Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Windows 8 and Unity: 3 Lessons for Microsoft

The news that the upcoming Windows Blue update may restore some functionality altered in Windows 8 has reignited the debate over the paradigm shift that Microsoft attempted to foster upon it's users. With Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) trying, briefly, to jump on this bandwagon with it's initial slogan for 12.10, 'Escape the pain of Windows 8', I decided to use Windows 8 for a while to try and get a handle on how it compares to Unity, the default desktop in Ubuntu.

And truth be told, there are far more commonalities between the two paradigm shifts then you might first think.

I would like to make clear, however, that I feel that Unity has come on in leaps and bounds since it's introduction, it is now my preferred desktop and I feel that it, for me at least, is genuinely pushing the boundaries of computing and user interface and is undoubtedly a worthwhile and valuable addition to the likes of GNOME, KDE, LXDE and other desktop environments.

But the underlying shift has much in common with the fuss over Windows 8. In both cases the user community kicked up a massive fuss over a fairly major change in the user-interface. In both cases the traditional menu hierarchy was replaced by a search-driven and keyboard driven paradigm. And finally, both cases were marked with a reluctance to allow the user to easily access options in reverting back to the previous interface.

With the continued evolution of Unity, it's easy to forget just how jarring the shift away from Gnome2 really was. The Dash was an initially very clumsy and slow attempt to rework the simple and elegant menu interface, there was very little customisation options available and the Gnome2 fallback mode was quickly dropped after a single release cycle.

So is the fierce reaction to Windows 8 simply the natural result of trying to advance the computing experience by forcibly shifting the interface paradigm? Is this genuinely a cross-platform process of grumpy users resisting change?

I don't think so. While some users will always resist change, and not all change is always for the better, there are reasons below which explain, in my opinion, why Canonical have managed the transition far better than Microsoft have done so far.

1. Official alternatives are provided through first-party channels.

While there are workarounds for both Unity and Windows 8 changes, by 'tweak' applications/scripts and add-ons/replacement menus respectively, Canonical have continued to support alternative desktops in an official capacity. KDE, LXDE and others are available through the official repositories and support forums for them are available on the central Ubuntu website and support channels.

While this may be a knock-on effect of the modular nature of GNU/Linux, it does show a far more open attitude than Microsoft. Unity is Canonical's big push for platform convergence, just as Windows 8 is for Microsoft, and some customisations options are seemingly limited to help meet that goal. But Unity is not locked into Ubuntu, it is only the default desktop, and unlike the replacement menus and tweak applications for Windows 8, these alternative desktops are officially supported and maintained.

2. The Dash does not represent a hybrid UI model

While there are some glaring similarities with the Metro launcher, Unity has managed to gracefully transition to an internally consistent UI model, even if it's not to some users liking.

Both the Dash and the new Start Screen do represent breaks with the old hierarchy menu system and usher in a new keyboard/search driven interface. The big difference is however that the Start Screen is the lynchpin holding two clearly distinct UI models together, the traditional Windowed Application model and the new 'Metro' or Modern UI applications which run only in full-screen mode and have their own distinct UI conventions.

While I don't find the Start Menu nearly as powerful or flexible as the Dash, I don't instinctively feel that switching to a search-driven interface was Microsoft's major misstep. Rather, it was the melding of dual paradigms that makes using Windows 8 so incoherent, including a frankly ludicrous situation of having two distinct Internet Explorer instances on the same system.

Canonical have managed this far better. While Gnome2 era and Unity era interfaces are distinct in a host of different ways (not only the Dash, but window button placement, side-launcher instead of bottom panel, etc) the new Unity interface is internally consistent. There is no jarring moments where the old Gnome2 peeks out from underneath Unity and the user is not forced to navigate between the old and new.

3. Settings and options changes consolidate rather than divide

Both Windows 8 and Unity have altered and/or reduced a great deal options and customisation. But it's striking just how different these processes are. From the old Gnome2 model of having settings scattered over various places and a number of different settings apps for different functions, Unity now has a single 'Settings' panel linked to a number of screens where a great deal of options are now consolidated.

Windows 8 however has seemingly gone in the opposite direction. While there is some justification in the stated reasoning that they are trying to bring often-used functionality to the fore while hiding away infrequently needed options, it is precisely the wrong thing to do when trying to usher in a brand-new paradigm.

Settings are split between various panels, the new Charms bar all but hides away options that they are allegedly trying to highlight. Again, Metro or Modern UI applications and traditional applications use different conventions for their settings and functionality.


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