Backwards Compatible: Windows 8 fails to answer Apple’s simplicity challenge

Will Podlewski, Columnist

If you’ve read Backwards Compatible before, you’re probably familiar with my opinion of Apple — its substandard technology, lousy business practices, questionable ethics and borderline-cultish following. But there is one thing Apple does better than any hardware or software company out on the market today: make technology accessible. Apple prides itself, and rightly so, on intuitive user interfaces, an undeniably brilliant hardware design philosophy and, above all else, a commitment to ease of use. It’s why the iPad mini is going to cost so much compared to its competition: The price comes from user-end simplicity, not just circuit boards and aluminum.

It’s also why it’s so hard to watch Microsoft fail so miserably in trying to turn its brand-new Windows 8 into the next iOS, but you really can’t blame the company for trying.

Fully released less than a week ago, Microsoft’s new OS is less a complete makeover and more an attempt to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place. Windows 8 does little more than throw some flashy colors and slick menus on top of the Windows 7 framework, which didn’t really have much wrong with it to begin with. The results hamper the man-machine interface rather than facilitating it.

Windows 8 is broken up into two primary components: the traditional desktop and the Metro user interface. The desktop itself is nothing all that different from Windows 7, except for some tweaks under the hood, including a much-appreciated speed boost (we’re talking rocket strapped to cheetah fast). The real problem comes in with the Metro interface layered on top of the desktop experience.

Adopting a design philosophy that is something of a cross between Windows Phone Live Tiles and the Xbox 360 interface, the Windows 8’s Metro interface wants for nothing in the flash department, with colorful boxes displaying information the user can completely customize. Unfortunately, there’s little substance to back that up. There are boxes for email and social media notifications, linking Xbox Live accounts and launching apps, to be sure, but nothing much deeper. The Metro interface apparently exists solely to provide a superficial computing experience — to distill the traditionally difficult-to-breach Windows OS into something with mass-market consumer appeal. I could see how this kind of interface would be ideal for tablets and touchscreens, and it certainly already works well with the Windows Phone’s similar experience. But with a mouse and keyboard in the mix, it just ends up being awkward.

Windows 8 was an ambitious experiment, but if Microsoft truly wanted to compete with Apple it should have built something new from the ground up. Microsoft didn’t supply enough to justify the cost of an upgrade, and though the Metro looks nice, it’s optimized more for tablets and phones than for a desktop experience. Microsoft took risks, but not the right ones.