February 19, 2014, 11:28 AM — Windows 8's modern interface didn't go over so well out of the gate. While there was a lot to like among all the Live Tiles and touch friendliness, usability experts panned many of the operating system's design choices, and power users felt abandoned at the altar of the interface formerly known as Metro.
But beyond bridging the gap between PC and tablet, Windows 8's sudden immersion in the modern UI may have had another purpose: Separating casual users from power users--a move that could actually preserve the best of Windows while making the OS more palatable to an increasingly dumbed-down computing public.
"Before Windows 8 and Metro came along, power users and casual users--the content creators and the content consumers--had to share the same space," Windows interface designer Jacob Miller wrote in a lengthy explanation on Reddit over the weekend. (A Microsoft spokesperson confirmed his employment.)
As such, any feature contending for inclusion had to be simple enough for the everyman, while simultaneously handy enough for power users. Miller claims numerous features failed to hit the right mix and fell by the wayside, most notably virtual desktops like the ones found in Linux and OS X.
All work, no play, and vice versa
Enter Windows 8. Yes, the modern UI is simple and better suited for content consumption than content creation--but Miller, who clarified he's speaking as an employee sharing his viewpoint rather than in an official capacity, claims that's the point.
"Our hands were bound, and our users were annoyed with their rented jackets. So what did we do? We separated the users into two groups. Casual and Power. We made two separate playgrounds for them. All the casual users would have their own new and shiny place to look at pictures of cats--Metro. The power users would then have free reign over their native domain--the desktop."
A month ago, Miller made similar comments, going so far as to say that "our main goal [in Windows 8] wasn't to support touch screens, it's to separate casual users from pro users." So if Windows 8 was designed to herd casual and power users into separate corners, why does the OS default to the simplistic modern UI?
"The short answer is because casual users don't go exploring. If we made desktop the default as it has always been, and included a nice little start menu that felt like home, the casual users would never have migrated to their land of milk and honey... So we forced it upon them. We drove them to it with goads in their sides."
That's a rough metaphor, but the point is clear, and according to Miller, it has a bright side. Now that casual users have been tossed into the Live Tiles deep end without a life vest--or "Now that the casual users are aware of their new pasture," as he puts it--he says Microsoft can start to tinker with the two sides of the coin: Making Metro better for casual users, and stuffing the desktop with power features that never would have made the cut before.
"Right now we still have a lot of work to do on making Metro seem tasty for those casual users, and that's going to divert our attention for a while. But once it's purring along smoothly, we'll start making the desktop more advanced. We'll add things that we couldn't before. Things will be faster, more advanced, and craftier than they have in the past --and that's why Metro is good for power users."
Peering into the future
If true, that could be enticing indeed. Windows 8.1 already started the migration, adding an optional boot-to-desktop feature along with numerous tweaks that improved the modern interface, such as more control settings, more flexible Snap functionality, Bing Smart Search, and much more. Microsoft's Metro apps are constantly adapting, as the company shifts away from monolithic development schedules to rapid-fire updates.
Leaked versions of the impending Windows 8.1 update 1 show even more improvements inbound. However, its new features--like showing modern apps on the desktop taskbar, or dynamically booting to either the desktop or the Start screen, depending on whether your setup has a Start screen--appear to be more of a Ballmer-esque "refinement of the blend" to make the desktop and modern UIs play more nicely together, rather than a doubling down on the strengths of the two individual interfaces.
It's unclear whether that initial smoothing of the edges was always intended, or if it became more of a priority after Windows 8's hard landing. What with Windows 8.1 update 1's changes, Satya Nadella being appointed Microsoft's new CEO, and now this, displaced Windows desktop aficionados can at least feel the first pangs of optimism stirring once again.
And hey: If you can't wait for Windows 10 to finally introduce virtual desktops once the casual users have left the power user building, be sure to check out the superb Dexpot. It's free, and it rocks.
This article has been updated with Microsoft confirmation of Miller's employment.