Why is Microsoft still struggling with computer interfaces in the 21st Century?
I read it took a user 5 steps to figure out how to print using Windows 8 on a desktop computer. Four steps were guesses, only to find it was ctrl-p, after all.
I see it all the time in iOS apps too, especially in apps from those who’s first introduction to the computer interface was MS-DOS; which used a command-line interface to launch programs, and required a modicum of knowledge of Microsoft’s home-brewed command structure and file naming conventions. I went through it too, with the Apple ][, but the difference was, once I got passed the DOS prompt, everything was better!
Compared to WordPerfect's clean but inelegant interface, WordScribe for the ][e "looked" like you were typing on paper and WYSIWYG was born. Fonts were being rendered by the graphics chips in the 68k Motorola technology that powered my Apple ][. I was self-publishing in 1983 and in 1987, when I finally switched to the Mac for good, the transition was absolutely painless and what was really sweet is that, some of my later Apple ][ software could run in emulation on my Mac.
The Apple ][e routines were embedded in the Read-Only-Memory (ROM) chips of the Macintosh and because they couldn't be non-destructively reverse-engineered, that was considered hardware "DRM" in those days, giving Macintosh a distinct advantage over Compaqs chosen way to share IBMs intellectual property with the world by giving it the IBM-Compatible Standard, subjecting the world to Microsoft's brand of computer interaction.
Microsoft’s interface for the computer has become so utterly complex it might be rejected outright by the market, like Windows Me and Vista was, if this latest interface isn’t solid gold compared to Windows 7.
Never mind about how incredibly polished OS X has become, Microsoft is once again competing with itself, which is what they do over there in Redmond; they are always competing with their next product, and why not? they’re not hardware guys, they’re software guys and therein lies a subtle difference in the genius of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; Jobs had the courage to put all his skin in the game by making both the computer and the software to run it. Gates couldn’t see beyond the Command-line interface because he was fascinated by OPNSEZME.bat and the creative ways you could make directories restricted to the use of 8 ascii characters.
Imagine if Bill Gates had collaborated with IBM instead of competing with them and delivered the world’s first desktop computer? We might have been lightyears ahead of where we are today, who knows! I know that the IBM PS2-Series was about as Mac-like as anything, with Plug & Play too. If only Bill Gates hadn’t been so shortsighted, because I believe IBM would have had the best scientists working to meld Gates’s OS with IBMs penchant for clean design and with money to burn, could have prevented the granulation of the PC platform and the Market’s unwavering desire to disclose the promise of bigger, better, faster next year as a marketing gimmick to unload last year’s crap.
So it will be Steve Jobs, IMHO, who will be forever remembered as the man who changed the way we interact with computers. Aesthetics and slick marketing aside, he did more to change the way we harness the power of machines by providing unique but logical ways to make our computer work as an extension of our office reality; like wadding up paper and dropping it into the waste basket at the corner of our desk. The right-hand corner for Righties, naturally.
Xerox’s skunkworks gave birth to the Desktop metaphor and the Mouse but the magic of it all was that we the people were empowered by Steve Jobs to move the Trash can where ever we wanted it back in 1984! More than that though, he did the same for photos, music, and video. Apple’s interfaces are extremely popular because they work. It’s that simple.
Also, I believe Mac users learn early on about the importance of proper file management because from the very beginning Apple users were introduced to the concept of Folders and the “sheets” of paper that went in them, and quickly noted they would always be where they left them last.
Windows users on the other hand, were being left to their own devices. It got so out of control that, American business took on the ever-expanding cost center in Information Technology, so that every CEO could reinvent what Apple Computer, Inc was already famous for, easy access to your own data centers. IT has become the elephant in the room for Microsoft and sits around the board rooms of America chewing through resources like Kirsty Alley through a box of Ho-Ho’s!
But let’s be clear, all this talk about pairing down IT infrastructure in the coming years could be put on hold indefinitely if Microsoft continues to falter and Ballmer gets thrown out. There will be a chaotic restructuring in not just Microsoft, but in every company who has employees bearing greater allegiance to Microsoft than the very company they work for.
In IT we have an interface between Bill Gates and the rest of the world. They are the priests who read the scriptures, drink kool-aid, and share their visions with their employer.
For Windows, Bill Gates was the public icon of computerdom but became the joke of late night comedy and a source of inspiration in Nineties for what not to do with computer interfaces, ribbons, menus, and legacy ports.
Unlike Gates, Steve Jobs was a muse for engineers like Wozniak and Serlet. He himself was an interface between artists and nerds and together they created not only the first commercially successful computer but, unlocked the ability to make the computer your bitch.
Steve Jobs was a wizard at subsuming complex command structures and wrapping them up with a bow. He absolutely flourished after leaving Apple and joining up with Avi Tevanian, the Unix genius who transformed Apple into the juggernaut it is today with NeXTStep.
Take a twenty-five-year proven product like Unix and apply the Human Interface Guidelines with a just a skosh of eye-candy and I give you the Tree of Knowledge.
I remember how long it took for the Drag & Drop meme to finally become second-nature for Windows users. Bill Gates just couldn’t grasp the desktop metaphor; what can I say, he’s a product of the command-line interface, and unlike Scott Jenson, who pioneered Mac OS System 7, building the Mac’s interface from the machine-level up, but he also worked on the Newton team to extend the desktop to the mobile space.
Programming the GUI from the outset, using a machine-level language gave Apple a distinct advantage that would pay off handsomely years later. It wasn’t until Gates finally brought in Ray Ozzie and many other smart “interface” people to at least establish universal guidelines for the Windows community.
Microsoft wrapped MS-DOS in a Shell ( like Wine,VMs et. al., for Macintosh) as a transitional measure while they struggled to reverse-engineer all the machine-level calls from the System in Mac OS.
MS-DOS authors/programmers struggled with the desktop metaphor causing ripples of confusion in the market that is apparently still a WIP. The reality of it was, Microsoft was forced to get something out there “just as good” and quickly. Microsoft set the standard for the PC interface guidelines and IMO, their biggest challenge has been to get out of their own way.
Apple, on the other hand, has a university devoted to this topic and myriad ways humans and machines interact. The touch interface is still in its infancy and there is the hope that Microsoft at least built a strong foundation on which their very existence depends if this latest version of human-interface design blows up in Steve Ballmer’s face.
nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.