Windows 8: a throwback to 98?

May 13, 2013

Erik Christiansen

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Microsoft has been taking a beating in blog world lately. No matter how the company attempts to shine light on the benefits of their new operating system, tech journalists are not convinced Windows 8 is a worthy successor to its predecessor. Despite the obvious lack of a “Start” button (which has been replaced by the “Start” screen) there is something strangely familiar about Windows 8.

I used the OS extensively prior to, and following, its release - using both multi-touch displays and a mouse and keyboard. I can say without a doubt, having a touchscreen substantially improves the experience (even on a desktop), at least as far as discoverability is concerned. Switching between the Start screen and the desktop is as easy as tapping the Windows key (yes, that’s still there). But, oddities such as the charms on the right-hand side are better uncovered with a finger swipe gesture, rather than utilizing the mouse cursor. When navigating the desktop, touch becomes unnecessary since targets and buttons are impractically small. For that you need the tip of an arrow.

Having no interest in rehashing the problematic design implementations of the new OS, I would like to draw attention to its aesthetic, and make some comments about interface design more generally.

Take a gander at Windows 7…

Windows 7 desktop.

Doesn’t it look very Apple-like? Gradients, round corners, 3D buttons, transparent menus. All of this screams Aqua (Mac OSX’s user interface codename).

Microsoft made a big splash in the mobile market with the release of Windows Phone 7 and, subsequently, Windows Phone 8. Thankfully, it replaced the ungodly Windows Mobile platform (something I haven’t used since my short lived HP iPAQ). The tile interface, flat design, and elegant animations make it a very appealing mobile OS. While one could argue that Microsoft had no choice but to create something unique in order to distinguish itself from its primary competitor, Apple (even if simply to avoid a potential lawsuit), what they’ve accomplished in the mobile arena is truly innovative. Rather than create another Windows-like experience, they opted to take their fledgling OS into uncharted territory. The response from users has been very positive (except for the lack of applications). However, applying this design treatment to Windows proper hasn’t resulted in the same level of enthusiasm.

Most people recognize that Windows 8’s desktop closely resembles its predecessor.

Windows 8 desktop.

The only appreciable difference (sans the omission of the Start button) is the flatter design. Back/forward buttons are flat, solid colors have replaced translucent effects, and windows no longer cast shadows. The flat design seems to be in. The only remaining artifacts are the skeuomorphic icons, such as the recycle bin, the explore menu, my computer etc.

The other day, while I was editing a document in Word, I realized something. I’ve seen this design before. “This looks like Windows 98!,” I said to myself. Unfortunately, nobody was there to witness this epiphany.

Windows 98 desktop.

Ok, it’s not exactly the same. However, solid colors dominate windows, and there are no shadows cast by the windows. The overarching impression of the OS is much more muted. It’s as if the distracting animations and shiny edges were deliberately omitted to facilitate work.

So why would Microsoft take a relatively flat design approach, and go to the trouble of adding gradients and transparencies, only to throw it all away in the next release?

Simple. Software design is not unlike the fashion industry. What’s ‘in’ today might not be ‘in’ tomorrow. Think back to the software you used in the early 2000s. Have any of those design implementations remained untouched during the past decade? Probably not. I think it’s very possible that in ten years we will look back and say, “how did we ever live with that flat design?”

In a way, I feel bad for Microsoft. Regardless of the obvious faults with Windows 8, there are lots of things to like. We criticize them when they change things around on us, and we criticize them for being too safe. Conversely, major design changes made by Apple (though often highly criticized by the press) are welcomed with open arms by Apple users. People trust Apple to make the right decision for them, but they don’t trust Microsoft. Perhaps this is the byproduct of enjoying twenty years of outrageous success, while holding a firm monopoly over the entire computer industry.

Do you have thought’s on Windows 8 or the metro-style design?