Microsoft Dresses Up as Apple for Halloween: Get Ready for Windows 8

The last time Microsoft gave me something to talk about that wasn’t a wisecrack was back in 2007. The technological climate was begging for a revolution. The iPhone was on the brink of release and iPads were barely a rumor. Microsoft began to release promo videos for their new prototype, the “Surface.”

Microsoft engineers boasted about multi-touch computing, a new wave of interaction which would bring users a more (quite literally) hands-on approach to interacting with hardware. The surface promised a whole new set of tools, and a whole new way to interact with them. Surface was essentially an oversized table-top version of today’s popular tablet computers such as Apple’s iPad or Samsung’s Galaxy.

Microsoft tackles design

Since 2007, the focus of Microsoft’s computing revolution has shifted, from the Surface’s hardware to it’s latest operating system software, Windows 8 (due October 26th.) The Surface has been downsized from the table-top prototype into what many are calling the PC’s answer to the iPad. Windows 8 however, is an operating system that will run on both the Surface tablet and Windows desktops. Sam Moreau, the director of user experience at Microsoft tells FastCompany that Windows 8 is tackling the OS wars from a design-centric perspective, a field previously dominated by Apple. They call the interface “Metro,” and it’s a re-design of the Windows platform from a world of organizational toolbars and framed windows to a full-screen experience painted in grids of vibrantly colored tiles, each leading the user into a different digital space (see: games, weather, messaging, mail.)


This re-design is going to fundamentally change the way PC users interact with and consume their technologies. This is not simply a face-lift, but something more like an organ transplant. When PC users find their muscle memory directing their mice towards the ever-present Start Toolbar, they’ll come up empty-clicked. Instead, Internet Explorer is a square blue-tile sitting between a picture of your girlfriend and another tile showing  real-time updates of the weather in your town. This is the type of organization familiar to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. It’s sleek. It’s clean. It’s simplified. It’s totally not Windows.

Isn’t design Apple’s territory?

It remains to be seen though whether PC users like developers, and data analysts will flock to or run from a Windows 8 operating system. The preference for PCs often comes from 1) The open ecosystem of software development in the Windows world which allows for the types of tools and software that developers and analysts prefer. 2) The highly transparent nature of the Windows environment that allows users to find, edit, and configure almost anything. Apple on the other hand, appeals to a fluid and aesthetically-appealing user experience ideal for designers. An operating system where many files are hidden so as to minimize a user’s chances of “messing up” anything. I often hear from Apple-haters, “I have work to do, I can’t just be looking at a pretty screen all day.” If Apple is the place where desktops bloom in flowers and morning dew, Microsoft is where cogs turn and command lines are bred.

It feels like Microsoft is trying to pick up where it left off when Apple re-joined the personal computing game as a competitor in 2002 with its OSX operating system (the sleek interface Mac users today have grown to love.) Back then, Apple held only a 2.9% of the personal computing market share under their belt. To re-invent the entire system would not off-put that many users, and felt more like a last resort move to either go big or go home. Today, Microsoft owns around 92% of the operating system market share. A number that is important when considering not only how many users have held out on the switch to Mac despite its cleaner, more modern interface, but also how many will be affected by Windows 8.

Apple & Microsoft share a common enemy: Google 

Microsoft has maintained a sense of consistency in that its audience is loyal to its offerings. Gamers and developers use Microsoft, artists and designers use Apple. It feels like a sort of left-brain right-brain distinction we’ve made about the two brands over the years. But as the rise of Google as a common enemy has proven, both Microsoft and Apple are getting their toes stepped on. Google Maps has dominated a market Microsoft used to own, one that Apple is only beginning to respond to now (without much success.) Google’s free tools such as Gmail, Drive (formerly Docs) and Calendar are eliminating the need for and cost of Microsoft Office. Google’s Android platform for smartphones is constantly competing for a majority market share against Apple’s iPhone. It’s no secret that each of these huge companies have had their fair share of flops (Google+, Microsoft’s Zune, Apple’s iTunes Ping) which means nobody is safe from failure, and it could be anyone’s chance to step up and revolutionize the digital game once again. At least this is what Microsoft is hoping for.

Adapting to a New Windows

When any seemingly ubiquitous piece of software or platform changes, many users are up in arms. I remember the day Facebook introduced its signature “Newsfeed” feature as the summer of 2006 came to a close. My peers and I were furious, “What are these statuses about? We have away messages for that. I couldn’t care less about the shopping spree my best friend from third grade went on today.” But Facebook was about 10 steps ahead of us. They weren’t simply trying to replace the away message, they were elevating the facebook status to an interactive forum for conversation. They were changing the face of digital self-expression, where our personalities are often interpreted through our facebook activity, the camera always recording. They were developing a new environment in which we’ve all become voyeurs and exhibitionists, constantly viewing content (many times in silence) or narcissistically boasting our own activities and whereabouts. Facebook literally reinvented how we interact with our social networks from the digital realm to our real lives.

This seems to be the re-invention challenge Microsoft is looking to tackle with the release of Windows 8. They are well aware of the risks they are taking, as Moreau calls it “the ultimate design challenge. You’ve got 24 years of Windows behind you. There’s a responsibility to preserve it, but also to evolve–knowing that when you change something, you’re changing how computing works.” To me, this feels less like a computing revolution, and more like Microsoft’s attempt to “go big” and join the rest of us. The real question is what will happen to the toolbar-loving users they leave behind?

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Don’t Taze Me Bot: On Respecting Your Technology

A group of US Navy scientists are in the midst of developing a robotic jellyfish which is powered by the same materials as an organic jellyfish–the water around them. Can you imagine the possibilities this presents? This means our electronics could be powered by the same natural elements as biotic beings. Cell phones could breathe air. iPads could re-charge on pizza. Laptops would function more efficiently after a great workout.

Alright alright, maybe it’s not that simple (or whimsical,) but think about the conceptions we have of artificial intelligence, cyborgs, and robots. Robin Williams’s Bicentennial Man plugs into the wall. Minority Report’s predictive pre-cogs live in an electro-wave sensing jelly. We don’t see robots or future cyborgs as our equals. They are very much still considered the “other,” and to many, a negative external entity. But imagine, a robot on your level of humanity. One that feeds off of the same fuels as you. Not necessarily that your Roomba is going to start sharing your love of a bangin’ BLT or anything, but rather that a personal assistant ‘borg might be able to sit down with you to dinner. It might be able to sense that you used more basil in tonight’s pesto penne dinner, compliment you on the vibrant flavor. It might be able to note that you haven’t had a meal with fish in over a month, and maybe the lack of protein is what’s been making you feel so sluggish? It might suggest the 1-day sale on tilapia and shrimp at the supermarket. It might remind you that the Comcast building is right next to the grocery store, and you’ve been meaning to trade out that old box for one with DVR. It might recommend the sitcom Parks & Recreation to watch tonight after dinner, suggested after you finished all the seasons of 30 Rock on Netflix (and because the ‘bot has been missing Amy Poehler ever since she left SNL.)

Do you see what I am getting at? Maybe we wouldn’t view the robots of the future in the light of a perceived apocalyptic fear if we were able to simply relate. There may be people in your life who you (even subconsciously) view as “tools.” That girl from my class who I make outlines with before the test. That guy at work who always helps me figure out the espresso machine. They are helpers. Aids. Acquaintances. And they are treated as such. But when that guy at work that helps with the espresso notes that he saw your photos from the Mediterranean islands at your desk and suggests a place to buy real beans like they have in Europe, suddenly the relationship has been elevated. There is a personal connection. Your social discourse will evolve and expand as your relation becomes leveled with one another.

And this is the future I see for the transhumanists. Those who believe in not only the future of computing power, but the future of humanity as well. While many of us may fear the future of computers, I personally fear the future of humans. We yell at our computers when it takes more than 30 seconds to boot up. We mutter under our breath “stupid iPhone” when we don’t have service. We are disrespectful to our electronics, yet we rave about how much we love them when questioned about their value to us.

Awareness, as always, is the key to avoiding internal collapse. Perhaps the future of our cyborgs can evolve into a digital friendship. At the least, a level of personal respect must be established with our electronics if we are to evolve in a healthy and symbiotic relationship. I mean really, do you think all those robots in the movies were revolting because they were getting too much respect?