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Beneath the Surface of Microsoft Surface

Topics: Technology | Add A CommentBy admin | June 19, 2012

It’s the interface, stupid. And what Microsoft is doing may be bigger than you think.

Last week, some words came out of my mouth that you don’t hear coming from my mouth too often. They were “I’m really excited about this new Microsoft product!” Strangely, I wasn’t referring to Microsoft’s new Surface tablet. I had no idea it was coming. I was actually referring to Windows 8, but the announcement of the new Microsoft hardware just validated the things I was saying to a friend about why Windows 8 had me worked up. The funny thing is, I’m not really that excited about Windows 8 itself. I’m no Microsoft Fanboy by a long shot. I’m still running XP, because when I use a computer I really prefer ignoring the OS so I can just get work done. And glassy swooping windows don’t help me get work done. I even turn that stuff off on my beloved MacBook. And I don’t feel like battling with Linux. No, what I’m excited about is the fact that Windows 8 and a viable Windows tablet (don’t forget, they’ve tried this before) will probably push a paradigm shift I’ve personally been waiting for for almost a decade. And I think a lot of tech industry writers are really missing a beat here on the significance of what Microsoft is doing, by zeroing in separately on the device or the OS as focal points, rather than looking at the whole shift that is occurring. It’s similar to how the industry got wowed by the iPad or Kindle, while failing to notice the genius of where the real change was taking place, which was in the control of content. No, I think there’s a bigger shift afoot thanks to Microsoft’s new direction.

The shift I’m talking about is toward an app-driven environment of touchable, draggable, and legible design interfaces, and the death of the web as we’ve known it. By the way, I also give the mouse five years to live, and predict that over the next year or two we will see a radical shift in visual design that will affect the look of everything you interact with, and even change what you DO. The web is already dead meat in a way, at least in terms of the now quaint idea of a “website” and the toxic world of SEO and trying to rank a site and cash in on the G-Hole. Even “social networking” is becoming an utterly arcane concept, as Facebook finally becomes a truly tiresome destination site for even the most-addicted, and all the idiots who spam their friends as if it’s a useful marketing method turn it into a ghost town of “Likes” and an endless stream of banal reposts. It’s starting to feel like tumblr, but a tumblr that denies you the ability to mark off your territory by customizing the interface, and with even MORE tools for mindlessly saying you “like” something.

Some personal disclosure might be useful here to help understand my seemingly skewed view on all of this. The first (and probably last) time I got really excited about a computer was when I was kid watching Star Trek. I’ve been waiting for a computer that you can talk to ever since, and long ago gave up hope. To me, Siri is just a gussied up version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and offers about as much “intelligence” as any existing chatbot on the web, including the one we have running right here on Dissociated Press. And the web in particular became annoying to me about six years ago, when Google finally achieved near-total dominance, and my grandmother started asking me to “SEO her site”. To me, much of the web is a tiresome and steaming heap of crap that’s either user-generated – like your mom’s neglected blog or flamewar-driven comment threads on Facebook or Huffington Post – or programatically generated, like content farms, scraper sites, and reposted content.

A big part of the reason I’m excited about Windows 8 and Microsoft’s new Surface tablet is that the abandonment of skeuomorphic design  in favor of something more like Microsoft’s Metro design language is probably the smartest change in personal computer interface design in ages, and is in fact probably critical to moving toward a truly useful tactile interface like that of a tablet. We are long overdue for a genuine rethink of the decades-old motif of folders, cute icons, desktops, mice, and mechanical-button keyboards. Frankly, I found most of these things annoying from the beginning.

I remember very well my reaction the first time I sat down at a personal computer with any intentions of actually trying to USE it; it was the late 90′s, and it was Windows 98. Yeah, I’m a late adopter sometimes. But what I remember was thinking “Wow. This whole thing with all these little imaginary folders and all this unused screen area is REALLY STUPID!” I also thought that all the attempts to make things look 3D and contoured was pretty wonky. I mean, to this day, I still encounter people who never figured out that the little “paintbrush” icon on the Windows Taskbar is actually a desk pad with a pencil on it, and that it takes you straight to the desktop. Which, by the way, is ANOTHER bizarre analogy; who the hell spreads folders out flat all over their desktop while they work? I learned to ignore all this crap like everyone else, but whenever I’ve paused to think about it, I’ve maintained that book spines on a shelf would have been a much better motif, both in terms of space used and easy visual recognition.

So to get back to the point about why I’m excited. It’s no secret that smartphones and niche tablet products like the iPad and the Kindle have been driving acceptance of the “app” as opposed to websites or familiar dedicated software applications. And the whole idea of touchscreens and dragging things with our fingers is no stunning innovation at this point either. In fact, forward-looking people like Seth Godin seem to have already abandoned catering to the desktop computer monitor in favor of smaller screens and a grid-like legible layout. Just look at how his website currently renders on a standard Windows widescreen desktop. He’s no dummy, and think this is no mistake. Also note the simple app-like navigation:

For several years, web developers have had to deal (if they were being smart and thorough) with the annoying task of designing two websites every time they work on a project, one for regular computers, and one for mobile. When it’s done right, the user doesn’t even realize that a different site is being served to them depending on which device they’re on. But all this interface stuff is likely to go through a radical transformation if an operating system as pervasive as Windows heads in this new direction, especially if they back up the change with a commitment to hardware that supports it, which they have.

And I have to admit that this commitment to the hardware is winning me over in spite of my lack of love otherwise for Microsoft. The “Surface” fixes two things that made me not buy an iPad when they came out. I said at the time that if Apple had simply added a thin “lid” that had a touch-sensitive keyboard that flipped out of the way and otherwise protected the screen, I would have been sold. That, and if they had allowed a little more flexibility in terms of what software might run on it. I waited for something more like this, and was about to be rewarded. I was literally on the verge of clicking the “Buy” button for an ASUS Transformer Prime and docking station the other day, but I think I’m going to sit tight. It may not be the Surface itself that I buy, but you can bet that the entire industry just got a jumpstart that will motivate a half-dozen hardware companies to create a competing device, if they haven’t already. And more importantly, if the massive 90% of the personal computing market that Microsoft still holds is suddenly made to switch to this new kind of interface, you can also bet that the death of cute graphical design elements is not far behind, which flies 100% in the face of the entire current Apple design aesthetic. And this all has the potential to lead us into an exciting new world. That of AOL in 1996:

Just kidding. I’m actually quite intrigued with the possibilities. I also can’t wait to add another image to the Steve Ballmer Weird Gesture at the Product Launch Gallery:

By the way, have you ever wondered why he makes all those weird paw-like gestures? Well, according to the website Kittydar, he’s a cat: