What it is: User interfaces must be optimized for the device because one user interface can never be optimal for all types of interaction.
Microsoft has a delusional fantasy that Windows can be put everywhere. When the Windows desktop interface with a Start menu became the dominant user interface for personal computers, Microsoft tried duplicating that same Start menu interface to Windows CE (which evolved into Windows Mobile) on handheld computers and later on smartphones. This required using a stylus, which was easy to lose, making the entire user interface clumsier on a handheld device.
When Microsoft developed the tile interface for Windows Phone, they next tried to port that tile interface to Windows 8. While the tile interface worked on a touch screen, it didn’t work as well on a PC controlled by a keyboard and a mouse. To scroll tiles left and right, you had to scroll the mouse wheel up and down. If your computer had a touch screen, you could reach out and slide the tiles left and right, but constantly lifting your arm to touch a screen a distance away from you wasn’t as optimal as using a touch screen near your hand like a smartphone. The end result was that Windows 8’s tile user interface failed on PCs and Windows 95’s Start menu user interface was never optimal for handheld computers.
Not to be deterred by failure, Microsoft continues to push their Windows Everywhere campaign by creating multiple, incompatible operating systems and calling it Windows. From Windows CE, Windows Mobile, Windows RT, Windows Phone, and Windows 10 S, Microsoft keeps trying to put the same user interface everywhere. Right now, Windows 10 has been modified as a desktop operating system to work as a tablet operating system. It works, but it’s not optimal for tablet use.
The idea of forcing a single user interface on all devices is doomed to failure simply because user interfaces are best optimized for a specific purpose. In the early days of automobiles, steering involved using a tiller, which was similar to what people sued to steer boats. Now imagine forcing the tiller user interface on boats, cars, airplanes, space shuttles, and rocket ships. Would the tiller be optimal under all circumstances?
Obviously the answer is no, but that’s exactly the type of thinking that drives Microsoft to keep pushing the Windows Everywhere idea on to all types of devices. Most people don’t buy Surface Pro devices because they want a laptop and a tablet. They buy the Surface Pro because it’s a great ultraportable laptop computer that just happens to work as a tablet if you want. Yet it’s not optimized for tablet use so most people don’t buy Surface Pro devices because they want a tablet first and a laptop second. They buy Surface Pro devices because they want a laptop first and a tablet second.
Trying to force the same user interface on all devices makes no sense, and trying to cram the same operating system into all devices makes equally less sense. Imagine trying to control your toaster or microwave oven using a tiller. How about aiming a howitzer or dialing a phone using a tiller? If taking the familiar user interface of a tiller from boats and putting it in cars didn’t work, why would a company like Microsoft insist that Windows Everywhere is a valid strategy?
The fact is that Windows works fine for its intended purpose, which is a desktop operating system. Creating multiple, incompatible operating systems and slapping the name “Windows” on it simply confuses people and serves no purpose. People expect the name “Windows” to mean they can run their favorite Windows programs on the device, which proved impossible on Windows RT devices and isn’t supported by the new Windows 10 S operating system designed to compete against ChromeOS and Chromebooks.
Microsoft is trying to get Windows 10 to compete against the following:
- Linux, ChromeOS, and macOS in the desktop market
- Android and iOS in the smartphone and tablet market
It’s impossible to serve two different goals and succeed on both of them simultaneously. Mobile operating systems need to be easy to use and trade off power for ease of use. Desktop operating systems can afford to offer more power in exchange for greater complexity. How do you make something easy to use and powerful? You can’t because there will always be trade offs.
The next time you think Windows Everywhere is a valid strategy, try using a tiller to control your PC instead of using a mouse. That experience should tell you how useful a single user interface can be for everything.