A few months back I wrote a post after being really annoyed by Windows 8.
The user interface was really impressive to look at, better than anything else on the market. There was just one little problem, working out how to use Windows 8 is completely unintuitive for existing Windows users. The start button is gone, the desktop is hidden and working out how to shut the machine down took a call to a Microsoft VP.
Well Microsoft seems to be listening to the complaints, and no, I was not the only person who found the design decisions unacceptable. Steven Sinofsky, the controversial head of the Windows team has left Microsoft. That is no guarantee that a change is coming but Windows 8 could be the greatest Operating System Microsoft has ever delivered if only they would ditch the ideology and make a product their existing fans can use without tearing their hair out.
Delivering the cool Metro interface and making it intuitive for existing users could be Microsoft’s chance to move ahead of Apple in the Operating System stakes for the first time since the Sculley era. But not necessarily, Apple also made a major management change recently as Scott Forstall was ousted and Jony Ive took sole control of the ‘design’ portfolio.
After Jobs, Forstall was the primary proponent of skeuomorphic design, the practice of making computer interfaces mimic their analog counterparts. And maybe not coincidentally, I wrote about skeuomorphic design being an irritating design tick shortly after the piece on Windows 8.
Skeuomorphic design is the reason that the bookreader on OSX and iOS is covered in fake looking wood and the reason other parts of the user interface are covered in fake looking leather. It looks fake because it is fake, it is a picture, not the real thing. My Macbook Pro is machined by robots from solid slabs of aluminium metal. Why spoil that with tacky fake wood and leather?
Another irritation with the skeuomorphic approach is that it quickly looks dated as the analog counterparts become obsolete. We don’t use floppy disks any more and only luddites still use a Rolodex or an appointments diary.
Reportedly Ives is not a fan of skeuomorphism and a move away from that approach seems likely. So Microsoft seems set to make a step towards Apple in usability and Apple seems set to take a step towards Microsoft in simplicity. Which may both be a win for users.