Desktop UI part 1: Windows or the meteor storm

I’m currently running a Linux distribution and using KDE desktop, and it has been a long time since I did not use Windows. But I have to acknowledge that the designers at Microsoft have done a good job.

I have been using Windows since 3.1, and stopped with XP although I still used Vista and 7 sometimes. I successively used 95, 98, 98 SE, 2000 and XP so I can say that I followed a large part of the evolution of Windows, and I can say that they evolved in the correct way.

The first meteor storm

The Apple II was the first personnal computer

In the early days of computing,only big mainframes existed. They were first programmed using cards, but after that, the keyboard comes, and piloting mainframes were done with command lines. The keyboard was the first device that allow interaction between the user and a personnal computer. Many programs that were shipped with the first generation of personnal computers were then optimized for the keyborad.

These programs were either just using command lines, or was providing some interfaces, featuring menus, categories, that were using keyboard directional arrows to manage navigation. The ancestor of Windows, DOS, was also command-line based, and it worked quite well.

But new devices were made. The mouse came, and allowed users to select points on a screen. From now, instead of giving orders to the computer using commands, but command lines applications were providing limited number of information. The feedback is very limited, so we can call that a one-way communication.With the mouse, users were able to select things on the screen. The computer was, then, able to communicate with the user as well, giving to it some elements to select, or to interact with. The feedback is way more important than in command lines programs, so we can say that it is a two-ways communication, with orders given to the machine, and important feedbacks from the machine.

While the desktop as we know was actually invented by Xerox, we can say that Windows brought it to the end user. Instead of betting on DOS, Microsoft decided to bring Xerox prototypes to life, and give users interactive displays, with folders, icons, windows etc. And all these componts were making a good usage of the mouse, and allowed better interactions between the computer and the user easier.

As we know, Windows quickly became the dominant OS used in the world. It is what I call a “meteor storm”. While bringing this modern desktop-like interface, Microsoft caused a huge cataclysm in the world of computer UI. It was as if a huge meteor crashed in this world and exeterminated all the command-line dinosaurs, and only desktop UI survived. OS like Unix might have survived as well, but do not get the momentum they had before.

The evolution of the Homo Sapiens of the desktop

UI wise, Windows 3.1 was not that great, but it laid down the idea of interaction between the program and the user. I remembered the “Solitaire” game. While I have played several DOS games, including Pac man, the solitaire gave me more feedback while interacting. The little mouse arrow was really picking cards, as if I was picking them, while on Pac man, there were no immediate feedback. Pressing arrows to guide the pac man was not that natural.

Windows known how to evolve. From 3.1 to 98, they introduced a better set of components, created buttons that were designed to be big enough to be easily clickable, but not too big in order not to waste the space on the screen. They also improved the menus and imported the idea of tasks.

Microsoft also designed nice API to access these components so all programs made by developers could exploit these components that can take advantage of the mouse. It helped a lot of developers to write beautiful programs that were also easy to use.

More recently, other nice components were introduced, like the ribbon that is designed to get rid of those huge menus or toolbars, and aggregates tools and menu entries in an efficient way. The ribbon is a very interesting component since it was the result of an evolution process. Buttons, labels and windows were already nearly perfect and there is no much room of enhancement, but in some programs, many menus and toolbars were very long and tedious to use. Microsoft addressed this problem and bring these ribbons that takes less space, while presenting tools in a better way. This compoennt is simply the evolution of menu and toolbars, a new tools container, that is just more efficient.

With Windows 7 I don’t see what can seriously be improved. Windows 7 can be used in both huge screens and netbooks, and nearly all the graphical components are optimized. They do not take too much space while being easily clickable and they provide nice feedbacks (the Vista / seven progressbar is, for example, very nice, because of the motion provided, showing that the operation is ongoing, and differenciating from a task that is not being done). Maybe completely dumping menus and toolbars and replacing everything with the ribbon ? Or improving context menus ? Or maybe removing all the inconsistencies and get rid of legacy code ?

We can say that Windows 7 can be considered to be the homo sapiens of desktop UI. With the 15 years of evolution, it became a very intuitive desktop, where every graphical component have a sense and can be easily interacted with.

But during its evolution, another player came: Apple.

The second meteor storm

Some years ago, Windows was a solid player, but silently, another player was also trying to evolve and become the most dominant specie. Like mammals in the cretace era, Apple was hiding, but still developing new ways of interaction until 2010, where Steve Jobs launhed a second meteor storm, causing huge damages in desktop computers and laptops.

The iPhone was not a real treat agains MS, but when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, Microsoft felt more uncomfortable. Indeed, although practical, keyboards and mice are devices from the past. They are here for around 15 years, but the future is natural interaction, and a touchscreen, on which you can touch all the elements, interacting directly with them, is the most natural device.

Suddenly, Microsoft Windows became a dinosaur, something from the past, that can easily killed by a big touchscreen meteor. Tablet PC never became mainstream because Windows was never made touch friendy. Buttons were not big enough, font were too small etc.

But unlike dinosaurs, Microsoft have enough skills, capabilities and money to force the evolution. It already developed windows phone, with Metro, that became a successful task in bringing a touch-friendly microsoft interface. And it is now forcing the evolution of transforming all the computers into touch-friendly devices with Windows 8.

I don’t know the future of Windows is the so-called post PC era. But I think that Apple had the same effect than a meteor storm, creating a new space were many species of devices can evolve, and might clain the crown of the best specie in touchscreen devices.

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