Old Machintosh computer

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I have just returned from three months paternity leave (yes, here in Sweden dads can take as much leave as mums—up to 18 months), and I must say that in addition to enjoying time with my kids it has been quite refreshing to experience IT “out of business”.

Have you stopped to think about whom it is that is expressing opinions and writing reviews about new hardware and software? It is an IT journalist and or an IT professional? How much credit would you give to a young F1 driver’s opinion about the suitability of the new Ford Mondeo as a family car? Probably not a lot. Rather than reading IT press, the last few months I have seen how the iPad and Windows 8 devices work in the hands of my kids, their cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. This made me feel like I was back in the early 90-ies—Windows 8 vs. iPad feels just like the good old PC vs. Mac debate. Although the roles are reversed (i.e. where PCs dominated over Macs, iPad now dominate the tablet market), the core difference is exactly the same as it was then.

Old personal computer and Macintosh

It is about flexibility vs. simplicity—do you design for flexibility first, and then attempt to make it simple? Or do you design for simplicity and then open up some flexibility? The Windows folks at Microsoft have, for as long as Windows has been around, designed for flexibility—there is always a way for to add, extend, override things. And as much as Windows 8 is an attempt to build something more fixed and thus simple, there is flexibility in their genes and the result is accordingly. Apple folks on the other hand have spent decades defending why you only need one button on a mouse.

The issue is not about the widely discussed (in IT press) missing start button, nor the fact that Windows RT throws tablet users into desktop mode every now and then. These are both things that can, and probably will, be addressed in future releases. The issue is with much more basic behaviors. Let’s just take a couple of examples:

  • On the iPad you switch to another app by pressing the Home button and then selecting the app you want. On Windows 8 you can do the same. Or you swipe from left edge. Or you press Start key toggle. Or you press alt-tab to show a list of all open windows. Or you swipe-release from left edge to show a list of apps only, excluding desktop apps.
  • On the iPad each app runs one at a time, covering the full screen. On Windows 8 you do this, or you can do split screen to run two apps. Or you download an app that allows you to split the screen into 6 or 8 rectangles. Or…

The list could go on forever. My point is that flexibility is always in contrast to simplicity. Not necessarily to usability though, as an interested and skilled user can use flexibility to be more productive. However to regular folks without any particular IT interest flexibility means more choices and each choice a user has to make increases complexity and makes the learning curve longer. This is why it’s easier to order coffee in McDonalds than Starbucks.

With this insight I will make three, perhaps not too bold, predictions:

  • Windows 8 will win over the portion of the consumer base that have a keen interest in computers.
  • Windows 8, or more likely its successors, will retain the vast majority of enterprise users currently running Windows as the IT folks reassert themselves and take back some control from business users.
  • Windows 8 / RT consumer tablets will be a nice or “fan” market in a world dominated by others, much like the Mac was in the world of PCs.

Actually, there is a fourth prediction. I will fight an eternal battle with my engineering brain, constantly reminding myself that every time I am thinking “oh, we could do this…” and “another good way to…” I am in serious danger of increasing complexity our own products.

If you need any more proof – during our week in a ski-lodge my two kids (aged one and three) and their cousins (aged one and four) were all fighting over who should use grandmas iPad, leaving my Dell XPS12 Windows 8 ultrabook/tablet combo sat idle waiting for some other IT nerd to be amazed by it.

 

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