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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Windows 8 and the buttonhole problem

As a very wise grammarian named Richard Mitchell told me many a year ago: "Consider the buttonhole."

He didn't know when buttonholes were invented (as it turns out, the first ones appeared in 13th century Germany), but he knew this: They haven't changed much in a long, long time. If you try very hard, you may be able to concoct a slightly better buttonhole, but you probably can't think of a way to make a fundamentally better buttonhole.

Or consider the automobile. If a time-traveler from the 1940s found himself in a modern vehicle, he'd soon figure out how to drive the thing. Yes, changes have occurred -- automatic transmission, better braking -- but the basics remain unchanged.

My point is simple: Sometimes technology reaches a plateau beyond which we may do no more than offer some minor tinkering.

A "developers" version of Windows 8 has been released. I can't think of many good reasons to try it.

(Before proceeding, here's a warning for commenters: You know how annoying the knee-jerk "get a Mac" guys are? The "get linux" guys are almost as bad. Word to the wise.)

Windows 8 does away with the traditional desktop and substitutes an experience similar to ones you'll find on mobile devices and touchscreens. That's because this OS is designed for...everything.

That may not be a good idea.

I'm a traditional desktop kind-o-guy and always will be. I like multiple monitors, lots of RAM, lots of power under the hood. Yes, I'm poor -- so poor that I own only one pair of pants and one pair of shoes -- but I got me eight gigs of RAM baby, and I need more more more.

You can't properly run complex software on a touchscreen -- not even free stuff like Gimp or Blender. You cannot properly multitask without lots of screen real estate and lots of overlapping windows, which is why the "snapping" feature in Windows 7 quickly becomes irritating. (Fortunately, you can shut it off.)

The new Metro interface in Windows 8 is all about the snapping. We're supposed to be very impressed that we can run two apps at the same time. Well, whoop-dee-freakin'-doo.

The new Metro version of Internet Explorer takes up the full screen. Do you really want to do full-screen browsing?

All of the Windows 8 apps tend to be full screen as well. Why on earth? Right now, I have a tiny sidebar gadget which reveals the weather; because the widget is permanently affixed to the left side of the left screen, the information is available simply by a slight shift in the direction of one's gaze. Why would I want to call up a weather app which takes up the entire screen? How pointless!

Despite what you've heard, touchscreens are not the future of computing, at least not serious computing. If you want to move your cursor from one point to another across 40 inches of screen acreage, you do not want to sweep your arm. You need move a mouse only two or three inches to cover the same area. Much less tiring.

While watching all of the YouTube preview videos on Windows 8, I silently asked: "May we have one without fingers please?" The vast majority of these videos feature touchscreens. Apparently, the new Metro interface works best for those machines -- and offers nothing useful to traditional users of "big ol' box" computers.

Yes, you can have your old Windows desktop interface back -- that interface is now considered an app. But if you go to the Start menu to call up your programs -- guess what? No Start menu. You are sent back to the Metro interface.

You'll find your programs there -- in huge ugly chunky blocks splayed across your screen. The display is not nearly as attractive as the "pop up" docket thingie on the bottom of a Mac screen -- although even that wears out its welcome pretty rapidly, in my opinion. Using Metro, you'll probably have to scroll and scroll to get to your programs, the way you do with an iPhone.

Microsoft encourages software writers to include big, beautiful Metro icons for their wares. Well, Adobe has its own development schedule -- and some of us may want to give CS6 a pass. (Or may not be able to afford it.) Besides -- the bigger the icon, the more scrolling we have to do.

Most of the time, your Metro screen will consist of big, big icons positioned on a stark green background. On the Windows 7 system that you (conceivably) are using right now, most of your screen probably features a "wallpaper" photo of something you like -- a shot of a family member or a nice landscape or Count Dracula or outer space or whatever. Something personal.

Windows 8 banishes the personal.

Fortunately, there's an easy registry hack which gets rid of Metro altogether. Hello, desktop interface! Nice to see you again. And hello, Start menu! Once more, you can use your nice, small, easily navigable list of programs.

You now have a system that looks and feels a lot like 7.

All right. So: What's the advantage in upgrading to Windows 8?

All of the "killer apps" in this new OS turn out to be a lot of crap that desktoppers don't need or want. Everyone oohs and aaahs over the quick start-up time -- eight seconds, or so they say. I will admit: That does seem useful. But a lot of folks keep their computers "always on" anyways.

Undoubtedly, there are other things "under the hood" that make Windows 8 inviting. Right now, nobody wants to humor us with details.

Windows 7 offered stability, speed, a streamlined interface, and one must-have feature: A truly workable 64 bit version, allowing power users to access more than four gigs of RAM. That was the aspect of 7 that had me thinking "gotta have it" when the Release Candidate of 7 came out. Power, baby...POWER!

And 8...? Where's the "gotta have it" factor?

I think Microsoft must admit the truth: The Windows desktop is a buttonhole. We may never be able to improve upon the fundamental design. It is the way it is because it coalesces with the way the human mind and body work. It would have made more sense for the Windows desktop to evolve out of something like Metro, rather than the other way around.

True, you may need to come up with a fundamentally different type of operating system for a fundamentally different type of computer. You probably don't want a Windows 7 desktop on a machine that you hold in your hand. But those of us who think big will need a damned good reason to use a very different OS configuration.

The buttonhole problem seems to be affecting a lot of tech these days.

Blogger came up with a new interface which "improves" upon the old one in lots of annoying ways -- including a slide-out tray that pops out when you least expect it, covering up the text one is trying to compose in order to offer unneeded options. This is like trying to type while someone keeps pushing a magazine in front of your eyes. Worse, the humble blog writer suddenly must face all sorts of screwy formatting issues when pasting in quoted text.

Alas, we are forced into using the new interface because Google's old blogger interface no longer gets along with the newer iterations of Firefox. Frankly, I would head on over to Worpress -- but there are lots of problems over there as well.

(Blogger allows complete control over the template, for one thing. My HTML may be lousy, but it's mine, dammit!)

I understand Facebook users are pissed off at the new changes in their world. Well, screw 'em.

The new Yahoo mail interface is terrible. (So are the new terms of service.) I'll be switching.

Netflix has "improved" its business model so well that everyone I know has cancelled the service. (Not that I know a whole bunch of people.)

You may or may not be interested in the world of Wacom's "Cintiq" tablets, which allow artists to draw directly onto an LCD screen. These are not touchscreens; the level of control is much finer. A Cintiq is for the creation of art, not for everyday computing.

Yes, I've wanted a Cintiq for years. (If you're interested, I use a big ol' Intuos 2 tablet, which still works fine.) But in a bizarre manifestation of the buttonhole problem, Wacom has finally come up with a Cintiq that does not make me salivate.

The thing is 63 pounds. Sixty three freaking pounds.

The whole point of a draw-on-screen tablet is mobility. You want to be able to turn the tablet continually, just as an artist will continually adjust the position of the piece of paper on which he draws. Your right arm (if you're a rightie) naturally swings a certain way -- southwest to northeast -- and to get control of a line, you want to position that line so that it comes close to that axis.

The easiest way to do that is to pivot your paper. Or your Cintiq.

But you won't have an easy time pivoting your new Cintiq, because the thing weighs 63 freaking pounds. Try keeping that in your lap.

Well...maybe the older versions will now go down in price.

The lesson: At some point or another, the sellers of high-tech wares have to admit that their fine product is so very fine that it has become a buttonhole. The thing is simply unimprovable -- or only marginally improvable. Companies must admit this fact and adjust their business plans accordingly.

Update: Speaking of Wacom: I HAVE SEEN THE FACE OF GOD. If this thing does what it seems to do in the video...
I'll bet the Windows 8 version of the Blue Screen of Death looks just the same, though. ;-)
If Microsoft can't force you to buy new versions what will they have to sell?

I thought Windows 98 was just fine.

I'm using XP now and I'm perfectly happy with it.

When Microsoft (or somebody else) invents the computing equivalent of a zipper, let me know.
My simplistic view is that there should be a home Windows and a bidness Windows. And maybe a mobile Windows. I get the whole thing about wanting one code base to make things easier (for Microsoft) to support. But home users want to play games, browse the web, do email, video, photos. Business users need to connect to remote servers, use VPN's, have security around documents. Mobile users need to access the web, play music, view videos. Home users would like to be able to shut down and startup instantly. All the extra corporate overhead makes that difficult.
Apple is getting there as well. Lion offers (wait for it) full screen apps. That's about the main improvement. They are also folding in all the shiznet from the ipad. Which MAKES NO SENSE. A handheld touch device should indeed have a different UI than a device which utilizes a keyboard, mouse and bigger displays.
That's part of the reason why Chrome OS is getting some traction. It's lightweight and fast. But it will be a *very* long time before it will be suitable for your purposes. The cloud is a fine place to offload some stuff (security and privacy issues aside) but until we have infinite bandwidth, storage and memory, it will not suffice

Actually, Sextus, the BSOD looks different. You now get a frowny face.

I guess that alone justifies the upgrade price.

Myiq: XP remains fine (preferable, in fact) for smaller computers.
Syborg: I agree with much of what you have said, with one proviso: Trust not the cloud.

I really do not want to be in a position where I lose access to my data if I can't pay the damn internet bill.

Besides -- although we all know that the NSA has its ways and can sneak into just about every corner of the digital world, why make things EASY on 'em?

I like a computer that never talks to the internet unless absolutely necessary. Which is another aspect of W8 that I'm going to look at very carefully.
I will not use that piece of trash.
I have no idea what you're talking about, but your wardrobe vs electronics reminds me of an old Cathy cartoon back in the punk era, where her niece spent $1.75 on her outfit at Good Will...but a ton on the stereo equipment to play her punk rock music collection. Just curious, have you seen this latest mutant?
Wonderful. You sound like a true Baudrillardian now. When they were putting in a traffic light here that no one wanted, they had a huge caterpillar steam shovel thing digging. It's clayey soil in MO you know. (rhymes!) So I am drinking my senior almost free coffee with unlimited refills at McD's and I look out the window and there's a guy with a shovel shoveling out the clayey soil from the treads of the multi-million dollar caterpillar thing. And he shovels a long long time. Well I can't stop laughing and I have no camera to put it on youtube, so I'm crying about that.

But this is Baudrillard. You're almost there darling. Tech to the nth degree will implode.

So we must implode global capitalism. This is what Eric Packer does in Cosmopolis. And all the academics and reviewers of the book call him a self-destructive loser instead of a visionary intellectual terrorist!
If you want me to buy clothes for you just say so. I go to the 25 cents store up 60 towards Springfield and shop there.

Just give me your size and I will buy you a wardrobe of about 20 things for 5.00.

I am not kidding.

Shoes too BTW.

Orders, orders, gimme your orders.
I run my entire website using Wordpress. Doing so makes me wish I'd made the switch from the unholy union of Blogger updating and static HTML years ago. The big advantage of Wordpress is that once you have your PHP and CSS templates whipped into shape for your site, you can pretty much set it and forget it.
Remember the light pen? They sucked as interface devices because of the huge arm motions needed to get the cursor going.

I use a trackball on all my various computers. I can sweep the screen by moving my thumb about .25". No way in hell I'm gonna trade that for a touchscreen.

Win7 has some significant advantages, mostly in the home network arena, over XP, though I'm still XP
Windows XP here too. Not likely to change unless they cease to support it (which is likely, before too long I guess).

I've only ever used Win ME and XP and some very early DOS-type program, at work in the UK, back when computers ran on steam. :-)
Win 7 is superior to XP in just about every way imaginable (aside from possibly the interface, but that is really not much different either and only takes a very short time to adjust to...well for me anyway). It is far more stable, fast, and intuitive than XP, and I say this as someone who only stopped using XP a couple months ago. Anyway, in my experience the difference between XP and 7 is very much like the difference between WinME and XP.

As to Windows 8, I already hate it and I've only seen the demo videos. What a stupid, stupid idea. Getting a Mac is starting to sound appealing, though I suspect Apple will have something equally stupid (but more elegantly stupid, of course) waiting in the wings. My main issue with Macs is that you pay twice as much for half the machine you can get with a Windows box, and that they are wonderful.....until you try to do something Apple doesn't want you to do. Which is a lot, in my experience. Also, I despise ITunes and will never use it, so I guess Mac's are out for me.

Anyway, I think you pretty much nailed it on Windows 8 Joseph I think that operating systems CAN still be improved and innovated on, but this is not the way.
Can't you post to your blog using email?

Several years ago when I thought of doing a blog, I had to spend a few hours working out how - I think header hacking was required - but it was possible.

All of the developments you comment on share a single theme. It's the same as the world's office workers getting their words squiggly-underlined by Microsoft as soon as they type them.

Increasing passivity, sold as being free, active and modern.

Call it schizo. Call it the West.

They can shove the fuckin' lot of it!

Facebookers are morons. It's tempting to say they deserve whatever they get. But even I'm not that emotionally hard.

Talk about the psychopathology of everyday life! Freud's work on that subject was pathetically superficial. Reich's was better but didn't get to the root of stuff. Debord was good but didn't follow up.

We're about 40 years late for getting moving on that aspect of critique.

One interesting question is how will 'passivity sold as freedom' develop as freedom itself gets eroded to shit.

More schizo...ever more schizo... That's how.
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