamped Mac OS X more than a decade ago, tossing familiar conventions for a new approach that today Apple fans love?
Resistance to the UI changes is misplaced
In addition to complaining about the lack of Start menu, Leonhard also griped about the use of the ribbon UI, which people either love or hate, in Windows 8 and the lack of a menu-based alternative for those who dislike it. He notes that Office 2010 compromised a bit here, whereas Windows 8 does not -- suggesting that is a big mistake.
I disagree completely. I've used Office for about 20 years and know the menu structure well, but when Microsoft gave me ribbons, I embraced it rather than resisted and complained. Now, I absolutely love the ribbon UI. I wouldn't want to go back to menus anymore than I want to go back to eight-track music cartridges. Sometimes change is hard, but it's often necessary. I don't have a problem with Microsoft forcing us to move forward if it honestly believes the change is necessary. As they say at the gym: No pain, no gain.
These UI decisions weren't made off the cuff. Chaitanya Sareen, the program manager lead on the Windows 8 UI team, has shared statistics on how the Start menu is used. The data reveals the Windows taskbar as the main place people go to launch applications -- not the Start menu. Sareen notes, "With the Windows taskbar becoming the key launcher and switcher for the desktop, and the Start menu being revealed as a poor everyday launcher, an opportunity appeared to reimagine Start and make it into something more valuable."
That reimagining goes deeper on deciding whether to have a Start menu, as the Microsoft UI team has described in its posts "Designing the Start screen" and "Designing search for the Start screen." People need to trust that Microsoft is thinking about the big picture, and they need to give the Windows 8 UI a fair shake through extended usage before they complain about this or that change.