A Mac user of more than two decades, Lukas Mathis, the Swiss-based programmer, UI designer and author of Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web, found himself in an interesting place a while ago. He wasn't so pleased with Apple's iPad solution and decided to try out the Windows alternative, a Microsoft Surface Pro 2. Horrors! He likes it.
Mathis recently wrote a very long and thoughtful piece on his Ignore the Code blog, about his experience (and rationale) as well as criticism of the iPad, especially for "productivity" applications.
Apple has decided to make the iPad as simple as possible, but sometimes, this simplicity comes at the expense of power. Not having any kind of window management or split-screen view makes the iPad much easier to use, but it also means you can’t look at an email and at a Pages document at the same time. Preventing apps from interacting with each other cuts down on complexity, but it also means that it is difficult or sometimes even impossible to use multiple apps in conjunction on the same task. Not having any kind of system-level concept of a file or a document means that people are less likely to lose track of their files or documents, but it also means that you are often very limited in what you can do with the things you create in an iPad app.
I get Mathis' point. When developing its mobile computing strategy, Apple decided to bifurcate its platforms: there's the MacBook mobile desktop series and the iPad. Two distinct hardware platforms and two software platforms, which are joined by a growing set of UI gestures, some crossover software titles, and Apple's XCode IDE, which lets coders leverage a single codebase to make the two kinds of programs.
So, the fundamental tradeoff with a laptop is that it's not as powerful and expandable as a desktop machine. The tradeoff with the tablet is that it's small, super-portable and great for collaboration, but not as powerful and useable as the laptop. Of course, programmers can make compelling products for both platforms but there are always tradeoffs. (I wrote about this in a post about possible Apple ultralights ages ago.)
What Mathis really wanted was a machine in the middle. Certainly, that middle ground isn't Apple's strategy! It appears that he found it — somewhat — with Microsoft's Surface Pro 2.
Mathis said he loves Metro and its pen for input (it's as good as his Wacom Cintiq, he says). He appreciated Metro's easy way to group apps according to user preferences and personal workflow. And he's up on live preview.
Almost everything that happens inside the Metro environment is fantastic. It’s clean, fast, and powerful. The apps are easy to use, but still offer a lot. The gesture-based user interface requires you to learn a few new things, but takes very little time to get used to.
And Mathis likes Metro's split-screen mode.
iPad owners often note that the iPad’s «one app owns the screen» system is a good idea, since people can’t multitask anyway. But that ignores that people often need multiple apps to work on a single task. I can’t count the instances where I’ve used split screen mode just in the last few days. I’m in a meeting, taking notes in OneNote while looking at last week’s meeting notes. I’m responding to an email while looking at a spec. I’m making a drawing while looking at a reference. I’m changing a mockup based on feedback in an email. I’m taking notes during a Skype call.
However, Metro as a desktop interface is not as elegant, he says. While he's glad to have its capabilities at the ready, Mathis questions a number of its usability issues.
A bigger issue is Metro’s split screen mode. This works great on a widescreen tablet, where it seems to cover most use cases (at least in my subjective experience). On a desktop PC with a larger screen, more proficient users might want to have more power than that. There’s also no concept of multiple desktops, which would make a lot of sense in combination with split screen windows.
I think this is a solvable problem, though. Split-screen mode is a first step in the right direction, and there’s nothing preventing Microsoft from expanding on that concept for devices with larger screens.
I was very interested to read that Mathis, a UI designer who understands the Mac, didn't think that "Microsoft’s idea of having a single system that works on desktops and tablets is inherently flawed." He thought it was a good idea!
There's a lot of contention in the Mac community over the migration of UI paradigms and programming architectures from iOS to the Mac. The recent release of Mavericks and crippled iWork '13 applications was worrisome and provided further evidence of a grand strategy at Cupertino to merge the two platforms.
What brought a smile to my face was Mathis' description of the typical Windows user and the reaction by Windows longtime Windows users to Windows 8 and his commentary. Here's a Mac guy saying Windows 8 is good for the general user — heresy to Macphiles. However, Mathis predicted that Windows fans will say that he just doesn't understand the genius of Windows.
I think that’s the problem with Windows. There are people who enjoy tinkering with their BIOS, playing around in DOS, and installing bootloaders. And that’s fine. I think it’s even great. I think everybody should have the freedom to install whichever bootloader they want. The problem comes up when these people see something like Metro, do not like what they see, and then tell everybody else how terrible it is. When it’s really not terrible; it’s just not for them.
The things I love about Windows 8 are exactly the things that the most vocal Windows users hate, and the things I hate about Windows 8 are the things they love. So maybe the problem with Windows 8 is that Windows 8 appeals much more to me, a Mac user of 20 years, than to your typical Slashdot-commenting Ars-Technica-reading Windows user who frequents online forums to talk about Windows. And because these people are the most vocal Windows users, and because they tell their friends which versions of Windows to like and which to avoid, that has real effects on Microsoft’s success with Windows 8.
Of course, this is just what a Mac guy would say. This new mobile Windows platform and interface is a bit more like a Mac, perhaps? Or really, not so much. It's something in the middle.